To watch a news broadcast you would think we lived at the most dangerous time in history. Every day we bombard ourselves with stories of terrorists, child abductions, natural disasters, tragic accidents, wars, new killer diseases and a host of dangers that are going to maim and kill us. However, in reality humans, particularly those of us living in developed countries, have never been so safe. Never in the history of mankind has the probability been so high that a baby born will reach adulthood and that an adult will live well into old age. This sets up an interesting dynamic-living in a time when we have fewer legitimate threats to our safety while being more aware than any time in history of threats to our safety.
For most of our evolutionary history our ancestors didn't understand many of the things that were likely to kill them. Certainly the things that had sharp teeth chasing after them or angry faced hominids that were chucking rocks at them were understood well enough. (This latter scenario probably happened more often than we can really appreciate. Steven Pinker did an interesting presentation on TED describing how human beings have less chance of being killed by another human being today than in any time in history-even if you count both World Wars.) Our fear response evolved to deal with these types of immediate threats that were generally dealt with quite quickly. Either the saber tooth tiger caught you or you got away, the human trying to steal your food and wife quickly clubbed you to death or you clubbed him first, and so on and so forth. Our ancestors evolved responses to react to such threats but also learned about such threats from anecdotes past on by friends and family.
The reliance on anecdotes is important to understanding our instinctual fears. Our ancestors relied heavily on stories to understand threats. Primarily these threats were other humans or animals but there was also the threat of poisonous food, floods, or other natural disasters that they taught each other about through stories. This is important to realize because we see that humans that instinctively enjoyed stories about dangers were more likely to survive than those who didn't. Consequently we see why news stories about terrorists attract a lot more attention than a local service project.
The reliance on anecdotes also explains why people like me are terrified of flying. No matter how many times I read the probability of my plane crashing being one in a million when I step on the plane my body shakes and sweats like my chance of survival is 50/50, if not worse. We didn't evolve around statistics-we evolved around stories. It's quite likely that our experience with people arriving safely from a flight-particularly if you were like me and had parents and acquaintances who rarely traveled-is fairly close to the number of times you've heard about disasterous plane crashes on the news. Consequently if you take the number of stories you have about plane crashes and line them up to the number of flights you've experienced or heard about from immediate friends and family it's quite likely your perceived risk from anecdotes could be closer to 50/50.
One thing our ancestors didn't understand at all was disease. We did evolve many instincts that protect us from disease-such as adverse reactions to bodily fluids or corpses-but we rarely had the understanding to communicate the danger of disease to each other and never fully understood how to appropriately respond. Disease is also ill-fitted for our evolved fear instinct because unlike the threats that haunted our ancestors that were quickly dealt with and went away disease is an ever-present danger. This is particularly true now that we understand so many diseases that don't require being next to a person with a sneeze, cough or oozing wound but that occur naturally within our own bodies like cancer or auto-immune diseases.
The last danger I'll mention that our ancestors didn't have to deal with is a particularly unique one. The danger of hell. Now, my point here is not to discuss whether hell is real or not. In fact I think the fear of hell can be joined with a danger that no one disputes as being real-social consequences for our actions. While humans have always interacted with each other and had to carefully weigh the consequences of their actions socially never has this equation in our lives been so complex and pitted so many of our instincts against one another. This includes the very complex social practices and beliefs we have incorporated to deal with our complex social interactions, such as religion, which throw in more dilemmas into the equation. It isn't that these social practices and restrictions aren't useful or at times even necessary-they generally are-but they add another layer of fear into a world that is already piling it on.
The result is we live in an environment that is perpetually bombarding our fear instincts. These instincts that were so helpful to our survival have consequently become a hinderance to many. Anxiety disorders have become almost pandemic in the developed world. Similarly depression, which is often preceded by anxiety and may simply be the anxiety instinct driven to exhaustion, has become a huge problem in our modern society. In my own state of Utah, for example, anti-depressant use is the highest in the nation. While research will continue to evaluate this problem it appears that a large part of our problem may be the evolution of fear in circumstance where 'fight or flight' was generally an available option placed in our current environment where our awareness of danger is too high and our ability to react is overwhelmed.
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