One of the ways we humans distinguish ourselves from the rest of the species on the planet, is our cognitive ability. Our capacity to reason, to use logical and abstract thought, is what has enabled us to go from being nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic “stone age” to  the modern era, from flint knives and tools made of bone to walking on the moon!  We reflect on the past, recognize patterns, correlate cause and effect, and calculate the odds of future events. We have dreams, imagine abstract concepts, and experience emotions like love, fear, and anger.

Our brain does more than just store data and contemplate the meaning of the universe. It contains our body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls all of our unconscious, “automatic” activities, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory. It also is the driver behind our so-called fight or flight response. This instinctual response is powerful and fast, and for good reasons. When suddenly faced with a life or death level threat, the immediacy and intensity of the response is paramount.

This whole system works pretty well, as witnessed by how far humanity has come over the millennia. We have our minds to thank for all of the advancements we are surrounded by in our daily lives. However, there are some kinks in the program, and these can result in a full spectrum of negative consequences.

In the presence of imminent danger, fear is the result of a healthy, natural, and powerful response. It is an autonomic response in which the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain, quickly responds and prepares us for survival. The ensuing dump of hormones increases your heart rate, shortens your breathing, and  prepares your muscles to explode into action. Your mind and vision become more focused on the task at hand. In this state, you are primed to fight, or to take flight.

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fear is also an emotion elicited in response to things we perceive to be threatening. We might be afraid of heights, speaking in front of an audience, or flying in a plane. To feel a bit anxious in any of these situations would be considered normal. If the fear is debilitating to the point of negatively effecting one’s life, however, then taking the time to assess the actual risk could be helpful. This is where things get a bit tricky, because we are terrible at assessing risk.

Our modern world is much more complex than that of our ancient ancestors. We now live predominately in densely populated, urban settings surrounded by fast moving technology. Our access to information via television, radio, and the internet is exploding exponentially. All of this information provides the opportunity for us to become more well-informed, and thereby to be better at risk analysis. However, there are some barriers that hinder that ability.

Our mind constantly handles so much information, that we’ve developed various psychological mechanisms to help sort through it all and speed up the process of decision making. These heuristics provide shortcuts to help streamline our thought process. We often refer to them as “a rule of thumb,” “stereotyping,” or “intuition.” Heuristics often lead to a variety of cognitive biases, and while heuristics and biases help us come to quicker conclusions, they can also lead to grave errors in judgement. This is especially true when it comes to assessing risk.

It’s also important to note that all of that information we have access to is filtered in a number of ways, such that we are generally working with just a portion of the “facts.” If your source for information is the news, it’s important to remember this: that which is newsworthy is the outlier, the anomalous. Reporting the norm, sadly, is rather boring. “Today, just like yesterday, and the day before that, 150,000,000 Americans went to work.” “50.7 million children attended over 98,000 public schools today, and will be all week long.” That’s not what the headlines look like though, is it? Instead, it’s, “Earthquake Destroys Village, Death Toll 300 and Rising,” “Train Wreck in Countryside Leaves 120 Dead, 300 Injured!”

False Expectations Appearing Real

The availability heuristic is the tendency to judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind. This worked great for our great-great-great-great (you get the idea) ancestors. When they saw their buddy get mauled by a saber-tooth tiger, that threat became paramount: “saber-tooth tiger – BAD.” In our modern society, we don’t have to worry too much about being mauled by a tiger. In fact, when one looks at the actual statistics, we find that for the past 25 years our lives have continually gotten safer. Violent crime in the U.S. has been on an overall decline since their peak in the early ’90’s (and that includes the slight uptick for the past two years).


Traffic safety has also been steadily improving. This is good news, as automobiles are one of the top causes of accidental death in the U.S. (37,757 in 2015, or 11.7 per 100,000)

traffic deaths graph
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

So why is it that a majority of Americans feel less safe than ever, when the reality is the opposite? In large part, we can thank our availability heuristic. Every time we see a heinous crime on television, or on the internet, that visceral image becomes dominant in our mind. A singular event portrayed over and over again becomes larger than life. We give it undue influence on our assessment of it’s frequency, and how likely it is to happen again. In this manner, our fear grows beyond reason, as a False Expectation Appearing Real.

What can we, as martial artists, do to remain calm in the face of the proverbial storm? How can we keep our head, and make sound decisions for our future, without allowing our emotions, our fear, to cloud our judgement? The first step is in acknowledging that such biases as our availability heuristic have an impact on our perspective. Second, when it comes to risk assessment, people really should study actual statistics, which can help clear up misconceptions. Here are a few resources:

Third, in my opinion, is to stop watching the news. These organizations do a poor job of presenting material in a manner that isn’t intentionally inflammatory, over-sensationalized, and down-right misleading. They want you ticked off, and/or scared. It sells.

Turn off the television, get on the mat and train.

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