Idea in short

As humans, we fear a lot. Our minds are hardwired to pay more attention to frightening things. To quote Hans Rosling:

Critical thinking is always difficult. but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.

Fear and coercion

This is why fear is not only destructive, but also persuasive as a coercive, compliance mechanism. When people are afraid, their ability to differentiate facts and fiction dramatically diminishes. Because fear occupies so much of our attention, it also can misguide our priorities. As Edmund Burke wrote in England twenty years before the American Revolution:

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

Broadbent’s Filter Model

According to this model, our minds selectively decide what reaches it. The world contains vast amounts of information; we need such a mental filter to avoid sensory overload and separate signals from noise. We carry out all semantic processing (understanding) only after our mental filters have approved of the messages deemed worthy for further processing. So, we do not understand the messages that our mental filters reject. Consequently, we choose only those messages that we wish to hear / understand. A large proportion of information that gets through our mental filters tends to be the unusual or scary. Hence, we tend to make generalizations based on limited exposure. However, the more of the unusual we see, the more these events convince us of the unusual as the norm. Hence, the term availability heuristic.

According to this heuristic, when we make decisions, we tend to be swayed by what we remember. Many things, such as our beliefs, expectations, emotions, and feelings as well the frequency of exposure influence what we remember. Media coverage (e.g., Internet, radio, television) makes a big difference. When rare events occur they become very visible to us as they receive heavy coverage by the media. This means we are more likely to recall it, especially in the immediate aftermath of the event.

How fear shapes our behavior?

Fear and availability heuristic pose several challenges. However, the most concerning is that these phenomena mislead people into losing sight of the real dangers. For example, Professor Gerd Gigerenzer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development conducted a fascinating study that showed in the months following September 11, 2001, Americans were less likely to travel by air. Instead, they were more likely to travel by car. It is understandable why many Americans would have been fearful of air travel following the incredibly high profile  September 11 attacks.  However, the unfortunate result is that many Americans died on the highways at alarming rates following 9/11. This is because highway travel is far more dangerous than air travel. More than 40,000 Americans die each year on America’s roads. Fewer than 1,000 people die in airplane accidents. And, even fewer people die aboard commercial airlines.

Risk evaluation

Our minds constantly scan the sensory information we receive for any indication of danger. As soon as we sense danger, our attention shifts from whatever we were doing to assess the level of risk and the possible responses.

Risk = Danger x Exposure.

The risk depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but rather on:

  1. How dangerous it is? And,
  2. How much you are exposed to it?

Evolutionary baggage

Our forefathers lived in harsh, predatory environments for thousands of years. They constantly improved their ability to notice and respond to danger before it killed them. Hence, this instinct proved tremendously useful to our ancestors. Millennia of evolutionary adaptation has baked the fear instinct into our minds.

Fear kept our ancestors alive; however, even though many of these dangers have gone, the perception remains. Hence, we tend to overuse this capability. We focus so much on potential dangers that we miss potential benefits. We also let our fears lead us astray into making bad decisions that leave us worse off in the long run.

Tips for consultants

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) are emotions that plague consultants. In fact, the best consultants also tend to be tend to be insecure overachievers. In the article on FUD, I provide tips to deal with negativity and emotions that derail us. Most consultants that fall victim to FUD do so unwittingly. Often, they are overwhelmed by their drive to satisfy the client, deliver superior client outcomes, manage challenging client stakeholders, manage their billability, demonstrate value, etc. Working on survival mode, the consultant is most likely to abandon patience in favor of pressure. That’s when FUD manifests itself and fear sets in. High-pressure consulting situations can be tricky to navigate in the heat of the moment. In the long run, consultants should learn to properly handle fear to deliver a lasting impact on the client.


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