Risk perception: What are you afraid of?

The demand for unpasteurized milk and vaccine-free kids in the Western world prompts a question: what are you afraid of?

risk.perception.2Maura Rhodes of Parade writes that sociologists often refer to fears shared by a group as “moral panics.”  The Holocaust and 9/11 were certainly legitimate reasons for large groups of people to be afraid. But some pretty silly stuff has triggered mass panic over the years. In 1878, for example, a New York Times editorial suggested that Thomas Edison had “invented too many things” and that “something ought to be done to Mr. Edison, and there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with hemp rope.” Around the same time, folks were up in arms about the danger of “selfish and unsocial species of warfare which two of a company carry on for hours together.” The evil activity in question? Chess! (Take that, Minecraft!)

So, why, despite our lofty perch on the evolutionary tree of life, do we of opposable thumbs and logic-capable minds break into en masse sweat in response to things that are as likely to harm us as reindeer are to fly?

Survival Over Common Sense

It turns out that when it comes to fear, our superior brains are no more superior than, well, a reindeer’s—or even a bacterium’s.

“The human brain is a survival machine, not a figure-it-out computer,” says risk perception expert David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. “After you wake up in the morning, its primary job is to get you safely to bed at night, not to get good grades or discover something.”

To do this, the brain relies on what neuroscientist Dr. Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, refers to as “threat-triggered defense responses”—the clammy hands, goose bumps, weak knees and other sensations that we associate with fear (see Your Body On Fear, page 6).

risk.perceptionThese defense responses have nothing to do with reason. The part of the brain that detects danger, the amygdala, is simply a switch that flips on so that the body can react—ASAP—to a potential threat. Because of its location in the brain, it receives sensory information before the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, explains Ropeik. That means that the body will go into fight-flight-or-freeze mode before our minds can make sense of what’s going on. More importantly, it means that it’s only human to experience so-called irrational fear. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

Of course, news outlets stoke the fire of collective fear. “The media loves to tap into the fear response because it doesn’t engage with the rational mind. Scary headlines and disturbing images are captivating,” says sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr, whose book Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear comes out in October.

Adds Dr. Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology and the lead researcher of the Chapman University Survey on American Fears (see Fear This, Not That, page 5): “People often don’t realize that when they’re watching the news they’re watching the worst possible scenario. That’s why it’s news: A serial killer gets airtime because he’s rare, not because serial murders are on the rise.”

Raw milk advocates unfazed by bacteria outbreak

With another five people sick with Campylobacter from another in an endless line of outbreaks, the popularity of raw milk seems to be increasing.

Or so say raw milk proponents, like those quoted in the Lehigh Valley.

Farmer Layne Klein swears by the health benefits of raw milk, and says his Klein Farms Dairy & Creamery takes all the necessary steps to ensure its milk is safe to drink, and customers can take a look at the cows when they colbert.raw.milkvisit. “We have nothing to hide. We drink it ourselves, so we make sure it’s perfectly clean. … We just keep getting busier and busier.”

Maybe customers are outfitted with those ultra-sensitive bacteria-detecting goggles I keep hearing about, especially when there is an outbreak.

Or, like organic, local, natural, sustainable and dolphin-free, the latest food movement is pushed along by PR, celebrity endorsements, a compliant media, self-interest better profit margins and a human willingness to believe.

For all the positive press organic has received over the years, it should dominate retail sales. It doesn’t.

Raw milk sales are a sliver of conventional milk sales, yet consume a wildly disproportionate amount of electronic gibbering, a wildly disproportionate number of sick people, and a wildly disproportionate chomp of scarce public health resources.

Consumers can choose whatever they want. But there is nothing available for consumers to choose microbiologically safe food – the bugs that make people sick.

Bizarre foods or bizarre perceptions of risk?

Aisha P. Salazar, a graduate student at Kansas State University, writes:

I love traveling and eating just about anything in sight. My only rule is that food can’t be too spicy. That’s why ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern’ is one of my favorite shows. I recently found an old episode where he was visiting Ecuador, my parent’s native country. I have been to Ecuador several times since birth, but I got to thinking Zimmern must either have an incredibly tolerant stomach and intestines, or he must spend a lot of time on the toilet and it’s never captured on camera. I say this because he eats the oddest foods all over the world, even at local stands along the road, with apparently no gastrointestinal effect.

The last time I visited Ecuador was about two years ago. I went to different towns and ate all the street food in sight—beef, pork, mote, rice, plantains. I actually drew the line at the cuy because they didn’t look fully cooked and were in the least sanitary locations of all the food, though I have eaten it in the past and it’s really good. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten everything because of the variable sanitation standards, but I ate…and I got sick. I got the worst case of food poisoning I had ever experienced (I’m talking both ends, doubled over in severe pain for two days, unable to stomach anything for an additional two or more days).

It seemed that Zimmern takes precautionary measures by not eating from local stands at all times, but even when I eat at friend’s houses or restaurants I can come up with a bad case of the runs. It made me wonder what he does to prepare himself to prevent a run-in with a toilet and what he would do if he were to get sick. I don’t see any of the cooks using thermometers and he often eats raw foods. So how does he do it and what is his perception of risk? I decided to e-mail him and ask. Hopefully he, or someone working with him, will get back to me. The show’s website states they will be devoting an hour long Halloween Special to the topic of culture and food. He’ll also have an online Q&A session on October 21st.

I often don’t heed the advice of my own field, eating everything from sushi to unpasteurized cheese to alfalfa sprouts. In fact, right before one spring break in college my professor had talked to us about the risk of eating raw oysters and acquiring food poisoning from Vibrio cholera. I, of course, went to New Orleans and ate raw oysters the moment I arrived. I survived unscathed yet, even after several incidents of food poisoning, I still take the risk.

But where does my own perception of risk associated with foods come from? How is it different from the next person’s? Is one influenced by old wise tales, cultural norms, or scientific facts, or even blessed with good genes? Or is it a matter of adjusting one’s intestines to certain pathogens? How tolerant is a native person to certain foods compared to a foreigner? Or does your vulnerability to foodborne illness relate to your perception of risk? (For vulnerabilities, see ‘Who is at risk?’  and ‘Food safety in pregnancy is not simple’ ). Doug Powell often talks about creating a culture of safe food; reducing the risk begins with changing behaviors and spreading knowledge. I recommend Zimmern include a warning statement in his shows, informing the public of dangers that can result from eating certain foods. It would benefit travelers and spread the culture of safe food.

This topic has been on my mind for a couple of years, and pretty much anytime I travel, yet I haven’t bothered researching it. Instead, I go on blindly eating the foods I love and hope I don’t die from them. This doesn’t mean I’m not careful when I or anybody in my family cooks, but I’ve noticed my own risks seem to be greater when I’m eating outside my own home. My friends can tell you how ironic it is that I’m studying food safety yet I always get food poisoning. I found it ironic that Zimmern is the international spokesman for Pepto-Bismol. If only Pepto and Mylanta knew how much I relied on them. Then again, I’m not sure I’d like to be the face of Mylanta. I’m probably better off changing my own food rules and reducing my chances of getting sick.

We all pick our own poisons.