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Be Afraid of Being Very Afraid
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Serial murders; Fear & phobias; Risk assessment
Author: Ropeik, David
Date: Oct 20, 2002
Start Page: B.01
Section: OUTLOOK

Yet it is also fair to suggest that fear is, in and of itself, a risk. Frightened people seeking a sense of safety can make dangerous choices: to drive extra miles to avoid a location they think is unsafe, to buy a gun they're not trained to use, or to reduce their physical exercise by staying indoors or close to home. In fact, just the stress of fear is dangerous. It raises levels of certain hormones that suppress the immune system, thus increasing our susceptibility to infectious disease. We have to fear the sniper, but we also have to fear fear itself.

Psychologists who study this field, known as risk perception, find that humans tend to fear similar things for similar reasons. Essentially, risks have unique affective characteristics that cause us to be more or less afraid, regardless of the facts. But rather than present a dry recitation of those risk perception factors from the academics who figured them out -- Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischoff, Sarah Lichtenstein or Princeton University professor Daniel Kahneman, who just won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for his research on why people make seemingly irrational decisions -- let me introduce you to one of my relatives, who lives in Silver Spring. He's 49, married, with a daughter in middle school. He lives two miles from the site of one of the killings. He and his family are frequent customers of the crafts store where the first shooting took place. They often eat in a Chinese restaurant near the Home Depot where Monday night's killing occurred. We spoke Tuesday night about how he and his family are feeling.

There is a battle between fear and fact taking place in the hearts and minds of my relatives and friends in the D.C. area, and all their friends. It's a cautionary tale for all of us, whether we're facing snipers, West Nile virus, child abductions or terrorism. Frightened people can make dangerous choices. Understanding why risks make us so afraid can help us apply both our emotional and our rational sides to the challenge of making ourselves safe.David Ropeik is director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and co-author of "RISK: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You" (Houghton Mifflin).

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