How We React To Threats Post World Tragedy – And Why After the Paris attacks, some schools were quick to cancel trips to major cities. Rachel Martin spoke with NPR's Shankar Vedantam about the psychology of group fear.

How We React To Threats Post World Tragedy – And Why

How We React To Threats Post World Tragedy – And Why

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After the Paris attacks, some schools were quick to cancel trips to major cities. Rachel Martin spoke with NPR's Shankar Vedantam about the psychology of group fear.


The terrorist attacks in Paris have had people in this country feeling on edge. Some school districts even canceled field trips to Washington, D.C. after an online video threatened attacks in the capital. One of those schools is Timothy Edwards Middle School in Connecticut. A trip planned for eighth graders was called off last week. There were mixed feelings.

STACY ZDANIS: As a parent, you should never have to worry about sending your child somewhere in this country for fears that they might not come back.

MARTIN: That's Stacy Zdanis (ph). Her son was supposed to take that field trip. Atif Kareshi (ph) worries about the message being sent to the kids.

ATIF KARESHI: Some of us have to make the difficult choices, where we may be scared internally for our kids, but we have to let them live a life where they're not afraid to do those things.

MARTIN: You can hear the ambivalence. They want life to go on as normal. But they also want to keep their kids safe. We asked NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, to help us figure out why we react so strongly to threats that are statistically very unlikely. He joins me now in the studio. Hey, Shankar, thanks for coming in.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: When we see events like the attacks in Paris and, more recently, the attack in Mali, a lot of us feel fear acutely, even though it might not make sense because these attacks are happening so far away, geographically speaking. But case in point, soon after the Paris attacks, I was in a crowded movie theater, watching a movie like a lot of people. And there was a sound effect that happened in the film.


MARTIN: And for a split second, I got a pit in my stomach.


MARTIN: And I started looking around for the exits. And I was imagining worst-case scenarios.


MARTIN: And I'm someone who lives in the news. I live in this story. And I know the odds of something happening in that moment are so small.


MARTIN: But something like an immediate attack refocuses the mind. Why is that?

VEDANTAM: It does. And the interesting thing, Rachel, as you point out, is that these are events that are happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. You know, after the 9/11 attacks, researchers observed that there were people who were sitting on the West Coast who were as traumatized watching the 9/11 attacks unfold on television as people who were physically in New York and Washington. And one of the things they've picked up on is that mass media, and television in particular, have allowed events that are very far away to come into our homes in this extremely visceral fashion so that even though you might consciously know this event is happening hundreds or thousands of miles away, there's a part of your brain that actually feels, I'm on high alert. I might be in danger.

MARTIN: It's not just terrorism, though, right? We saw this kind of emotional reaction after the Ebola crisis, with the fear of some kind of health threat.

VEDANTAM: That's right. I think one of the other things that's really interesting here, Rachel, is that our fears are not always connected to what's most dangerous. So when you think about terrorism, for example, terrorism is extremely scary. But on the 10 leading causes of death that the CDC tracks every year, terrorism is not even on the list. You know, heart disease and diabetes and suicide are on the list. Terrorism is not - the same with health conditions. The flu kills 30,000 people every year in the United States. Ebola might have affected a couple of people. And yet, our fears connected to these new and unusual threats are often disproportionate to the actual risk that they possess.

MARTIN: Are there any studies out there that show what the effect might be when we react out of fear that might be disproportionate to the threat?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think there's been quite a lot of work that's looked at this. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, for example, people looked at the fact that many Americans were fearful about air travel. And as a result, many Americans chose to drive to wherever they were trying to go instead of fly to wherever they needed to go. And you know where this is going because driving turns out to actually be significantly riskier than flying. And there's been some studies that show that as a result of the increased driving, hundreds of Americans might have died in traffic crashes as they were trying to keep themselves from being on a hijacked plane.

MARTIN: NPR's Shankar Vedantam, he covers social science research. He's also the host of the new podcast, Hidden Brain. Shankar, thank you so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Rachel.

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