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16 August 2012

Nonrational Fears

One way to distinguish sociology from commonsensical conceptions of human behavior and from the theoretical perspectives of other academic disciplines (namely economics) is to point to what Randall Collins has called the nonrational bases of society. In the first substantive class of the semester in my intro to soc sections, I like to use aviation and automobile fatality statistics to demonstrate the concept.

I start by asking the class with a show of hands how many think that, generally, on a day-in/day-out basis, they behave logically, rationally, and consistently. Virtually everyone will raise his/her hand. (There's always one or two in a class who have already been convinced from the reading, though.) Then, I show a clip from the film Fight Club in which the protagonist, Jack (Ed Norton), explains to a random passenger on a plane how his job requires him to do a cost-benefit analysis of whether to do a recall on unsafe cars and then has a psychotic fantasy about a midair collision. (It is in chapters 8 and 9 of the DVD from around 0:20:18 to 0:21:55.) After this, I ask the class by a show of hands again how many of them are in some way scared of or at least in some way uncomfortable flying. Most of the hands in the room will go up. I then ask them how many are afraid of driving in a car. One or two hands will go up. At this point, I ask the class to get into small groups and to come up with a threshold for the number of fatalities that would have to happen in a given year to keep them from getting on a plane out of fear. We share the numbers with each other and discuss how they arrived at them. Then, I ask them to go back to their small groups and come up with a threshold that would keep them from getting in a car out of fear. (Inevitably, the students want to think in terms of likelihoods and percentages instead of raw counts.) The numbers for the cars are inevitably higher than for planes. I ask them why since reason should dictate that dying is dying and the means shouldn't matter. Eventually, someone will note that, while people don't generally need to travel by plane, we have organized our society in a way that makes forgoing the automobile nearly impossible. We discuss this for a while, and I hammer home the point that we often have social organization and cultures that lead us to behaviors that may be less than rational on the individual level but that are (in some ways) necessary on the larger, social scale. Here is where I hit them with the statistics. The aviation figures can be found here, and the motor vehicle figures can be found here. (I typically report the raw fatalities in a given year along with the Fatalities per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled and Fatalities per 100,000 Population for direct comparison purposes.) Finally, I ask the class how many have now been swayed, how many are now more scared of traveling by car than by plane. No one will raise her or his hand at which point I ask, "But, you said you behaved rationally; isn't it rational to be terrified of cars and not of planes?" Then, I return to the question that I started with: with a show of hands, how many think that, generally, on a day-in/day-out basis, you behave logically, rationally, and consistently?

(I sometimes also point out that there is an entire industry of psychological clinicians who make a healthy living by doing nothing other than treating people's fear of flying; on the other hand, no practitioners specialize in treating the fear of driving [although some do treat this as part of the range of anxiety disorders].)

I've found that by starting the semester with this exercise that students are better primed to accept most of the other claims that I'll throw at them. (It also sets the stage to introduce the class later to Berry Glassner's culture of fear argument.) By tearing down their facade of rationality, the students become much more willing to entertain the sociological perspective.

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