FRIDAY, Oct. 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Perhaps more than ever before, Americans are afraid. Should we fly? Visit a skyscraper? Open the mail? Attend a pro football game? Experts say our decisions will be affected by genetics, experience, education and -- perhaps most importantly -- the mysterious phenomenon known as intuition.
Humans, of course, face potential disaster every day without flinching. Few people avoid driving, even though tens of thousands of people die on roads each year. Most Americans live contentedly in regions that could be socked by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms.
Yet the events of Sept. 11 have prompted millions of people to assess their risks, and many seem to be ignoring the low probability that they'll be hurt in a terrorist attack. "At some point, logic reaches a dead end," says Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston College.
That's when a "gut feeling" enters the picture. "It's very intuitive, natural and fast," says Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. "It's automatic, and it's been with us for a long time. This is the mode of thinking that helped us deal with risk during the long course of humanity, when we didn't have probability, epidemiology or toxicology."
But what's behind a gut feeling? Part of it is instinct. We all come pre-programmed to be afraid of some things, like heights, but other fears come later in life as we learn how to live, says Carroll E. Izard, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware.
"The best formula [for gut feelings] we can come up with is that we have some genetic proclivities, but they interact with our environment and our experiences," Izard says.
A new and unfamiliar risk -- for a terrorist attack, for instance -- will throw off a person's ability to assess risks rationally, Slovic says. So will a risk that is small but horrific. "We may fool ourselves into thinking it's likely because the outcome is so bad," he says.
Of course, not everyone feels the same level of fear. Some people don't worry about risks because they're just too preoccupied. "They're able to go on about their normal lives and engage themselves in the activities they always have. They don't have as much of a place in their mind for fear," Izard says.
People may override gut feelings by turning to the comforting world of odds and probabilities. "That kind of training increases the chances that you'll say, 'Gee, what's the likelihood of that happening as opposed to a dozen other things that might happen,'" Izard says.
Tecce says fear also will affect people differently depending on whether their lives go according to plan. "Folks who have a handle on their personal lives and have some control over what's going on are more likely to fly and go into tall buildings than people who don't and whose lives are so unpredictable and falling apart that they're generally afraid to take any risks."
But perceptions of control also can lead people to ignore risks, Tecce says. Drivers "feel like they have control when their hands are on the wheel, and their feet are on the pedal," he says. "They infer that they have control over their safety. That makes them feel good, but they have to leave out another factor -- the guys who could plow into them at any time."
If you feel that fear is getting the best of you, experts suggest using some basic distraction techniques. One approach is to consider the consequences of being afraid, such as losing your job if you can no longer work in a skyscraper.
Professionals can help, too, with hypnosis or relaxation exercises. However, the "powerhouse" treatment for phobias, like fear of flying, is "systematic desensitization," Tecce says. Phobic people imagine doing things that frighten them step-by-step, like entering and flying on a plane, until they lose their fear.
However, a certain amount of worry seems wise. "Fear is a perfectly good and adaptive emotion," Izard says. "It's working right now to keep this whole country more alert and vigilant. Increasing our self-protection and security is a perfectly good thing."
What To Do
Get the facts about the new risks. Learn more about bioterrorism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.