The180·The 180

Why we're so afraid of terrorism

Psychologists know that people perceive terror as a much bigger risk than it actually is. Journalist Dan Gardner says we need to remember that before we react to events like those in Paris — and before world leaders plan their response to ISIS.
Dozens of Calgarians attended a rally at city hall organized by the Muslim Council of Calgary to honour the victims of the Paris attacks and condemn terrorism. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)
Listen13:00

Psychologists know that people perceive terror as a much bigger risk than it actually is. Journalist Dan Gardner says we need to remember that before we react to events like those in Paris — and before world leaders plan their response to ISIS. 

Gardner wrote a book called "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear," which included a chapter on terrorism. He points out that terrorism poses such a small risk on our daily lives, that it's not even worth thinking about — but still, we perceive it as a huge threat. It's something psychologists have studied for decades, and they know that terrorism seems like a big risk because it's so easy for us to imagine. 

"The classic illustration is 9/11...The images are so horrible that they get implanted firmly in memory, they're extremely easy to recall, and therefore psychology tells us: be afraid of this." - Dan Gardner

But there is danger in misperceiving risk. For one thing, Gardner points out, our calculations to avoid terrorist attacks can put us in harm's way. After 9/11, people were afraid to fly so they travelled by car instead. This lead to higher rates of traffic fatalities — some studies say over 1500 people died than would have otherwise. 

There's also the risk of over-reacting, and playing into the hands of the terrorists. Gardner warns that they want us to be afraid, and to go to war against them. when politicians stand up and talk as if they're going to war, they bestow upon groups like ISIS the power that enemies like Nazi Germany held. That's way more power than they deserve, argues Gardner, but it's exactly what they want. 

The worst thing that terrorists could get in response, from their perspective, is derision...We should not see them as a great and terrifying force, we should have contempt for them.- Dan Gardner

Instead, Gardner suggests world leaders use language of justice, not of war — they can say they'll hunt down the terrorists and make them pay, for example, but not that they're going to war. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.