11/16/2010 05:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Americans Are Not Angry, But Worried

Is it accurate, or arrogant, to say that people who are afraid can't think straight? Is it condescending, or correct, to say that people who are worried and uncertain are just not capable of rationally considering all the facts and making a reasonable choice? Is it fair, or foul, to suggest that fear clouds the brain and produces choices that can do us more harm than good? These are no small questions in a democracy, because they speak to a much larger issue; how should government of and by and for the people make optimal risk management policy that reflects not just the science but the views of the people, if those views are informed more by emotion than by reason?

Setting aside the question of how we characterize such decision making, let's be honest. Sometimes we get risk wrong. We make choices that feel right, but which actually make things worse. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, a frightened America overwhelmingly supported invading Iraq. Oops! Interest rates on loans are phenomenally low but with the economic outlook uncertain, consumers and companies are afraid to borrow. Oops for the economy. We spend far more on cancer research than on heart disease research, even though both have big unanswered questions and heart disease kills 100,000 more Americans a year. Oops.

Frightened people always try to allay their fears by establishing a sense of control. The recent US elections are Exhibit A. "We're taking back control of our government," goes the Tea Party rallying cry, the more shrill version of what a lot of voters felt in the largest rejection of a sitting party in 70 years. This wasn't thoughtful voting based on close consideration of the factual merits of the issues of the moment, a rejection of the health care reform law or government stimulus (which, by the way, was begun by George W. Bush and prevented another depression). This wasn't careful analysis of the competence of the candidates. It wasn't even a vote about ideology. This was a vote "against," a from-the-gut vote by people who are worried and looking to relieve their fears by asserting control. Emotionally satisfying, perhaps, but not a way to produce thoughtful government or real solutions. Oops!

More importantly, when we're afraid -- of losing our jobs or homes or savings, of terrorists, of a generally gloomy and uncertain future -- we band together more tightly into our "tribes" (religious, political, ethnic, etc.) and, figuratively, we circle the wagons against "others." This is a defense mechanism, an instinctive response to feeling threatened, a reassuring strengthening of the social cohesion we social animals depend on for our survival. Political disagreements descend into polarized tribal passion. People with whom we disagree are demonized as "the enemy." Listening stops. Compromise ends. That's a giant oops if we want to make progress on the major challenges we all face.

From invading Iraq right through to the "throw the bums out!" election results, the choices mentioned above were born of worry and uncertainty, not cold hard rational analysis. But is it arrogant to suggest that democracy can't be left to citizens too dumbed down by worry to think clearly? Hendrik Herzberg in The New Yorker ("Electoral Dissonance" Nov. 15 ) said the electorate is "frightened" "alarmed" and "frustrated," and blamed (in part) "public ignorance." And President Obama himself said at a recent fundraiser ("Elitism: The Charge Obama Can't Shake" NYT, 10/31), "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be."

As arrogant as those remarks might sound, they accurately capture a profound truth. Volumes of scientific evidence from neuroscience and psychology and sociology and economics, and mountains of evidence from the real world, make it inescapably clear that fear impacts our ability to reason. We are not, nor can we ever be, perfectly rational when it comes to keeping ourselves safe. Our response to risk is affective, a combination of facts and how those facts feel and what they mean to us and how we interpret them. And the more worried and uncertain we are, the more affective and the less purely fact-based and rational, and the more prone to mistakes, our risk response becomes. As arrogant as Herzberg or President Obama might sound, they're right.

What do we do in a democracy? First, let's accept what the evidence tells us, that perfect rationality is a wonderful but unachievable ideal. The real arrogance comes in clinging stubbornly to the belief in the supreme powers of reason. Smart people need to be smart enough to realize that our smarts can only get us so far.

Next, let's take what we know of the emotions and instincts that so powerfully inform our fears, and include these insights in our decision making. There are a lot of ways to do this. (I have summarized several ideas in a lengthy free excerpt from "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts) Here's one quick example. We know that an imposed risk feels scarier than the same risk if you choose to take it, so it feels voluntary. So the siting process for potentially hazardous facilities should include real choice for potential host communities. Finland and Sweden have successfully sited nuclear waste dumps in part by giving potential host communities the opportunity to just say no, a veto. With that power, communities in those countries took a closer look and several weighed both the risks and the benefits and said "Yes." The US has failed to site such a facility, in part because the federal government tried to impose one -- Yucca Mountain -- on Nevada.

But much more importantly, our leaders have to realize that when we're afraid, emotions and instincts do play a big part in how we see things and how we behave. If they want to encourage us to think more rationally about "the facts and the science and the arguments," they have to do more to address our affective worries and uncertainties in visceral, sincere, emotional ways (get angry at the oil spill, Mr. President), not just in cogent, reasoned, fact-based argument. President Obama got halfway there in a post-election interview when he admitted that thoughtful rational policy making isn't enough. "Leadership isn't just legislation. It's a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together and setting a tone," he said, and then he stumbled back into an intellectualism that places its ultimate faith in the unachievable ideal of dispassionate reason, adding, "and making an argument that people can understand."

"Confidence" is not a matter of the head, an idea, the product of rational argument. It's a matter of the gut, a feeling that grows from a wide set of factual and emotional factors. So much of the mess we find ourselves in these days is about how worried and uncertain we unconfident we are in the future. The political truism of "It's the economy, stupid!" should really be "It's the worry, stupid!" Worry is the corrosive acid eating away at our ability to think more carefully, to listen, to come together and compromise with -- rather than be threatened by -- those with whom we disagree. Democracy beset by worry and uncertainty and a circle-the-wagons defensiveness in the name of self-protection, is going to have serious trouble solving any of the big problems we face. Despite how threatening times do in fact seem, our leaders, and all of us need to honestly admit that in the name of keeping ourselves safe we may be making things much much worse. Only when we get there, to the acceptance that our instinctive/emotional/affective risk perceptions can be a risk in and of themselves, can we bring more of our rational cognitive firepower to the task of solving the economic and health and environmental and social problems we really need to worry about.

(This post first ran as a guest post on Matt Nisbet's blog at Big, Age of Engagement. Thank you, Matt.)