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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Monday, July 3, 2006

Our Fear Priorities

The LA Times has an interesting article by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "Stumbling on Happiness," who discusses why humans fear certain unlikely events, such as the potential for another terrorist attack in the immediate future, while ignoring more likely events, such as the destruction of global warning.  Dr. Gilbert writes,

No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That's why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation's top priority. . . .

Read the rest of the article here.  It provides an interesting explanation for why our priorities may need to be adjusted.  Thanks to the Washington Monthly for the heads-up on this article.[bm]

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