Loathing Fear in Kolkata

Some facts about risk:


  • Recklessness is not a consistent trait. According to Elke U. Weber—the man who is to risk what Pavlov was to obedience—there are five domains of risk-taking, and our propensity to take risks differs across these domains. In other words, being an inveterate gambler makes you no likelier than the next person to enjoy skydiving, or to take back a cheating significant other.


  • The amount of risk we feel comfortable with is fixed, and we will modify our behavior to make up for changes in risk-level. The paradigmatic case is the driver who buys better brakes: He’s no less likely to end up in an accident because, to compensate for the lessened risk of his brakes failing, he’ll tend to drive faster.


  • People in committed relationships are less likely to take risks because the pressure is off to woo potential mates with flashy gestures.


  • Driving is objectively risky. It is one of the riskiest things we do on a regular basis. It accounts for about 30,000 deaths per year, in the United States, and is the leading cause of death for Americans aged five to 34. It is perfectly reasonable to fear that we will die in a car crash. Over the course of a lifetime, one in 108 Americans does.


But we don’t fear it. Vehophobia is rare—much rarer than aviophobia, even arachnophobia. It is so generally un-feared that articles about risk will cite it as the foil to activities that tend to inspire anxiety: You are much more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash, of a rare disease, of a shark attack, etc.


The reason we don’t fear driving is a product of evolution. Generally speaking, we are programmed to fear what early man feared: that which we can’t control, that which seems to pose an immediate threat to our safety (Picture a highly agential tiger coming right at you.) A correlative to this is that fear strengthens memory. So, when a fear-inducing event is covered in the media, our brains latch onto it, and perceive it as being likelier to befall us than it is.


Driving fills none of these criteria. The danger at a given moment seems small. Car crashes receive little news coverage. There were no cars in the veld. In fact, the instincts that make us fear what early man feared incline us to act foolishly in the face of vehicular peril: When something is speeding toward you, your brain—sensing an animal predator—tells you, freeze.


In Kolkata, where I spent this past January, you are roughly 1.6 times as likely to die in a traffic accident as you are in America. My rock and a hard place were a bus and a concrete road divider, usually inhabited from the backseat of a three-wheeled, open frame auto-rickshaw. The backs of the autos said, “Obey The Traffic Laws.” The backs of the buses said “Danger!” But even though I was more attuned to the perils of driving than I normally am, I couldn’t truly fear it.


At first this was frustrating. Not because I wanted to fear a thing I couldn’t avoid—Kolkata is emphatically non-walkable—but because I have a tendency to fear things that, statistically speaking, I shouldn’t. The preceding weeks had offered striking proof of it. Spending the holidays in Harrison, New York, I realized I’d developed a fear of movie theaters shootings: a receptacle for a broader anxiety about mass shootings that I worry might eventually make me fear all public spaces.


In terms of its status as a potential danger, mass shootings are the opposite of driving: low risk, high fear. Going into a public space will never be “risky.” In order for an incident to qualify as a mass shooting (acc. the US government), three or more victims must die in an “indiscriminate public rampage.” Six shootings from the past year fit the bill—not a small figure by any means, but many fewer than The Washington Post’s “more one mass shooting per day” headlines suggests. In 2015 in the US, 367 people died in mass public shootings, slightly fewer than the number who died falling out of bed.   


But unlike driving, a shooting pushes all of our evolutionarily-programmed fear buttons. It is immediate, literally as fast as a speeding bullet. It is intentional: another person deliberately trying to hurt us. It is outside of our control and has what Don DeLillo in 1993 called an element of “shattering randomness.” And when it happens, it’s news. It rides that fear train straight to the hippocampus, and sticks.


The upshot of all this is that fear and risk, complementary though they might seen, in fact have nothing to do with each other.


There is a positive side to this: For every non-risky thing we do fear, there’s a risky thing we conveniently don’t. In Kolkata, it was heartening, even thrilling, to be greeted daily by my inability to fear a risky thing—to know precisely how much danger I was in, to know it to be a higher risk threshold than I am used to, and yet not feel fear.


Unfortunately, prescriptions for dealing with the other side of this neurological coin often fail to account for the discord between fear and reason. A typical method for tackling a so-called irrational fear is to appeal to reason—to tally the hard facts amassed in our corner and tell ourselves that the feared occurrence is extremely unlikely to occur. In other words, to evaluate the risk. Not the way our brains do make when faced with a hungry tiger, but consciously, a fact-based calculation that yields an objective, non-instinctual assessment.


But treating fear like risk is an ineffective means of assuaging it. Because we haven’t falsely assessed a risk. We don’t believe that the feared event is more likely to occur than it is. We’re just scared—the victim of our brains reacting in ways that made sense, back when the latest technology was fire.


This method of fear-management—providing ourselves with information that belies a faulty assessment of risk—might actually make matters worse. If you consider yourself a rational person, reassuring facts can act on the brain like a placebo pill: I expect myself to respond positively to this kind of data; so, when facts fail to ameliorate my fear, I feel, at best, stupid, at worst, crazy.


It’s likely that several of my friends have experienced this too. But I don’t know, because we don’t talk about this kind of thing. Because while I can find articles in which Anne from Connecticut confesses to not being able to enter a movie theater without scrutinizing her fellow audience members for signs of derailed-ness; while I can form an imaginary alliance with the 35 percent of survey respondents who said there should be bag checks at movie theaters, I cannot confess this fear to a friend without fearing that they will be put off by it—will judge me the way I judge myself.


This view of “irrational” fear is insidious in the extreme. Because a crucial component of the misery that attends an “irrational” fear is shame: feeling like you’re wrong to fear the thing you do, because objectively, virtually risk free.


Admittedly, mere awareness of why we fear the things we do does little to stanch anxiety. But I believe that if we took the placebo pill out of the equation, if we stopped trying to quell our “irrational” fears on our own, we might stand a better chance of beating them. If we felt comfortable expressing these fears, with the expectation that our feelings will be validated and possibly shared, we might be able to escape the mental prison that an unvoiced fear can be. And then, perhaps, we could go see a movie together.  


 1. For more on the interesting politics of calculating shooting statistics, see Mark Follman’s coverage of the issue on Mother Jones.

 2. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which uses the definition “four or more shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter” to qualify events as mass public shootings.

3. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1887/the-art-of-fiction-no-135-don-delillo

 4. Specific relaxation techniques—e.g. breathing exercises, frequently prescribed by psychologists—can be an effective means of mitigating anxiety. But this is professional advice, not common sense.

 5. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/business/mass-shootings-add-anxiety-to-movie-theater-visits.html