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Fear Factors

On the Psychology of Safety and Danger

ISSUE:  Spring 2017

Illustration by Jun Cen

When I moved to China nearly two years ago, one of the first things I bought was a bicycle. I live on a university campus, where everyone rides, and the bike was cheap: $17 for an ancient Five Rams cruiser, with a lively color scheme of teal and rust. I used to cycle to work when I lived in New York, dodging tourists and threading in between delivery trucks. But the moment I pulled out onto a street in China, it became clear that this was going to be a different experience.

In New York, the key to road safety is predictability. Make eye contact with drivers, so they can see your intentions. Use hand signals when you want to turn. Avoid sudden, erratic movements—if drivers can see where you’re going, they’ll be less likely to hit you. The first time I use a hand signal in China, angling my arm leftward to show a truck driver I am about to turn in front of him, he looks to see what I’m pointing at, while accelerating. Every time I make eye contact, other cyclists and drivers barrel right on through, instead of letting me pass in front of them. Eventually I adapt to a new reality, learn the new rules, and I discover that they are as simple in China as in the United States. Actually, there’s only one rule: Ignore everyone.

When I am out on my bike, I am responsible for the area immediately around me, maybe twelve inches in every direction. The rest of the road is not my problem. I do not make eye contact with other bicyclists or motorists hurtling toward me, unless they are in my twelve inches. By not looking at them, I am making it their problem to not hit me, which of course they don’t. The drivers do the same thing. We are an army of high-speed somnambulists, purposefully behaving as though we are the only ones on the road.

It feels ridiculously dangerous, riding around those first few months—also, no one, me included, is wearing a helmet, although my excuse is that I haven’t been able to find a bicycle shop that sells them. But it becomes more and more evident that this is a normal, accepted level of risk here. Once, during a typhoon, I look out of a swimming taxi window and see ten cyclists casually skimming through the ankle-deep runoff, impervious, as if disposable ponchos were armor.

It’s easy to feel as if safety has a universal definition. Freedom from want, freedom from fear—aren’t those what everyone means when they think of safety? Perhaps, but the routes through the world to that state of being are circuitous and varied. Smoke alarms, for instance, have been required in every American bedroom since 1993. We rarely think about them, except to grouse when they go off while we’re cooking. France, however, only began requiring residential smoke alarms in 2015. Switzerland, rated the safest country in the world in 2015 by one consumer-research firm, has not mandated them at all. There is not a simple, one-way progression from a state of nature to a state of safety. Even within nations, there are fundamental divisions about how we want to deal with risk.

Deciding what dangers to avoid sounds like a supremely rational process, on the face of it. You calculate the risk of an event (house fire, bicycle crash), the probability of the bad outcome (death), multiply them together, and get a number that tells you how likely the worst-case scenario is. Then you decide how you might defend against it. Get a smoke alarm. Wear a helmet.

The truth is, though, that at this point a number of things come between us and a rational decision. Over the last half century, researchers have uncovered systematic biases built into how we decide. These heuristics usually bring us to a good-enough solution swiftly, which may be one reason they’ve stuck around. But sometimes they generate peculiar errors.

We judge how likely something is, for instance, by how recently we’ve seen it happen. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call this the availability heuristic. On the one hand, it can generate a patina of reassurance that blinds us to real dangers. We regularly put our lives in the hands of doctors, whose image in our minds is of benevolence and healing. However, recent research has suggested that medical error may be the third most common cause of death in the US—in part, it seems, because while medicine is indeed capable of wonderful things, preventable human errors are not as well controlled as they are in fields like nuclear power.

The availability heuristic can also lead us to worry about things that almost never happen, just because we can imagine them so vividly. Less than one fatal shark attack has occurred per year in the United States over the last fifty years. Airlines have focused nearly superhuman attention on making flying one of the safest things you can do, and pilots often joke that the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport. Still, plane crashes are some of the most visible and damning of dangers, body parts and luggage shredded and scattered across the ground in a bizarre parody of arrival, and shark attacks are re-created and broadcast regularly, always available to our memory. Fear of both is pervasive. The availability heuristic might have been useful when humans only saw things happening in their physical vicinity: If you saw an attack, or an accident, you might be next. But we are now geographically and temporally separate from much of what we witness.

