Emotions make us fear recent threats more than old ones

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Led by Leaf Van Boven, a professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the study, in one part, focussed on terrorist threats using materials adapted from the US Department of Homeland Security. The researchers presented two scenarios to people in a college laboratory depicting warnings about travelling abroad to two countries. The participants were then asked to report which country seemed to have greater terrorist threats. Many of them reported that the country they last read about was more dangerous. “What our study has shown is that when people learn about risks, even in very rapid succession where the information is presented to them in a very clear and vivid way, they still respond more strongly to what is right in front of them,” Van Boven said. Keeping that in mind, Van Boven said that one of the take-home messages from the study is that when communicating to the public, people must be mindful of how and when they publicise threats, which is a tall task in the around-the-clock news cycle of today. “Whatever the threat of the season is can ”crowd out” concern about other threats even if those other threats are actually more dangerous. Because we are so emotionally influenced when it comes to assessing and reacting to threats, we may ignore very dangerous threats that happen not to be very emotionally arousing,” said Van Boven. He said that human emotions stem from a very old system in the brain and when it comes to reacting to threats, real or exaggerated, it goes against the grain of thousands of years of evolution to just turn off that emotional reaction. It’s not something most people can do. “And that’s a problem, because people’s emotions are fundamental to their judgments and decisions in everyday life. When people are constantly being bombarded by new threats or things to be fearful of, they can forget about the genuinely big problems, like global warming, which really need to be dealt with on a large scale with public support,” said Van Boven. He added that the in today’s 24-hour society, talk radio, the Internet and extensive media coverage of the “threat of the day” only exacerbate the trait of focusing on our immediate emotions. “One of the things we know about how emotional reactions work is they are not very objective, so people can get outraged or become fearful of what might actually be a relatively minor threat. One worry is some people are aware of these kinds of effects and can use them to manipulate our actions in ways that we may prefer to avoid,” he said.


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