The ‘fear of fear’ itself and the grave dangers of ‘risklexia’

Our fear of certain hazards can sometimes become wildly disproportionate, writes Justin Thomas

One of the questions I like to ask students during a class I run on risk is: what do you fear most? Common answers include: illnesses, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and climate change – even weight gain gets an occasional shout-out. In my most recent class, however, being kidnapped or attacked by violent criminals emerged as the major concern of the day. In the discussion that followed, it transpired that the attacks on two Emirati families in London had led to several students reconsidering their summer travel plans and declaring that London was now off the table.

This discussion brought to mind the famous Franklin D Roosevelt quote about “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This is a state I call “risklexia”, a tendency to mistakenly estimate the risks associated with certain situations. 

Our fear of certain hazards can sometimes become wildly disproportionate. Paradoxically, our misguided attempts to avoid imagined dangers may even lead to an increased risk of harm. Furthermore, we often show an irrational indifference to things that actually do pose a clear and significant risk to our well-being.

In the class discussion, not a single person mentioned road traffic accidents. According to the World Health Organisation, road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for young people (15-29) worldwide. If there is one thing a classroom full of twentysomething’s should fear, it is road traffic accidents.

However, there appears to be a warped fear asymmetry going on: we will deny ourselves a holiday in London to minimise the risk of kidnap and robbery, but at the same time, in our day to day lives, many of us see little merit in wearing seat belts, observing speed limits or refraining from smartphone use while driving.

A classic example of this “risk blindness” occurred after the September 11 attacks.

For at least a year after the atrocity, Americans took to their cars in greater numbers than normal.

Driving, however, is far more risky than flying. As a consequence, traffic related mortality spiked during this time. In an article published in the journal, Risk Analysis, German research psychologist, Gerd Gigerenzer, estimated that an additional 1,500 Americans died on the roads that year for fear of flying.

Similar forces are at play in relation to the decisions to avoid London. What are the relative risks of being killed or injured in a road traffic accident, compared to being the victim of a violent crime in London?

The answer to such a question is very simple when we consider that an estimated 1.2 million people die each year as a result of road traffic-related injuries.

Why then, are many of us disproportionately fearful of London right now, and perhaps just a little “risk-lexic”. One important contributor is “the media”. More specifically, I’m referring to the type of journalism that promotes emotion over accuracy and ignores statistics for the sake of a story. Such reporting can skew public perceptions, leading to massive risk inflation and unnecessary, and in some cases, unhealthy behaviour change.

As a UK citizen and one-time resident of London, I would hate to see any decrease in the number of visitors to the English capital from the Gulf. I would also lament the wholesale abandonment of national dress while visiting Europe.

Several people have advised, “blending in”, while in London. But for me, a little part of London is forever Liwa, and it would be a great shame if the kandura and abaya no longer graced Edgware Road or the West End. 

Whenever or wherever we travel, we need to be careful, but it is also important not to overreact.

We should weigh risks in the bright light of reason, rather than on the skewed scale of sensationalism. There are dangers, of course, but there always have been.

The statistical reality, however, is that we live longer than our immediate ancestors and have far less to fear on a day-to-day basis than they ever did.  

If we are going to fear anything in the UAE or UK, then we should fear fast, and irresponsible driving. Far too many of us are oblivious – risk-lexic – to that which harms us most.  

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and the author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @Jaytee156

Published: May 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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