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.
Mass media trade in fear: plane crashes, public massacres, the unexpectedly deadly item hiding in your medicine cabinet. Danger lurks around every corner and in every forkful of glutenful non-organic food: 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…
The methodology is straightforward: anecdotes and singular events become trends, the gin-soaked allegations of a suspiciously-accredited expert are couched in vague, sweeping generalizations (“some people say”), given “equal time,” then churned through the homogenizing debate-mill that is Channel 6 Truth Patrol exposés. Finally, that decontextualized mess is regurgitated the way a mother bird feeds its children, sliding into the cracks of public consciousness like Jell-O after a big meal. Yes, I know, it’s not exactly cutting-edge to ape a critique made in a 1988 Christmas movie, even if it did star Bill Murray. Stick with me for a sec.
Fear isn’t bad when the threats are real; the problem, Glassner says, is that media-propagated threats are rarely dangerous. Nancy Grace fawns over rich white teenage abductees, but children are vastly more likely to be injured in accidents than by strangers (and of non-accident injuries, the majority are caused by family or acquaintances). Flying is the safest mode of transportation you can find. Ritual satanic child abuse/murder never happened, an epidemic of “crack babies” never happened, flesh-eating bacteria isn’t sweeping the country, teen drug use isn’t rampant and out of control, and your genitals are probably safe, at least from those fish.
But wait, fear mongers say, it’s not news when dog bites man—of course only rare things make the front page. Even if that’s true, the cost of the “culture of fear” isn’t just in misplacing fears, but in leaving us ignorant of actual dangers. We focus on airplanes and ignore driving; focus on illegal drugs and ignore legal ones; focus on “stranger danger” and ignore acquaintances. Who knows what horrible shit went unchecked while we spent the latter half of the 1980s collectively pooping ourselves over the belief that a massive devil-worshipping cabal was operating day-care torture dungeons all across the country, abusing in the most horrific way thousands of children, then brainwashing them to repress the memories.* There’s almost an opportunity cost to fear and threat—directing attention at one thing draws it away from another.
*Like most mass-hysteria moral panics, it’s so insane in retrospect that it’s hard to believe no one ever said “wait a second, does this seem possible?” There’s a point in panics like that where the outlandishness of the claim is seen, almost paradoxically, as convincing evidence of its truth. There’s a line in Seinfeld where Kramer says of Raquel Welch: “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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All this raises an important question: why do unfounded fears persist? If they’re unfounded, why do they stick around? Glassner offers a semi-Freudian cultural analysis, suggesting that the fears which gain traction are displaced from deeper, repressed cultural anxieties. For example, he postulates that Gulf War Syndrome was an outlet for concerns about the morality of war and the treatment of soldiers. Stranger danger was an outlet for concerns of parents spending more time away from the kids and passing more child care responsibilities to others.
Like most Freudian explanations, that has a satisfying plausibility. Also like most Freudian explanations, it’s not very useful. For one thing, why would we need to “replace” anxiety about X with fear of Y? Why not fear X? But more importantly, even if Glassner’s right, how do we know what it is we’re displacing? Concerns about Gulf War Syndrome, in the wake of nuclear accidents and Superfund sites, could just as well owe to displaced anxiety about environmental purity. Both explanations are plausible, and neither does anything to tell us what might happen going forward. We’re left to wait for some new unfounded fear to arise and make up an underlying cause for it.
I’m a brain scientist and I’m going to egocentrically suggest that what we know about the brain can help explain why unfounded fears lodge themselves in public consciousness, and stay there.
The human brain simply isn’t good working with big numbers and rare events. For example, we’re more likely to remember unique or distinctive things (like a word printed in a different color than its neighbors) than common things (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. Both are tendencies and not absolutes, but they form a sort of brain-bias Voltron: we think things are common if they come easily to mind, and we are more likely to remember things that are distinctive (i.e., rare). This yields a quasi-paradox: we may think likely things we remember precisely because they are unlikely. The rare becomes common.
The sacrifice bunt was considered sound baseball strategy for decades thanks to this trap. Managers remembered the rare times it worked, forgot the more common failures, then assumed it was a good strategy. In the same way, fear of uncommon events may stick like a barnacle on the hull of public consciousness simply because we’re not good judges of probability. Statistics aren’t necessarily a panacea, but they can help us cut through the biases in perception and memory that lead to wildly inaccurate estimations about the likelihood of plane crashes, shark attacks, or the utility of sacrifice bunts. I don’t think that “culture of fear” sticks but for the eccentricities of the brain.