Fear of Disasters Is Real, but Not Always Rational

Times Staff Writer

Yes, California, the Big One is coming.

But there’s no telling when a major earthquake will occur, and there’s very little you can do about it anyway.

So stop worrying so much.

That, in a nutshell, is the advice of Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA psychiatrist and expert in mass hysteria.


In numerous studies, the professor said, experts have charted how public fears of disaster are often overblown but can spread quickly and dramatically affect health and safety.

At the same time, the things that are much more likely to kill us -- that plate of artery-clogging fettuccine Alfredo, for instance -- are given short shrift. Why is our perception of risk so frequently out of whack with reality?

We asked Small for his thoughts and then consulted David Ropeik, who teaches risk analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health:

Question: Sept. 11, the Iraq war, and, now, Hurricane Katrina. Are we justified in feeling anxious?


Small: Any time disaster strikes, it prompts fears. It’s a natural reaction.

People ask, could this happen to me? If you look at the statistics, terrorism is unlikely to impact a person individually. But people worry about it anyway. After the anthrax scare, if you opened a Sweet’N Low and powder fell on your shoe, everyone got hysterical.

Now, people don’t even think about bioterrorism. Time lessens fears. When there is some distance from those events, we tend to go on with our lives.

It’s a healthy form of denial. If you were aware of all of the possible horrors in the world from moment to moment you’d probably go crazy. It’s just too much to keep in our minds and continue to function.


Q: What can people do if they are feeling anxious?

Small: The best preparation psychologically is to get correct information about the potential for disaster in your area and to make practical plans.

In California, the greatest risk from an earthquake is not that you will be killed but that you will lose your home. So it makes sense to know the geology below your home before buying and to look into earthquake insurance. Or to make upgrades that will protect your home.


Right now everyone is upgrading their earthquake kits. That’s a healthy response, too. If you can afford it, get a generator.

Talk to your family about what to do if something happens. Who would you call out of state if there is a problem with communications? Where does the family meet?

It will help to have a plan to deal with those anxieties. Having that sense of control is tremendously important for mental health. Even if your plans are not the greatest, psychologically you will feel better.


Q: You’re an expert in mass hysteria. Can you explain what that is and how it is triggered?

Small: Mass hysteria is an outbreak of physical illness in a group that has a psychological source. A classic case is hysterical blindness, in which people who don’t want to face something actually cannot see it.

We have not yet seen mass hysteria in New Orleans. But the buildings there can get “sick” with toxic mold and there is a real physiological reaction to that. What happens, though, is that people who live close by can hear about mold-related illness and begin to get sick themselves, even though it is not related to mold.

Psychological outbreaks affect women and girls more often than men and boys. Luckily, the hysteria is usually short-lived and dies out when the source of anxiety in the community is removed.


As the cleanup in the Gulf Coast continues, we might start to see psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, anxiety and even mass hysteria.


Q: Why is our perception of what can hurt us so out of kilter with actual risk?

Ropeik: Research has shown that risks have personality traits that make some seem scarier than others. For example, humans are less afraid of risks that are natural than risks that are man-made. So you have people in California who won’t live near a nuclear plant but live on the San Andreas fault.

There is no hard evidence to say why. But we think that with man-made risks we have some aspect of control, and blame and responsibility. But you can’t make the rain start or stop. In a sense, it is fate and doesn’t feel like it was imposed on us.

That is why people fear terrorism more than hurricanes -- because it is man-made. But I ask you what caused more damage, 9/11 or Katrina?


Q: Can we apply logic to break this pattern?

Ropeik: Not really. Pioneering research into risk perception has shown that human brains are wired to fear first and think second.

Joseph LeDoux, a researcher in the neuroscience of fear, found that when we encounter unsettling information we process it first from the part of the brain linked to emotions.

We think it over. Fight or flight? But it’s an ongoing dynamic and eventually the part of our brain that reasons takes over.

So, no, we can’t rationalize our way out of this stuff, because we have evolved to jump back from the snake and then to think if it’s poisonous.


Q: So we are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes?

Ropeik: We are still instinctive animals to some degree. But it behooves us to fight the fight.

If we realize that our instinctive reactions can sometimes create dangers of their own, that realization should enter into the mix of how we perceive risks.

After 9/11, for instance, people were afraid to fly. So they drove places instead. For the three-month period following the terrorist attacks, 1,018 more Americans died in car crashes than the year before.

Even though most people realize that driving is riskier than flying, it feels safer. And that judgment kills people.


Q: What can policymakers do to better protect the public from actual risks?

Ropeik: We should start to view natural disasters as not exclusively natural. To a certain extent, humans have put themselves in nature’s way by building on the coasts, on wetlands and on fault lines.

If we start to view natural disasters as both natural and man-made, we will worry about them more and take more precautions.



Realities of risk

This table lists some well-known causes of death and the odds that a U.S. citizen will die of each in any one year and over the course of his or her lifetime. For example, the chance of being killed by lightning in any one year is one in three million; the lifetime risk is one in 39,000.

*--* Cause Annual deaths One-year odds Lifetime odds Heart disease 934,110 One in 300 One in 4 Cancer 551,883 One in 510 One in 7 Alzheimer’s disease 49,044 One in 5,700 One in 75 Motor vehicles 41,821 One in 6,700 One in 88 Homicide 15,517 One in 18,000 One in 240 Electrocution 925 One in 300,000 One in 4,000 (wires/app) Trains 770 One in 370,000 One in 4,800 Airplanes 747 One in 380,000 One in 4,900 Drowning in tub 337 One in 840,000 One in 11,000 Lightning 93 One in 3,000,000 One in 39,000 School bus 58 One in 4,900,000 One in 63,000 Flood 41 One in 6,900,000 One in 89,000 Hurricane 17 One in 17,000,000 One in 220,000 Amusement park rides 4 One in 70,000,000 One in 920,000


Note: Statistics for motor vehicles, homicides, airplanes, trains and floods are for 2,000; cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and school buses are for 1999; drowning in bathtub and electrocution are for 1998; lightning, hurricanes and amusement park rides are averages over several years.

Source: Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You, by David Ropeik and George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis