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Is Fear of Flying Really Irrational?

How we wrap our heads around unlikely, but potentially deadly risks.

It is often said that fear of flying is irrational. This implies that a person who thinks rationally would not fear flying. Yet, is it rational to have no fear of something truly awful, even if the chance of it happening is extremely low? If that were the case, only an irrational person would fear terrorism. Or, only an irrational person would fear Ebola. Denial that risk exists is irrational. So, how do we reckon with an outcome that, though rare, is awful? What is rational, what is adaptive, and what isn't?

It may help to look at how response to arousal developed.

Our cortex processes information consciously. It has the potential to maximize our safety. Drawing on experience from the past, perceiving of the present, and predicting what may happen, we can define potential dangers, and develop a strategy, in advance, for use if danger materializes. That, it seems to me, is adaptive. What may not be adaptive is dwelling on a potential danger even after it is evident that no effective strategy can be developed to provide absolute safety. Our evolutionary history suggests looking for absolute safety is not adaptive.

According to researcher Stephen Porges, the most advanced creature's brain 100 million years ago consisted of only an amygdala. There was no cortex, and so no ability to process information consciously. The amygdala processed information unconsciously. It observed and absorbed what was routine the creature's environment. So long as what is going on in the present is the same as what went on in the past, the amygdala does nothing. But, when it senses something non-routine, it releases stress hormones. The hormones cause four changes:

  • increased heart rate
  • increased breathing rates
  • perspiration
  • the urge to escape

No part of the brain was able to consciously assess the situation. The primitive creature had no ability to consider whether escape was really necessary. it simply ran away. Running away when unnecessary, according to Porges, burned calories, which had to be replaced. And, to replace the calories, the creature had to return—when the stress hormones, and the urge to escape, receded—to the environment to look for food. The creature might again encounter something non-routine, and again run away. The bottom line is, the hormone-driven mind vacillated between looking for food, searching for a mate, and escape.

I'm not too sure that doesn't describe how a lot of us live today. But, having a cortex, we are supposed to be smarter than that.

Let's return to evolutionary development: As millions of years passed, some creatures developed a cortex, and the ability to process information consciously. When stress hormones were released, the cortex asserted itself. For the first time, conscious processes sought to dominate unconscious processes. The cortex inhibited the urge to run in order to take time to assess the situation and make its best guess as to whether running was necessary.

And here is where we run into difficulty today: We don't like conflict between conscious deliberation and unconscious urges. We become anxious when we're ambivalent about which to satisfy.

To reduce the calories expended—and the risk of being exposed to dangers to replace unnecessarily expended calories—the cortex won: Creatures with the ability to inhibit the urge to escape—at least long enough to make a fairly accurate guess about safety—were more successful. They used conscious processing to make an educated guess about when it was and was not necessary to run.

Conscious assessment is not always going to be right. But requiring certainty does not work. If a creature required certainty of danger before running, it would likely be eaten. If it required certainty of safety before coming out of hiding, it would never come out, fail to reproduce, and starve to death.

Evolution sends us a message: It is adaptive to make our best guess and commit to it. Awareness that the strategy may not work out needs to be factored in, so that by committing, we close the door on "what if." Commitment signals the amygdala to discontinue the release of stress hormones.

When your phone rings, it does so to get your attention. When you commit and answer the phone, the ringing stops so you can carry on a conversation. When the amygdala "rings," it does so with stress hormones. When you commit, the amygdala stops the release and allows you to shift your focus from the problem to the solution.

Like an unanswered phone that keeps ringing, the amygdala continues producing stress hormones, and sending you back to square one, when we leave "what if" possibilities unaddressed in our minds. Only by making your best guess, and committing to it, can you shift your focus from the problem to the solution.

There are threats out there. There are fearsome rare diseases. The threat of terrorism exists on the ground and in the air. And while airline crashes are amazingly rare, the possibility that your plane may crash is real. If these threats cannot be ruled out, is denial adaptive?

I don't think so. To my way of thinking, reality rules. Any distortion of reality is, in the long run, maladaptive.

Without denial, what do we do about fear and anxiety? Anxiety can be triggered by focusing the rarest possibility of disaster. After considering the worst-case scenario, we develop our best guess about strategy, and then commit, period. To carry that out, we may need to tune up the high-level thinking we call executive function. As I write this, I can look out the window and see G.E. headquarters where talented executives get paid big bucks to make decisions. They do not have absolute certainty. Using their executive function, they predict. Then, based on their best prediction, they make decisions.

That is what what executive function is supposed to do. The human cortex is a prediction machine. It is evolved to assess a situation, put it into the context of past experience, and make its best guess as to what is going to happen. Good executive function does not expect, or demand, certainty. Avoiding denial, it recognizes absolute security to be a myth. It is mindful that to demand absolute certainty before taking action would lead to paralysis, or to being deceived and exploited.

When we make our best guess about a particular flight, it is that the airliner will arrive safely. Having made that best guess, the next step is to commit to it. Here is where anxious fliers run into trouble. When faced with commitment to a plan of action based on their best guess, instead of committing, they get stuck on "what if."

When executive function is not well developed, getting past "what if" to strategic commitment is difficult. Typically, when a person is unable to commit, he or she focuses on what would make it easier to commit, such as the result being a sure thing.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's book about astronauts and test pilots, did not clearly define what the "stuff" is. Here's what it is: It's the ability to intentionally commit to doing something that involves risk. In the case of an astronaut or test pilot, the risk is major. In the case of an airline passenger, the risk is minor. An anxious flier doesn't need the level of right stuff that is needed to fly an experimental aircraft, just enough to fly on a plane with a solid track record.

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