What a revealing real-time lesson we are living through right now in how humans respond to risk. More than a million people in Boston and several large surrounding cities have been told by authorities to stay indoors and not open the door to anyone but uniformed police. Businesses are closed. Mass transit is shut down. Rail service into and out of Boston is suspended. This, as one of the largest law enforcement and military manhunts in American history goes building to building in Watertown Massachusetts looking for one man, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, who they believe was one of two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon Monday, killing three and injuring more than 100.
Make no mistake. The 19 year-old Chechnyan, who had lived with older brother Tamerlan in Cambridge for years and who had attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and was studying at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, is thought to be a dangerous man. Police say last night he and his brother robbed a convenience store near MIT, shot dead an MIT police officer who stopped them, carjacked a car nearby (telling the driver they were the marathon bombers before letting him go) and led police on a 10 mile chase to Watertown, throwing explosives out of the car at pursuing police. The chase ended in a wild, long gunfire shoot out with dozens of shots fired, Tamerlan dead (police say they found explosives or a detonator on his body) and a police officer wounded. Some neighborhood houses are perforated, through to interior rooms and furniture, with bullet holes.
But make no mistake that the risk here is infinitesimal. Even for those who remain in the immediate 20 block area of Watertown where the suspect is believed to be trapped (most have been evacuated) -- at this writing police say they have gone through 60-70 percent of the area -- the risk that they will be hurt is tiny. Statistically. But not emotionally. The fear is very real. And in the name of that fear incredible things are happening.
Easily more than a thousand law enforcement and military personnel have turned the area into a heavily armed zone. Military helicopters hover overhead. SWAT teams and bomb trucks and armored vehicles are everywhere. (The photos are dramatic, frightening all by themselves.) The economy and civic life of one of the biggest cities in America has been shut down. The cost of this response could easily exceed a hundred million dollars.
But no one, yet, is seriously questioning whether this response is an overreaction. People are staying home. Businesses are closing. The public is complying with the response, because though the risk may be statistically tiny, the fear is HUGE and REAL and NOW. In these circumstances human cognition defaults to something called 'loss aversion', when the emotional power of danger and loss outweighs the more rational consideration of other factors. Another things happens when we are afraid. The fight or flight or freeze response to fear shifts neural chemistry and systems in the brain so we give way more weight to emotion and instinct than to careful cognitive rational reason. The question about whether this WAS an overreaction, which will probably come up after this all calms down, will sound logical LATER. It sounds absurd now, because we are afraid.
Yet another aspect of risk perception psychology is playing out at this moment. We are glued to our TVs and Twitter feeds and websites and radio stations... and not just because we're stuck inside with nothing else to do. Like moths to flame, we are drawn to information about potentially imminent risk, because knowledge is empowerment, and the feeling of control is reassuring. As one TV anchor person said, "I wish this would end. It's the beginning of the healing process. You want to know who did it and what their motivations were." Knowledge is power, and power is control, and without control we are more afraid. So we want to know.
Never mind that most of what is coming out of the media is a repetitious, constant rehash of the key facts, mixed with an awful lot of silly babble to fill the time between the last actual development and the next. We really could leave the TV or radio or computer for a while and come back, and not have missed anything that would help keep us safe.
In fact, it would keep us safe to step away from the coverage. Heightened awareness feeds heightened fear, and fear causes physical stress that, if it persists, does real harm to our health, from raised blood pressure, weakened immune systems, and other impacts. But the need for information -- the need for control -- turns us into 24/7 information victims, most of us at far greater risk from the stress caused by constant alarmist reports than from the killer on the loose himself.
Yet another critical aspect of risk perception psychology playing out in this incredible moment is the importance of trust, and in that sense, the overreaction of law enforcement and the military is a good thing, not only now but down the road. We can't protect ourselves from threats like this, the unpredictable wanton madness wrought by someone who has lived among us that springs up now and again to remind us of how vulnerable we really are. We need the government to do that. To the extent that we are confident in them, we fear these sorts of things less than if we didn't think they were doing all they could to protect us. For this event, and others in the future, across America, the heavy response is adding to a foundation of trust in the authorities to keep us as safe as they can.
Given the powerfully emotional nature of how we respond to danger, all the moreso the more real and imminent and "it could happen to me" the threat feels, it would be incredibly naïve and disrespectful to suggest that the response of the government, and ours as individuals, don't make sense. Of course they do. Because risk perception is not just a matter of the facts, but how they feel. Our responses may not make intellectual sense tomorrow, or whenever this calms down (hopefully with no or minimal additional violence), when we can look back at things in the cool calm of rational hindsight, but they make emotional sense now. Because we are afraid.