What we fear probably won't hurt us

Sniper shootings coverage
In providing the first inside account of the sniper shootings, Lee Boyd Malvo offered a graphic reminder of why the region was gripped by fear for three weeks in October 2002. The killings were random, senseless, horrific. They were meant to scare us, and they worked.

Baltimore, Malvo testified last week, was to be "Phase 2" of the campaign, featuring explosives aimed at police officers and school buses. Had that happened, the fear that had people darting through parking lots and canceling outdoor sports in the Washington area would have magnified and spread.

"It was more terrifying than I expected," Mary Branch, a regular rider on the bus driven by the last sniper victim, told The Sun. "We had a reason to be scared."

Although Malvo's testimony shows that Baltimoreans were literally in the snipers' cross hairs (Malvo said he couldn't pull the trigger on a pregnant woman in the city), at the time residents of the region were concerned but not fearful. We didn't alter our lives or cancel high school sports.

Should we have?

Psychologists and experts in risk assessment say the fear created by the snipers, although understandable, was not entirely warranted. During the attacks, 10 people were killed in a region that is home to nearly 8 million.

Your odds of being a sniper victim were about 1 in 800,000 - roughly the same odds that you will drown in the bathtub in any given year. Yet that keeps few people out of bathtubs.

"There's always a mismatch between the public's perception of risk and the objective reality, the true level of risk," said Kenneth Beck, a professor of public and community health at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We tend to overestimate rare but catastrophic events, and we tend to underestimate common, chronic events."

Part of the reason for this is what risk-perception experts call the availability bias. As more information becomes available about an event, it dominates our thoughts. It is hard for us to separate blanket news coverage of a disaster from the low chance that it will happen to us.

"Certain rare but catastrophic events, because of their newsworthiness - like a plane crash or the random shootings that took place - generate an exorbitant amount of publicity that raises the level of risk beyond their actual [probability of] occurrence," Beck said.

Psychology has identified four influences that determine what we fear, according to David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan.

The first influence is our ancestral history. The threats to our ancestors were things like snakes, lizards and spiders - so we still fear those animals, even though they combined to kill just 13 Americans in 2002, according to the National Safety Council. More people died from dog bites (18), but we invite dogs into our homes. For the same ancestral reason, our caution regarding heights and confined spaces leads to a fear of flying, even though driving to the airport is more dangerous.

Second, Myers said, we fear what we can't control. We fear flying more than driving because we feel we are in control of the car, but we know we're not in control of the plane. We ski, even though it's risky, because we think we can control what happens. But people fear the remote possibility of poisoning from certain foods - mad cow disease? - because it's out of their control.

Third, we fear the immediate. This is why so many people smoke; the risks are far down the road. The threats that are right in front of us, such as the landing of a plane or walking through a dangerous neighborhood, are more scary to us.

And fourth, we fear what's readily available in our memory. After Sept. 11, we feared another terrorist attack because we had just lived through one. This year, fear of hurricanes will undoubtedly be heightened because we remember Katrina so vividly.

Myers says the sniper attacks met three of those four criteria - they were out of our control, they were immediate and they were imprinted on our memory. It's no wonder we were so scared.

"This was a horrific, dramatic event that was vividly portrayed by the media and easily pictured by the human mind," Myers said. "People were helpless, and the threat was now. The threat was not in the distant future, like smoking or global warming. It was very understandable that people would respond with great fear in this situation."

He added, "It's those threats that kill us dramatically and in bunches that we most fear."

As the sniper shootings fade from memory - it has been almost four years - our fear diminishes. This is evident in how convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad is treated at his ongoing trial in Montgomery County. Acting as his own attorney, Muhammad dresses in a suit every day and has some free movement in the courtroom as he questions witnesses.

Anyone can walk off the street and into the courtroom; most of the time, there are hundreds of empty seats. School classes come and go, treating the trial as a field trip and Muhammad as a curiosity.

"It was less dramatic than I expected," said Adam Newman, 18, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, after spending an hour in the courtroom. "He gets so much respect."

It was a different scene at Muhammad's first trial, in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2003. He was treated with respect by the court, but those who wanted to enter the courtroom had to have their name on a list and pass through two metal detectors. Two armed sheriff's deputies stood behind Muhammad at all times, even when he was seated at the defense table.

It wasn't clear whether they were protecting Muhammad from the spectators or vice versa. Jurors said that when they got close to him, they felt fearful. At one point in the trial, the jury was taken to a garage to see the blue Chevrolet Caprice that Muhammad had retrofitted as a sniper's lair. Muhammad stood near the jurors as they examined the car.

"I felt horribly uncomfortable," juror Elizabeth Young said after the trial. "I hadn't seen him standing up, up close, before. I realized, gosh, this is a pretty big and powerful person."

During the sniper attacks, John Harrald lived a quarter-mile from the Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., where Linda Franklin was killed. He didn't shield himself when pumping gas or alter his lifestyle, but he understands why others did.

"Two things are driving that," said Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. "One is the availability bias. We can imagine it because we see it. And two is the consequence is particularly dreadful."

He sees Hurricane Katrina having a similar effect. Harrald now lives in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, and his neighbors are taking the threat of hurricanes more seriously than before. That makes sense emotionally but perhaps not rationally.

"What it means," he jokes, "is the next natural disaster will probably be an earthquake."