These and other mental shortcuts can complicate the process of deciding which dangers actually matter, and accounting for them—the grand human task of colonizing the future, as risk scholar Arwen Mohun, author of Risk: Negotiating Safety in American Society, puts it. Still, if deciding on the specifics is difficult, then the history of danger—the domestic variety, the kind that can strike you down in your daily life, on your bicycle on the way to the grocery store—reveals a growing expectation that we should protect one another through the tools of society.

On my bicycle, for many months, I manage to avoid any clear evidence of danger. I whisk along under the colossal banyan trees that line the campus roads. I mount a basket above the Five Rams’ front wheel and screw to the handlebars a length of metal piping to hold my open umbrella when I ride through typhoons. It is amazing how disaster continues to avoid me. I’ve gone my whole life believing it is around the corner, ready to leap the moment you let your guard down. The other shoe is resolutely not dropping.

My bike gets me places faster. I can go grocery shopping and ride home with apples bouncing in the basket while I studiously avoid looking at anyone else on the road. I am still not wearing a helmet. I’m getting something out of this risk, too—the freedom of leaping on my bike without thinking, the joy of the wind in my hair. Maybe the world is not as dangerous as it seems. (Some psychologists hypothesize that humans have a personal risk budget: When we make ourselves safe in one way, we allow ourselves more risk in another. Buy a safe car, drive it faster. Go skydiving, pack an extra parachute.)

Still, as the months pass, it becomes clear that while I may have the freedom to behave like a maniac on the road, there are other downsides to this local culture of risk. It’s no secret that the air quality in China leaves something to be desired. Nearly every day, the load of particulate matter in the air outside my house exceeds the healthy maximum set by the World Health Organization. Inside, like many anxious foreigners, I’ve rigged a set of air cleaners. In every room they whirr, fans pushing air through HEPA filters that accumulate a thick gray shag of particles: The invisible made grotesquely visible. I never turn them off. Some seasons, for days at a time, I don’t leave the house without a pollution mask, its soft white muzzle expanding and contracting as I breathe.

There is also the matter of food safety—avoiding foods with contaminants, whether solvents or bacteria. In China a number of serious scandals have made people wary of food; in one, melamine was mixed into baby formula to disguise the watering down of milk and boost profits, sickening hundreds of thousands. At customs and immigration in the Hong Kong train station, big placards warn travelers returning to the Mainland that they can take only two cans of baby formula per person. In one recent twelve-month period, 5,000 people were arrested for smuggling baby formula into the Mainland from Hong Kong, where safety is more stringent.

In the United States, similar events about a hundred years ago led to institutions that keep us safe today. Upton Sinclair’s description of wildly unsanitary meatpacking plants provoked the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, listing foods and medicines that could not be adulterated. The act wasn’t perfect, and more scandals provoked change. In 1937 in the US, children died screaming in pain after their parents gave them a cough syrup that turned out to contain diethylene glycol, added by the manufacturer to dissolve the syrup’s active ingredients. It wasn’t even illegal: The syrup, invented after the 1906 Act, was not on the list of regulated medicines. More than 100 people died, and the more rigorous Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act was passed in the aftermath, in 1938.

Incidents of this kind have fallen precipitously in the last twenty years, though the few that still occur are well publicized, says sociologist John Lang. In general, we are justified in handing off the responsibility for making sure our food is not poisonous to other people. “For me as a sociologist, it’s what happened starting in the Industrial Revolution when we decided to split up who does what job,” Lang says. “So it’s no longer my family growing my food, and harvesting my food, and preparing my food.” In return, we are supposed to be the best we can be at whatever profession our freedom allows us.

But the minute others start to fall down on the job of safety, we decide we need to take it on ourselves. And that is exhausting. By the end of my first year in China, I feel as if I am a one-person FDA. I buy all my food from a Costco-style grocer an hour away by bus that claims to use a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol for food safety, which in the US is required for many food companies. It still isn’t easy. After a text-message feud with a delivery service I use to spare myself the bus ride to the store—over the absence of the barcode tracking sticker that provides information on the origins of the eggs—I’m frustrated and surprised at myself. This is what it has come to. This is my life.

I describe my experience bicycling, and filtering air, and buying food, to Lynette Shaw, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies how we decide what is valuable. She laughs. It sounds like a situation with low social capital, she says. What’s missing is trust.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines social capital as “the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together.” The 1916 paper in which the phrase “social capital” first appears presents it even more simply: “goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit.”

