Scared Witless

A journalist examines some of Americans' greatest (and most overstated) fears.

Posted Aug 07, 2017

By Ellen Airhart

Crime is down and life expectancy is up, but in his new book, journalist Sasha Abramsky makes the case that Americans remain deep in the suffocating grasp of irrational fear. In Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, he explores the influence of fear on how we vote, travel, and raise our children.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
Source: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

What is the best way you have found to draw a line between useful fear and misguided fear?

We are predisposed to latch onto fears and immediately take them to the worst place they can possibly go. I disengage just enough to work out probabilities. I don’t mean literally doing mathematical calculations. I mean broadly stepping back and looking how likely the worst case scenario is to happen. That puts things in perspective. You are far more likely to die driving a car than you are in a plane accident. Very few of us are scared when we go driving each day. As a result of that, we drive carelessly, because we don’t realize what the risk. Because of Jaws, many people are terrified of swimming in the ocean. In fact, the actual number of people killed in shark attacks is far lower than the number of people who die of diseases acquired from insect bites that they get while walking in the mountains. Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t walk in the mountains, but it does mean that you should take a step back when something begins to overly frighten you and put it in context.

What is an example of overblown fear that you witnessed in your reporting?

A good example is a preschool that I visited in an affluent neighborhood outside of Salt Lake City. Normally Montessori schools market themselves for their educational philosophy and methods, but this school was marketing itself for its security systems. They ranged to fingerprint entry systems all the way through to these massive walls around the playground. You would think the children would get enormous pleasure out of being in a playground where they can see the Wasatch Mountains. Instead, they see a 10-foot-high wall. When I talked to the parents who had chosen the school specifically because of the security systems, they were in a frenzy of fear about what could happen to their children. Some of them were aware of the actual crime data and some of them weren’t. There are many instances that I write about in the book where an overcompensation for fears ends up determining behavior.

In the book, you talk about how children are the unwitting targets and victims of our misplaced anxieties. Can you tell me why you think that happens?

I think it’s because kids are the most important thing to a family. So if we’re predisposed to be fearful, one way we situate that fear is we put it on the kids. We can’t let them walk alone or go to school by themselves because something bad will happen to them. Some of those fears might have a kernel of truth to them. But, again, if you balloon that kernel and turn it into a kind of cartoon, I can’t let my kids in a wealthy suburban neighborhood walk 200 feet to the playground by themselves because something bad might happen. At that point, what you are doing is turning that child into a prisoner. You’re not giving them any freedom of space to grow, to explore, to become their own person.

Why do you think Americans have become particularly vulnerable to misplaced anxieties?

Before 9/11, there was a lot of things going on in our culture that predisposed us to use fear as a lens. After 9/11, the fear lense become omnipresent. A vast number of our political choices and our social choices started being made using this lens of fear. In any culture that is flooded by deeply fascist rule, at least in part, that was triggered by a fear epidemic. You certainly saw that in post-WWI germany, in those years that led up to Nazism. You certainly saw it in Chile in the early 1970s, where the military managed to stoke tremendous fears against the Chilean government. It never ends well when you unleash levels of fear and anger like we’re seeing in this country today. A culture consumed by fear is a culture willing to do some pretty horrendous things to protect itself.

You write that there is a little bit of doomsday prepper in all of us. What do you mean by that?

Many people think that the apocalypse is nigh. That there’s going to be a nuclear attack, or a biochemical attack, or something that it will destroy the fabric of society. They stockpile food, weaponry, large amounts of water. They have turned something that is a possibility, like environmental collapse or pandemics, into a probability. We might not stockpile food, but most of us have splashed across our mind “What would we do if…” It’s in that space that we start making decisions that push us in a more or less anxious direction.

Why do you compare fears learned early in life to muscle memory?

Let’s say you’re learning the piano, and you learn a piece of music very well early in your life. You’re seven years old, you play the same piece of music 100 times, it sort of gets imprinted. Then 30 years later you can pick up that piece of music and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be able to play it quite well. It’s the same thing with early bias fears. The younger you are, the more impressionable you are. If you’re absolutely saturated with fear, those fears remain embedded deep in your brain and they are easily recruited. That’s one of the things that neuroscientists have noticed in recent years. One way of understanding it is that fear is something that comes easily and disappears only with difficulty.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ellen Airhart (@ellenairhart) is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.