Psychology of Fear and Safety

Philosophy of Security, Part 4 – On psychology of fear and safety.

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I have looked at, in very general terms, what security is about and why we bear the costs associated with it.

It has occurred to me that before we can move onto discussion of risk management and moving on to the more practical advice in terms of  risk management strategies,  information security strategies or tools and techniques, we need to consider the psychology of trust and psychology fear and safety. This is  because perceptions of safety and feelings of fear are vital in understanding risk-based decisions.

Part 3 of this series dealt with concept of trust and factors that influence levels of trust.

This article deals with  fear and safety.

About Fear

At the very core, fear is an emotional and physiological response that is induced by perception of being under a threat of some sort. The threat need not be real to elicit the fear response. We merely have to feel or believe that we are under threat.

Fear, as an emotion that has kept humans, and other animals alive for alive for hundreds of thousands of years, and our bodies have adapted very well to reacting to threats and fear they produce with a very strong physiological response called  “flight or fight response”.  It is an ancient survival mechanisms, whose influence we feel even today.

Unfortunately in most ways, out fear responses have not kept up with the rapid social and technological development of the last ten, twenty , one hundred or even one thousand years.  Evolution simply does now work that fast, and in in that time, especially in last fifty or so years,  our societies, technology and world view in general have become far more complex, than our minds can process in as short a period of time as it takes for the hard wired fear responses to kick in.  As mentioned before  fear driven by the perception of being under a threat of some sort,  and in today’s world the number of things that can be potentially perceived threats have become far higher more varied than the the basic “there is a sabre tooth tiger out there in the tall grass” for which we are prepared by evolution.

About Safety

Safety is a state of being protected from threats and harm that these threats bring.  As such safety is a state in which by large, fear is not being induced.

There are several types of safety to consider:

  • Normative safety – Normative safety is when a product or design meets applicable design standards and protection.
  • Substantive or objective safety  – this type of safety occurs when the real-world safety history is favorable, whether or not standards are met.
  • Perceived or subjective  safety – Perceived or subjective safety refers to the level of mental and emotional comfort of users.  For example, traffic signals are perceived as safe, yet under some circumstances, they can increase traffic crashes at an intersection. Traffic have a generally a better safety record than traffic signals but are often seen as difficult to navigate and thus make drivers nervous.

In many ways the perceived safety can be seen as a relief from fear regardless so the normative or substantive safety of the object or a situation . For example:

  • After the September 11 terrorist attacks, many people chose to drive rather than fly, despite the fact that, even counting terrorist attacks, flying is safer than driving.
  • Similarly, the perceived threat of injury and the resulting fear discourages people from walking and bicycling for transportation, enjoyment or exercise, even though the health benefits outweigh the actual risk .

Manipulation of perception – Manipulation of fear and safety

The propensity for human beings to experience fear, and the strong physiological and psychological  reactions that being placed in a  situation that our minds perceive as sort of a threat have been manipulated and exploited in politics, and by the advertising and news media, in order to cause us to act or thing a certain way. For example:

  • An add or a sales letter will work to create an impression that the product and/or service on offer is scarce, and play on the fear of our missing out on a good deal, in order to induce us to buy. The product or the service, apart from the  inherent value appeals to our perceived state of financial safety.
  • Political advertising often plays on the fear of “other”, crime or similar in order to get us to vote a certain way, or to behave a certain way, witch is beneficial to the political cause who commissioned the ad
  • News media is mostly concerned with the news of bad events near and far. This is because we are curious creatures and we are geared through evolution to attempt to understand the threats in  the world around us better.  After all a headline of “Six billion people had an uneventful day” does not evoke the same emotional response as “Thief breaks into 3 homes”. 
  • Implied presence of a threat of threats and resulting feeling of unease and fear is often used to market “security” products and services, which are designed to provide a certain amount of normative and substantive safety, but also provide a level of of perceived safety, often in excess of the product’s effectiveness.

To make things worse, research has  shown repeatedly,  that our own experiences, and the constant exposure to bad news causes us to become bad at estimating the actual, as opposed to the imagined probability of threats coming to pass. Instead we focus our attention on,  and give greater weight to, the things that we are bombarded with in news and media.  Because of this we end up making fear driven decisions, resulting in a much higher or a much lower level of perceived safety, than the circumstances actually warrant (see traffic lights and roundabouts)

I will talk more about a set of processes that we can use to counteract this particular perception bias in my discussion of risk analysis.

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  1. […] we do it, and at some psychological factors such that affect the way we do it.  Significantly, in part 4, I noted […]

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