FEAR

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 16th, 2009 by Ed

Everyone has a phobia that qualifies as irrational; needles, heights, insects, water, and so on. Phobias can get obscure and, to an outside observer, ridiculous. I am afflicted with the horrors of gephyrophobia – the fear of bridges – albeit not severely. I don't go out of my way to avoid driving over bridges (and strangely walking over them doesn't bother me at all) but sometimes I get a little nervous about driving over them. It makes no sense, obviously. My purpose in admitting this is to emphasize that I understand that phobias do not respond to logic before I point out the logical flaws in one of the most common fears: the fear of flying.

The amazing story of the airline pilot who put an A320 down on the Hudson River yesterday with no loss of life reminded me of two very good non-fiction books which are worth your time: Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things and Ben Sherwood's new Survivors Club. As the incident in New York illustrates nicely, the books combine to argue that people are prone to be afraid of things that are almost immeasurably unlikely (plane crashes, being attacked by poisonous snakes, being on a bridge while it collapses, etc) or, when they do actually happen, aren't nearly as dangerous as we think.

The exhaustive database at Plane Crash Info, a site intended to simultaneously entertain the morbid and soothe the fearful with statistics, shows that even when large airliners crash the vast majority of passengers (78%) survive. So not only are your odds of being in a plane crash miniscule, but on the unbelievably unlikely chance that you are in one you're probably going to live. Images of a very small number of sensational accidents with hundreds of fatalities are seared into our minds and drive our fears. We employ our tendencies toward dichotomous, black-and-white logic and decide that Plane Crash = Fiery Death. We remember the 9/11 crashes or TWA Flight 800, examples that confirm our conclusions, but not Aloha Flight 243, a plane that literally came apart at 35,000 feet with 90 people aboard – 89 of whom survived.

I understand that the fear of flying is independent of statistical probabilities. Aviophobes know that flying is a hundred times safer than the driving they do fearlessly every day. I know that my odds of being on a collapsing bridge are roughly equal to my odds of being the next Pope. The books mentioned above are both very interesting as studies of how our fears are often socially constructed in addition to being rooted in psychology. Our minds are rarely swayed either by numbers or by appropriate anecdotal evidence. Irrational fears are among our brains' most stubborn tenants.