In the wake of the suicide of the ‘Anthrax Letters’ suspect, Bruce E. Ivins, there was anÂ interesting article in Saturday’s Washington Post, “Yesterday’s Fears Fade As We Adapt To Tomorrow’s”Â about how we as humans process and deal with threats, and what the implications are for managing them in the future.
Post reporter Joel Garreau interviewed some leading experts in the risk communication world to understand why something like anthrax which scared us so much seven years ago is no longer really registering on Americans’ fear radar screens. Â I’ll excerpt some of the explanations below because I think it’s helpful that we all understand a little bit more about ourselves in these situations:
“…The human animal cares what threatens it today, not what might have threatened it in the past,” says David Ropeik, former director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “Survival is a progressive, not retrospective issue. What could have happened to me seven years ago doesn’t worry me. What worries me is about today and tomorrow.”Â Today, “seeing white powder on the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts won’t freak you out. Going past the duct tape at Home Depot — the alarm bell is not readily ringable…”
“Our estimates of the probability of risk drop rapidly, says Baruch Fischhoff, the Carnegie Mellon psychologist who is a former president of the Society for Risk Analysis and the author of “Acceptable Risk.”Â Originally, “people were legitimately anxious. They really didn’t know what the scope of the problem was,” Fischhoff says. “They responded the way they usually do — responsibly, bravely and somewhat nervously.Â ”A year later, the problem looked officially small. They couldn’t remember how worried they were a year earlier. They had learned so much, they couldn’t remember how it looked different…”
“Stocking up on duct tape and plastic sheets, however, did serve a purpose, Ropeik says. “People coming out of the store would say: ‘It makes me feel safer. At least it’s something I can do.’ ” Feeling that you can exert some control over a dangerous situation matters to humans. It’s why we fear plane crashes more than car crashes, despite all the statistics showing automobiles to be vastly more dangerous. No matter. We know we’re not driving the plane.”
But staying at battle stations is bad. “If that stress lasts more than a few hours, it weakens our immune system, damages our heart, impairs our memory and our fertility, and increases the likelihood of clinical depression and adult-onset diabetes,” Ropeik says. “Policymakers need to understand, rational or irrational doesn’t matter. Stress is really bad for people’s physical health…The human animal is taking continuous soundings against evidence in the real world, maintaining stress to the extent it is needed to survive,” Ropeik says. “We adjust to the ‘new normal.’ We get used to all kinds of stress in our lives.”
I think we — which includes the public, our elected officials and the media in particular– have to find a balance for living in post 9/11, post ‘Anthrax Letters’ America. Events like this are going to happen, and look for a way to process and manage it so we don’t get mentally see-sawed from one crisis to the next, overworrying one week and then forgetting it the next. We also have to become more comfortable and knowledgeable about new and unfamiliar threats like Anthrax so fear of the unknown doesn’t exacerbate the situation.Â
We have to find an individual citizen and collective national approach and attitude to dealing with the threats of the 21st Century — not always on alert but always aware Â – and understanding that something major probably will happen but we can deal with it.Â There is a model for us — it’s how we deal everyday with the more ‘mundane’ dangers of fire and car safety. We need to be prepared but not obsessed. In fact, I would argue that being prepared actually makes you more comfortable you can handle whatever happens.