The Psychology of Uncertainty
The news of the bombings in Paris brought back my memories of the London bombings of 7/7. The terrible anxiety for loved ones who might be involved, then the more chronic anxiety of how dangerous London might be in the future. I remembered thinking of different locations that could be ‘obvious’ targets and maybe I would avoid these. The panic passed and I do travel on the underground and fly but once again I am reminded of the anxiety and I find myself wondering where will be ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe’.
The use of the quotation marks says it all. We don’t know what is ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ and that is the problem. The randomness of the attacks, the killings in places where loved ones or we could happen to be is what is so terrifying. We cannot assess the risk with any degree of accuracy.
I noted my reactions when I first heard the news of the Paris bombings. I thought of friends who were working just outside of Paris but then decided that it was unlikely that they would be in Paris that evening. The next thought was ‘but they just might be’. The stab of anxiety that this thought evoked meant I had to telephone just to check. For five minutes there was no answer to the phone call. The fear ‘they just might be’ became much more real even though it was not.
When worried we often tend to anticipate the worst rather than make more optimistic and realistic assumptions
When worried we often tend to anticipate the worst rather than make more optimistic and realistic assumptions. Human beings find the helplessness of the unknown very difficult to deal with. We tend to fill in the gaps with explanations that are not necessarily accurate and we ‘avoid’ in order to try and manage our anxiety. I won’t fly or I won’t travel to that place. We know that tourism will be hit in Paris just as it was in London after the bombings and has been in Tunisia and Egypt. But we all continue to travel in cars and walk in streets where the likelihood of a serious accident or death is much higher than death by terrorist action. I was surprised to find that in 2013 over 1,700 died on the road in the UK.
The fear that a terrorist can instil in a population is enormous. Scenes of carnage show the reality of the fragility of our existence and it calls into action immediate thoughts on how can we best protect ourselves. When frightened we think less clearly and rational thought is often a casualty. Trust and tolerance is also damaged when we feel under threat. We want answers that can make us feel safer and blaming religious Muslims is one answer even if it is the wrong answer. Rising racism and anti-Muslim feeling will not improve our situation. Good security is based on accurate information not on prejudice.
To live without risk is not to live at all
We all live risky lives. We go up and down stairs not expecting to fall and break our necks. We walk the streets, we get into cars and we fly and take trains. All these actions carry risk. We continue to drink alcohol, eat foods we shouldn’t and not exercise enough. We live with the risk because we tell ourselves the chances are it will be OK. And it usually is. To live without risk is not to live at all.
So that is what we have to remember and tell ourselves when we go about our lives. No-one can promise that nothing bad will happen but we do know that living as if it is going to happen is no way to live. We need to make sensible assessments and take sensible precautions. We try and drive carefully, we cross roads with care. We might even watch what we eat and drink. We fly with airlines with good safety records. But above all we have to remember and tell ourselves that just because we are anxious about something does not mean it will happen.