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Marcela Gutierrez of Valley Stream, N.Y., looks at an Israeli gas mask while shopping at a military surplus store Monday.
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msnbc.com contributor

Americans are possibly more afraid than they have ever been. Afraid enough to buy gas masks and guns, afraid enough to see the most innocuous events as sinister and threatening, even afraid enough to treat neighbors as the enemy if they don’t look right. As Franklin Roosevelt said of the Depression in his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” So it may be useful to understand the science that explains the roots of fear.

The human species tends to perceive risks within certain patterns. We’re all afraid of similar things, for similar reasons. The field of science that studies these patterns is called “risk perception.” Researchers like Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischoff, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman and others have identified roughly two dozen risk-perception factors — characteristics of risks that make us more, or less, afraid. These are the subconscious tools we use to “decide” what to be afraid of and how afraid to be.

These tools developed over evolutionary time, as the organisms that learned how to recognize and respond to danger survived, and those that didn’t — didn’t. The patterns of how the human animal perceives and responds to risk have their roots in an ancient past that predates humans, and certainly predates the relatively recent development of our modern thinking brains. This may explain why we respond to risk so much more with fear than with cold factual analysis.

Here are the risk-perception factors that help us understand why our fear right now is so high.

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Dread
What are you more afraid of: being eaten by a shark or dying of a heart attack in your sleep? Both leave you equally as dead, but one — being eaten alive — is a more dreadful way to go. Risk perception research has found that we are more afraid of risks that kill us in really awful ways than risks that lead to deaths that are more peaceful. Deaths from acts of terrorism rate high on the “Dread” scale.

Awareness
What risks are you aware of these days? Anthrax attack or other biological or chemical terrorism, airplane hijackings, bombings — in short, risks of terrorism. Are you aware of global climate change, or street crime, or mad cow disease? These risks haven’t gone away. They just aren’t on the radar screen of our daily consciousness right now. We tend, as a species, to be more afraid of risks we’re more aware of. Terrorism also rates high on the “Awareness” scale.

New vs. familiar
We have never faced this kind of terrorist threat before. It’s new. Risk-perception research finds that we are much more afraid of risks that are new, and less afraid of risks once we’ve lived with them for a while and gotten familiar with them. Compare the paralytic effect of fear on us right now, to the way people in London and Jerusalem are living their lives. They have gotten used to the threat of terrorism, put it in perspective, and found ways to rein in their fear to something more reasonable. Or compare the moderate concern about West Nile virus in New York this past summer to the panic that gripped many New Yorkers a couple summers back when the disease first showed up. The risk isn’t gone, and people are not un-afraid. But they are less afraid now that they’ve lived with the risk long enough to put it in perspective. Like the people in London and Jerusalem, this is probably how we will adjust in the months ahead, even if occasional attacks continue.

Me vs. them
As never before, the risk of terrorism is now real for each one of us in America. Before, it used to be something that might happen to “them,” somewhere else. Even when it was Americans who were attacked, they were in embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, military housing in Saudi Arabia or on a ship in Yemen. Now, as never before, the risk is to you and me, not just “them.” When we see any risk as a risk to ourselves, we are more afraid than if we see the same risk as only threatening somebody else.

Catastrophic VS. chronic
We are also more afraid of risks that kill a lot of us, all at once in one place, than risks that kill us here and there, over time. In the next 12 months, 120 times more Americans will die of heart disease than died in the Sept. 11 attacks. But they will die here and there and everywhere, over time. Terrorist victims, or people who die in plane crashes, train crashes, mass crimes, fires or explosions, all die at once, in one place. Terrorism rates as high as possible on the “Catastrophic vs. Chronic” scale.

Uncertainty
Finally, our fear is being fed by the risk perception factor of “Uncertainty.” We don’t know what may come next, or when, or where, or even who the bad guys really are, or where they are, or whether they are among us. The more uncertain we are, say the risk-perception studies, the more afraid we are.

The realities of risk
As Roosevelt said, our fear is now the greater risk. Afraid of flying, we drive — which dramatically increases our overall risk of injury or death (Between 40,000 and 45,000 Americans will die in motor vehicle crashes over the next 12 months.)

Living under higher levels of worry and stress, our bodies secrete more adrenaline, which suppresses the immune system, which makes us much more vulnerable to all kinds of disease. As we alter our lifestyles — cancel vacations, dine out less, shop less — we do more than damage the economy. We cost people their jobs and their ability to afford food and health care for themselves and their families.

In terms of statistical probability, the risk that you or I will be a victim of terrorism is phenomenally low. It’s certainly higher than it was on Sept. 10 — nevertheless, it’s still phenomenally low.

But risk perception is a matter of emotion more than rational factual analysis. We are facing a risk that is new, catastrophic, dreadful, personal and full of uncertainty — a risk that is dominating our awareness. These powerful emotional triggers are the roots that explain why we are so afraid. They explain why behaviors that in one way seem so irrational, in another way make so much sense.

Dealing with fear factors
Armed with this information, we can work on our fears, one factor at a time — not to make them go away, but perhaps to put them in perspective.

When it comes to awareness, for instance, why not flip on some tunes on the car radio instead of listening only to the news? Or maybe watch a ball game or a movie on TV, instead of news and information 24/7?

When it comes to the “new” factor, remember some other risk that was really scary when it first showed up but got to be less frightening after you had lived with it for a while, like West Nile virus in New York and Boston, for example. Or you might want to think about how Israelis, Londoners, Parisians and other people who have lived with terrorism have put their fear in perspective because they’ve lived with it long enough to make more experienced judgments about it. Let’s hope we can put it in perspective as well.

The risk of terrorism can’t be measured in accurate specific numbers. It will always remain uncertain. But so is the risk that you’ll get cancer, or that you might be hurt or killed in an accident. Maybe that’ll help keep our uncertainty about terrorism in perspective.

And don’t forget that while the risk of terrorism is definitely higher than it was on Sept. 11, it’s still really low for any given individual. The risk to society may be more than we’d like, but your personal risk is still really small, much smaller than many of the risks we all take in our daily lives.

Fear is a powerful emotion with deep roots. The challenge isn’t so much to make it go away as to keep it in perspective, so our behaviors don’t end up making things worse.

“Gee-Whiz Science” columnist David Ropeik is a longtime science journalist and currently serves as Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

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