Book Review: The Science of Fear
Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear was published last July, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. That was a big mistake. It’s a fantastic look at how how humans deal with fear: exactly the kind of thing I have been reading and writing about for the past couple of years. It’s the book I wanted to write, and it’s a great read.
Gardner writes about how the brain processes fear and risk, how it assesses probability and likelihood, and how it makes decisions under uncertainty. The book talks about all the interesting psychological studies — cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, experimental philosophy — that illuminate how we think and act regarding fear. The book also talks about how fear is used to influence people, by marketers, by politicians, by the media. And lastly, the book talks about different areas where fear plays a part: health, crime, terrorism.
There have been a lot of books published recently that apply these new paradigms of human psychology to different domains — to randomness, to traffic, to rationality, to art, to religion, and etc. — but after you read a few you start seeing the same dozen psychology experiments over and over again. Even I did it, when I wrote about the psychology of security. But Gardner’s book is different: he goes further, explains more, demonstrates his point with the more obscure experiments that most authors don’t bother seeking out. His writing style is both easy to read and informative, a nice mix of data an anecdote. The flow of the book makes sense. And his analysis is spot-on.
My only problem with the book is that Gardner doesn’t use standard names for the various brain heuristics he talks about. Yes, his names are more intuitive and evocative, but they’re wrong. If you have already read other books in the field, this is annoying because you have to constantly translate into standard terminology. And if you haven’t read anything else in the field, this is a real problem because you’ll be needlessly confused when you read about these things in other books and articles.
So here’s a handy conversion chart. Print it out and tape it to the inside front cover. Print another copy out and use it as a bookmark.
- Rule of Typical Things = representativeness heuristic
- Example Rule = availability heuristic
- Good-Bad Rule = affect heuristic
- confirmation bias = confirmation bias
That’s it. That’s the only thing I didn’t like about the book. Otherwise, it’s perfect. It’s the book I wish I had written. Only I don’t think I would have done as good a job as Gardner did. The Science of Fear should be required reading for…well, for everyone.
Here’s a link from Powell’s, if you’re boycotting Amazon.