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The Fear Factor

  • Date: 08/23/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Somehow, the prospect of change always seems to raise a sense of excitement and, simultaneously, a sense of risk.

    For some, risk becomes a sense of anxiety. And quite often, particularly in academic and political circles, anxiety leads to "analysis paralysis" - a condition whereby a problem or opportunity is analyzed incessantly without action, or is simply ignored so that an opportunity is missed.

    But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions, and a simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150,000 Americans each year, and automobiles on our highways kill more than 50,000 people per year. But, nobody seems to be afraid of cigarettes, nor of automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year. The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.)

    But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark," everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    How nice it would be if we could put risk and anxiety into their proper perspective.

    Risk, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, taking risks and achieving success usually go together. There is no question, however, that we often have difficulty differentiating between the real and perceived dangers associated with any given activity.

    For example, we fear small amounts of manmade radiation from nuclear plants or from medical equipment, yet we are willing to spend countless hours at the beach, soaking up larger doses of harmful radiation from the sun.

    We fear "...extremely rare risks that (kill) in a particularly dreadful way," such as shark attacks (a chance of 1 in 578-million), yet we willingly accept the more common risk of food poisoning, which can be just as lethal and over 10,000 times more likely to happen.
    (David Ropeik, "Never Bitten, Twice Shy: The Real Dangers of Summer," The New York Times, August 9, 2003, p. A23)

    In other words, based on the statistical probability that define these two risks, we are far more likely to die from eating the shark than from the shark eating us.

    What is it that drives our fears and how best can we deal with them?

    According to David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, "...Americans correctly...talk in terms of statistical probability (when discussing risk in the abstract)...yet when they are faced with specific threats, emotion overrules logic..." and that emotion is fear.
    (David Ropeik, Ibid)

    Human nature seemingly leads us to worry first and reason later, and thus, we frequently exaggerate a risk by fearing the worse more than is warranted ...or as the master of cinematic fear, the notable Alfred Hitchcock, used to say: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
    (Alfred Hitchcock, quoted in Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, [ed. Leslie Halliwell1984] )

    That is what others have called "the fear factor."

    Recently, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story entitled, "Why Do Americans Feel that Danger Lurks Everywhere?" In it, reporters Spencer and Crossen offered several reasons why we have trouble separating risk from anxiety and why the world's safest nation is one of the most afraid.

    Let me cite three of the reasons they give.

    Reason number one: "...thanks to research labs, tort law and media hype, danger seems to lurk in every corner of life, from children's toys to (hot) coffee, anthrax to second-hand smoke, West Nile virus to SARS."
    (Jane Spencer and Cynthia Crossen, "Why Do Americans Feel that Danger Lurks Everywhere?" The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2003, A-1)

    To make matters worse, there are those who capitalize on this hype, planting seeds of fear that inaccurately depict would-be risks as immediate danger. Indeed, it is much easier to scare than to reassure.

    Ironically, it is new knowledge that enabled us to work constructively with risk and even insure against it. Our entire insurance industry is built around it.

    The second fear factor, outlined by The Wall Street Journal authors, is that we are victims of our own success.

    Science and technology have reduced dramatically the risk of virtually every facet of our lives, from healthcare to safety. As a result, we are living better and living longer.

    The downside, according to Spencer and Crossen, is that our very gain seems to "...amplify our sense of loss."
    (Spencer and Crossen, Ibid)

    For example, "To die prematurely today may mean losing 40 years of life instead of (the) 10 years" that would have resulted from the shorter lifespan of a century ago.
    (Spencer and Crossen, Ibid)

    The third factor that they cite is that science and technology have increased our ability to control our fate, which in turn, leads us to fear what we cannot control.

    The authors point out that before humans were able to control their environment, they were "more resigned to the exigencies of fate - only prayer could protect them against natural disaster and plague."
    (Spencer and Crossen, Ibid)

    As humans became more sophisticated, lost their superstitions and "...learned to calculate, they could compute, based on historical data, what events might threaten their lives." And that became the basis of the science of risk management.
    (Spencer and Crossen, Ibid)

    In our culture, we tend to fear and often avoid or reject what we don't understand or are unable to calculate, even when the facts of the matter don't support our histrionics.

    As a result, our social and personal preoccupations and aversions of risk can end up restraining the very scientific and technological advances that are making our lives continuously healthier, safer and more productive. Witness the current debate over cloning or stem cell research.

    As University of Akron graduates, you have gained the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions and, thereby, to take calculated risks within the realistic bounds of statistical confidence limits.

    Here you have learned how to learn, you have learned how to reason, and you have learned how to dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world and make your roles in it more rewarding.

    Just as important, you discovered that patience is not always a virtue. Achieving success never comes to those content on waiting for the risk to disappear.

    Eliminating the source of fear means being able to separate fact from superstition and separating real risks from the fear of sharks.

    British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, "Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
    (Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," Unpopular Essays, 1950)

    Indeed, that knowledge is most important to your future, because the biggest "risk" to your success would be your failure to take one.

    If you don't ask, if you don't try, the answer is always "NO!"


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