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The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger Hardcover – July 17, 2008

75 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gardner, a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, is both matter-of-fact and entertaining in this look at fear and how it shapes our lives. Although we are capable of reason, says Gardner, we often rely instead on intuitive snap judgments. We also assume instinctively, but incorrectly, that [i]f examples of something can be recalled easily, that thing must be common. And what is more memorable than headlines and news programs blaring horrible crimes and diseases, plane crashes and terrorist attacks? In fact, such events are rare, but their media omnipresence activates a gut-level fear response that is out of proportion to the likelihood of our going through such an event. It doesn't help that scientific data and statistics are often misunderstood and misused and that our risk assessment is influenced less by the facts than by how others respond. Gardner's vivid, direct style, backed up by clear examples and solid data from science and psychology, brings a breath of fresh air and common sense to an emotional topic. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Excellent...analyses everything from the media's predilection for irrational scare stories to the cynical use of fear by politicians... [A] cheery corrective to modern paranoia."
-The Economist --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult; First Edition edition (July 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525950621
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525950622
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,283 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

63 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on July 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Dan Gardner's concerned about how we handle fear. In North America, of course, a single event, the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon generated a new level of fear in the population. So unexpected and abrupt was use of commercial aircraft in a terrorist assault that an avoidance of flying was the immediate and widespread reaction. Gardner, however, wants to consider the event and the reaction in a more rational perspective. He notes at the outset of the book that the chance of dying in auto incidents is far higher than that of flying. As the statistics proved - since nearly 1600 additional auto deaths - about half of those lost at the World Trade Centre - were added to the annual total in the following year. Gardner taps into psychology and the field of risk assessment in this fascinating study of how we deal with fear. We aren't doing a very good job of it.

For millions of years animals relied on quick responses for survival. Reaction to potential danger or a possible meal left no time, nor need, for reflecting. Act fast or expire. That kind of brain is now called the limbic system, or "lizard brain". Evolution granted humans a chance to build on that foundation to produce a "thinking" part of the brain. The limbic system is still in place, however, and issuing commands we are rarely aware of. Psychologists, says Gardner, call these System One and System Two. The author, in the best journalist's style, calls these The Gut and The Head. The Gut reacts to crisis situations quickly and effectively. The Head follows along later at a more deliberate pace - if it gets any voice at all.

Gardner is eager to have us understand how these Systems work.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Lance Bledsoe on September 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Gardner's book is both enjoyable and informative, providing a wealth of information about how humans evaluate risk. In particular, the author shows how our instincts (or "Gut") reactions to risk are often incorrect, yet we are reluctant to overrule these reactions with the more calm and reasoning "Head" side of our thinking.

Gardner uses a vast review of research in the field of risk assessment to bolster his points, yet manages to make these scientific studies accessible to laypeople, summarizing many of the principles with names such as the Example Rule, the Anchoring Rule, and the Rule of Typical Things. He then gives a number of examples of how people are often led astray by different entities (e.g., the news media, advertising agencies, political campaigns) who use these principles to evoke unreasoning fear as a means of manipulation, the implicit message being, "Here's something that you should be afraid of, but if you'll just buy this product or elect this candidate, you'll be safe."

I especially enjoyed the abundant statistics and discussions about the relative risk or safety of different activities (e.g., car travel vs. airline travel, heart disease vs. cancer, etc.), and how, from a historical and statistical perspective, "there's never been a better time to be alive." I would have liked for Gardner to have covered certain topics in more detail (e.g., vaccinations, climate change), but the ones he did cover in detail (e.g., terrorism, environmental chemicals, the role of the news media) were all well done.

All in all, a fascinating and valuable book for anyone who wants to know how to better use the reasoning side of their brain to evaluate the risks we all face.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Edward Durney VINE VOICE on November 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book really grew on me. It started slow -- the writing early on seemed disorganized and less than captivating. Then I got into the book, to the point where I could not put it down. Too interested in what was coming next, in looking at different examples of how fear in the Gut overwhelms thinking in the Head. Toward the end of the book, things got a bit slow again, as Gardner got repetitive. All in all, though, a very interesting read.

The premise of The Science of Fear is simple -- fear comes from the Gut, not the Head. Sometimes the Head can overrule the Gut, sometimes not. Snakes, for example. Most people fear snakes. It has nothing to do with reason or experience. It's ingrained. Even if we try to get used to being around snakes -- which would normally work to eliminate a fear like this -- nothing we do or think can overcome the fear of snakes.

Gardner gives lots of examples of how fear works. But he is a newspaper journalist, and the writing shows that. Despite the title, this is not a science book. And the organization is not tight. The book seems less a book and more a collection of articles. That's what kept me from giving it five stars.

Another weakness, for me -- I had hoped that Gardner would cover a couple of topics that ended up with just a brief mention. Global warming, which seems a fear driven by Gut more than Head. And the Y2K computer bug. Talk about not being able to properly evaluate risk. Billions wasted to combat a false fear. Both topics interest me.

Like most books, The Science of Fear could have been better. But it's still a very good book, well worth reading. I enjoyed it and learned from it. In both cases, a lot.
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