09/09/2010 12:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

We Do Have to Fear "Fear Itself" -- Too Much and Too Little!

The Oval Office has been renovated, and five quotes chosen by President Obama now ring the circle in the new carpet. One of those quotes is "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself," Franklin Roosevelt's declaration in his second inaugural address that irrational fear is the biggest bogeyman of all. How appropriate that this quote is literally stitched into the fabric at the center of arguably the most powerful office in the world. So much of what is decided there, and so much of what we do in our own individual daily lives, is driven by fear, the conscious name we give to the overpowering subconscious animal imperative to survive.

But may I humbly suggest to the current team that works in the Oval Office that Roosevelt was only half right. We do have to fear "fear itself", but we have to fear too much, and too little fear. We have to be afraid of being too afraid, yes, but we also need to beware of not being wary enough. What we really need to fear is getting fear wrong, worrying too much about relatively smaller threats and not enough about the bigger ones. It's not quite as pithy as what Roosevelt said but, in the gap between our fears and the facts lies perhaps the greatest danger.

Simply put, getting risk wrong is risky:

  • We worried too much about terrorism and the Bush administration was able to ride our fears to the invasion of Iraq, doing America so much harm and so little good.

  • We aren't worried enough about the unsustainable ways six billion people are living on the planet (nine billion by 2050) so we have stalemates over policies to deal with climate change, deforestation, and overfishing of the oceans.

  • We worry more about cancer and less about heart disease, though heart disease kills 100,000 more people a year, roughly 20% more than cancer. As a result the United States has an official "War on Cancer" ("...cancer is...the major health concern of Americans today," wrote President Richard Nixon in the preamble to the War on Cancer legislation) but no War on Heart Disease, the greater threat. The National Institutes of Health spends four times more on cancer research than on heart disease research, even though profound basic unknowns remain about both.

  • We worry more about the threats from nuclear power and less about burning coal and oil, but six times more Americans will die prematurely this year from breathing fossil fuel particle pollution than will die from cancer from radiation from Chernobyl over the entire lifetime of the several hundred thousand people exposed, the World Health Organization estimates.

Getting risk wrong, even if how we feel about it feels right, is risky. What we have to fear is the perception gap, the gap between our fears and the facts. The bad news is, the instinctive, emotional, affective, "irrational" way we perceive and respond to danger is hard wired into the human animal. Risk perception is not and can never be a perfectly rational affair. We've never been perfect computers with complete information, yet we've always had to survive, so we've developed a system that quickly qualifies the partial information we have through feelings and values and instincts.

The good news is, we know how that risk perception system works, and we can use what we know to overcome some of that system's pitfalls. We know that risks that involve more pain and suffering, like cancer, will scare us more than greater actual perils, like heart disease, which don't happen to kill in as-nasty ways. We know that threats over which we have no control, like terrorism, scare us more than threats we think we can control, like driving. We know that threats that are human-made, like nuclear power, scare us more than threats that are natural, like radiation from the sun (estimated U.S. annual death toll from melanoma -- 8,000).

Our fears need no longer be "...nameless, unreasoning, unjustified ..." as Roosevelt said. The psychology behind our affective perception of risk is well-understood, in much more detail than can fit here. (Shameless plug. The details are laid out in detail in How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts). The next step is for policy makers to give up the fantasy that people can be rational about risk, and to account for the way risk perception actually works -- by looking at each risk issue to understand not just the facts, but also the specific psychological factors that explain why we feel the way we do about that risk -- in a more honest and holistic approach that can encourage policies that do a better job of reducing the risks of the perception gap and improving public and environmental health.