Monday, July 03, 2006

Daniel Gilbert on the psychology of threat perceptions

The editors of the Los Angeles Times asked Danil Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness:

... [For] some reason [people] don’t seem to get bent out of shape over global warming. What can psychology tell us about that?

Gilbert says on his blog:

I don’t know if I’d ever thought about this question consciously before, but I must have been thinking about it unconsciously for quite some time because once the question was posed, the answers came quickly. ... I keep having the odd thought that I will someday look back on this and realize that it was the only important thing I ever wrote.

The LATimes column that was born out of this exercise is available in the same post. In it, Gilbert identifies four possible reasons for why we don't take global warning seriously, even though the odds of lower Manhattan turning into an aquarium (due to global warming) are "better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb". Here's the first one:

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

As they say, read the whole thing.