Tonight on Dateline: The dangerous fish that will chew off your testicles! These nut-hungry pond dwellers are congregating where you swim and migrating to new habitats—soon they’ll be where you sleep or eat, and they’re always on the lookout for a fresh ballsack.
Fear is the currency of mass media, the means by which viewership is purchased. Plane crashes, public massacres, the unexpectedly deadly item in your medicine cabinet. Danger lurks in every forkul of glutenized non-organic food and the Channel 6 Truth Patrol is there to warn you: ritual satanic child abuse, crack babies, stranger danger, road rage, flesh-eating bacteria, teen drug use, violent crime, feral pigs uprooting manicured lawns, alarmist books about the role of mass media in fear trolling…
Anecdotes and singular events become trends. Unfounded allegations of a suspiciously-accredited expert are couched in vague generalizations—some people say—given “equal time,” then churned through a homogenizing mill of debate burlesque. The decontextualized mess, unrecognizable from its initial and coherent form, is regurgitated the way a mother bird feeds its children, sliding into the cracks of public consciousness like Jell-O. It is not cutting-edge to ape a critique made in a 1988 Christmas movie, even if it did star Bill Murray. But it still holds.
There are many aspects of this entire incestuous cycle that are bad for people and bad for the public; in The Culture of Fear, Glassner is focused mostly on one of them: that media-propagated threats are rarely dangerous. Nancy Grace fawns over rich white teenage abductees and we preach stranger danger, but children are vastly more likely to be injured in accidents than by strangers, and vastly more likely to be injured by family or acquaintances than strangers. Flying is the safest mode of transportation you can find. Ritual satanic child abuse never happened, a “crack baby” epidemic never happened, flesh-eating bacteria isn’t sweeping the country, teen drug use isn’t spiraling out of control, and your genitals are probably safe from those fish.
But wait, the fear mongers say, it’s not news when dog bites man, that’s why sensational things make the front page. But even if that’s true, the cost of a “culture of fear” isn’t just in fearing the wrong things, it’s in not fearing the things we should. We focus on airplanes and ignore driving; focus on illegal drugs and ignore legal ones; focus on stranger danger and ignore acquaintances. What horrible shit went unchecked while we spent the latter half of the 1980s collectively soiling ourselves in the patently absurd belief that a massive devil-worshipping cabal was operating day-car torture dungeons across the country, abusing children and brainwashing them to repress the memories.* There’s an opportunity cost to fear: directing attention at one thing draws it away from something else.
*Like most mass-hysterias / moral panics, the satanic abuse thing is so ludicrous in retrospect that it’s almost impossible to imagine no one every stopping to say: “wait, does this seem even remotely possible?” At some point in a moral panic, the very outlandishness of the claim is, paradoxically, seen as evidence of its truth. As Kramer once said to Seinfeld: “I heard from someone that when they cut one of her lines, she climbed up the rope on side of the stage and started dropping lights on peoples heads, and a story like that’s gotta be true.”
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There’s an important question here: why do unfounded fears persist? They may be peddled because we are a sucker for sensational stories and those are what pay the bills—but why do we believe them, and often with such steadfastness? Glassner tries to engage in some kind of cultural-level Freudian analysis, suggesting that the fear which gain traction are displaced from deeper, repressed anxieties. For example, he suggests that Gulf War Syndrome was an outlet for concerns about the morality of war and the treatment of soldiers; stranger danger a displacement of concerns about parents spending more time away from kids and passing more child care duties to others.
This, like most Freudian explanations, has a satisfying plausibility while lacking practical utility. It’s not clear, for one thing, why we would need to displace anxiety over X with fear of Y, as opposed to simply fearing X. But more importantly, even if Glassner’s right in a broad sense, how do we know what repressed fears we’ve displaced. Maybe the worry about Gulf War Syndrome is, in the wake of Superfund sites and nuclear disasters, a displaced anxiety of environmental purity. There’s no way to tell the difference.
If it’s not Freudian displacement, as a brain scientist, I’m going to egocentrically suggest that looking to the brain can better explain why unfounded fears wedge themselves in public consciousness.
Our brains aren’t good at dealing with big numbers and rare events. We’re more likely to remember unique or distinctive things (like a word printed in a different color than its neighbors) than common things, something called the von Restorff effect. We also tend to assume things which come to mind more easily are more common, a decision-making strategy called the availability heuristic. Those are tendencies and not absolutes, but think about how they could work together: we think things are common if they come easily to mind, and are more likely to remember things that are distinctive (i.e., rare). This produces a quasi-paradox: we may think things are likely (because they come easily to mind) precisely because they are unlikely (more likely to be remembered). Two biases working in tandem, and the rare becomes common.
This trap, I think, is why the sacrifice bunt was wrongly considered sound baseball strategy for decades. Managers remembered the rare times it worked, forgot the more common failures, and assumed it was a worthwhile strategy. Statistics aren’t necessarily a panacea—we can mistake “hard numbers” for “unbiased numbers”—but they can help cut through perceptual and memory biases that lead to wildly inaccurate beliefs about the likelihood of plane crashes, shark attacks, or sacrifice bunts.