The Culture of Fear

I recently read Barry Glassner’s 1999 book “The Culture of Fear”.

It describes many different arenas in which the media are providing anecdotes about horrible things which make compelling stories but which either didn’t really happen or happen very rarely. So rarely, he argues, that purely from a risk management perspective, they are hardly things that most people ought to be paying attention to all. But they have a great pull on our imaginations, either because they are symbolic of something else that we feel anxious or guilty about, or because they distract attention from things that we genuinely should be afraid of. In some cases, he argues, the very things we truly should fear are things we feel guilty about, and the distraction is dysfunctional because it ends up allowing the real problems to build up.

He debunks public scares about lots of things, from tainted Halloween candy to teen moms to raod rage to plane crashes to crime to Internet pornography and predators. He does this with a compelling storytelling style that makes the book a good read.

I was a little disappointed, though, that the book didn’t quite deliver on its promise to explain why we have a culture of fear that’s making us too scared, and scared of the wrong things. While the book offered some explanations for why the media and the general public are so fascinated with particular fears, there wasn’t always the same explanation for the different scares and nowhere did he tie it up with a general theory of why we’re scared of the wrong things. Is it just that most people are really bad at risk assessment, and far more moved by anecdotes? Is it a defense mechanism? A conspiracy in aid of certain political and economic interests?

I was also disappointed that there was no mention of a topic that interests me right now: hitchhiking (or what we might now call ad hoc ride sharing, if we want to avoid the scary connotations of hitchhiking.) There is certainly a lot of fear about it. Before it all but died out, were there any good statistics on the risks? Did the scare stories follow the same pattern as the other fears he writes about? Or was it really as dangerous as I was told as a child? If anyone has citations to research on this, I’d love to know about it. (If you’re curious why I’m so interested in this, see the last section of my paper on “Impersonal SocioTechnical Capital”.)

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About Paul Resnick

Professor, University of Michigan School of Information Personal home page
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