This is the idea that you and the members of your community are more or less on the same page—that you agree on the rules and that they matter. Sociologist Robert Putnam and colleagues, who helped bring the concept of social capital to prominence in the late twentieth century, compared the regional governments of northern and southern Italy in the book Making Democracy Work. They found that the governments that functioned best—adopted budgets on time, made loans to farms, answered their mail promptly—were those of the northern areas that had historically been ruled by their inhabitants. In the south, Norman rulers had imposed order from above in true autocratic fashion in the Middle Ages: To question orders from the nobility was sacrilege, and rules were inflicted, rather than instated. In the modern era, these areas were far less orderly.

History may have shaped the regions’ modern allocations of social capital. “Collective life in the civic regions is eased by the expectation that others will probably follow the rules. Knowing that others will, you are more likely to go along, too, thus fulfilling their expectations,” Putnam writes. “The least civic regions are the most subject to the ancient plague of political corruption. They are the home of the Mafia and its regional variants.” It’s every man for himself (and those close to him) and against outsiders—you can’t trust the government to do what’s best, so you come up with your own ways around, more often than not based on a profound mistrust of others.

This unlocks, for me, the story of the rules of the road in my new home. People cut me off because they do not trust me to let them by when it’s their turn. To signal one’s intent is to ask to be taken advantage of. In societies with low trust, there isn’t much incentive to, for instance, abide by clean-air laws, or follow regulation to make food safer. People do not trust that others will do it. And in both cases, it’s cheaper not to.

But even within a society, Shaw says, different groups can have vastly different expectations, and nowhere is that clearer than in the political spectrum. Progressives feel that the single most important thing—the moral purpose of a government—is the prevention of harm. Conservatives also care about preventing harm, but they draw the line around a smaller number of people, and they emphasize the importance of personal agency. Which is more dangerous, the mistakes of private individuals or companies, or the mistakes of the government? Which is more dangerous, a terrorist, or a gun in the hand of a private citizen? A government that can see all our secrets or one that flies blind? A border that admits everyone or one that admits no one? 

On the evening of November 8 in the US, I am on a bus in China. I have just been to the American clinic to get a flu shot. I interrupt the ever-present dialogue of risk—Do I trust the Chinese vaccine manufacturer? Was it properly refrigerated? Will I experience side effects?—and check my phone. At this point I am not really surprised by the results of the election. All I feel is the dull clang as the gate slams closed on one version of reality and we progress, one minute after another, into a new and unknown future.

In the weeks that follow, I realize that many of the things I took for granted about my own country are not as simple as they seem. America, the mirror I held up against my new home in a daily attempt to diagnose the things that bewilder and frustrate me, now seems like an alien place. All bets are off, all expectations thrown to the wind. As I strap on my pollution mask against the particulates from the factories and coal-burning power plants, pumping out picture books and zippers, pumping out money and carbon, I wonder whether, in coming to China, I have stepped into America’s future, not its past.

Most people do not realize just how deeply their expectations run, nor how profoundly they believe that they are universal. It is existentially shattering to find that this is not the case. These divisions about what we want our government to do have always been there, but they have led us to a peculiar place. “Human beings have been trying to figure out how to get control over the future probably since they’ve developed a sense of time,” says Mohun, the historian of risk. With regulation, with control, we have been able to reach ahead and pluck our fate from the hands of chance—with trade-offs that make some people uneasy. “The question now is whether the trade-offs are worth it to people who have power,” Mohun continues. “The regulatory state is really under question.” For want of trust, something valuable was lost, I hear over and over again in my head. The benefits of civilization are unreapable by isolated individuals.

Several mornings in a row in late January, deep in thought, I pass a man piloting a backhoe at high speed down the main road of campus, a dozen garbage bags mounded in the scoop, a jury-rigged garbage truck. I feel a swell of desperate fondness for my country, where this would probably not be tolerated, and for this other one, on the other side of the world, where people forge ahead in the most unpredictable circumstances. On my bike, I smile at him. He, on his roaring yellow steed, breaks in to a ridiculous grin.

We are all bicycling in China now. The week of the inauguration, I buy a helmet.


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Stan's picture
Stan · 6 years ago

You've done a wonderful job of capturing what happens in a society with less collective trust. But I am still filled with wonder about what Americans still trust, and this decency is quite distinct from what I've seen in parts of Asia. Your thoughts on what we might do to build trust?


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