We Are Not As Evolved As We Think

Chances are the things you most worried about are the least of your worries! Here’s how to tell real risks from imagined ones.

Fear feels like anything but a cool detached calculation of the odds. But that’s exactly what it is – a lightning-fast risk assessment performed by the reptilian brain, which is constantly on the lookout for danger. The amygdala (part of the cerebrum) flags perceptions, sends out an alarm message and, before you have a chance to think, your system gets flooded with adrenaline. ‘This is the way our ancestors evaluated risk before we had statistics,’ says Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, an American research organisation that investigates human judgement, decision making and risk. Emotions are decision-making short cuts.
As a result of these emotional problem-solving procedures, ancient threats such as spiders and snakes cause fear that’s out of proportion to the real danger they pose, while experiences that should frighten us don’t – for instance, fast driving. This is because dangers such as speedy motorised vehicles are relative newcomers to the world. Our instinctive response to being approached rapidly is to freeze and, while this would have worked in the ancestral environment (a predator would be less likely to see us), it doesn’t help when what’s speeding towards us is a car.