We Fear People, Not Nature

Given that many people are in the business of protecting other people from their fears, a question worth asking is what exactly do people fear? Researchers at Muhlenberg College decided to investigate by asking people whether they would rather suffer an injury caused by a natural event (e.g. breaking a leg while hiking, being burned by lightning) or suffer an equivalent injury caused by artificial event (e.g. a car crash, stepping on a downed power line). It turns out that we’re not all that concerned about nature.

Past research has found that people tend to prefer natural over artificial foods and medicines. In the present study, this preference for natural items was also found for aversive situations and hazards. Additionally, natural hazards tended to be considered less scary and dangerous, but not necessarily more unfair or unlikely than equivalent artificial counterparts. These differences were found despite the fact that the natural and artificial versions of our scenarios were described as having objectively similar outcomes. Moreover, the preference for the natural versions still exists after the influence of worseness, unfairness, and scariness are taken into account, and apparently also after the influence of victim and perpetrator responsibility, and outrage, are considered.

Perhaps this bias helps politicians justify spending a bazillion times more money monitoring terrorists than they do monitoring hurricanes or earthquakes. It also explains why people can’t seem to resist the sensationalist “Guess which common household item will kill you?” news stories. Apparently “Guess which weather pattern has a statistically improbable chance of hurting you?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

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