I don’t know you. But I’m guessing I can still tell you something important about yourself: You are more freaked out about the world — especially the other people in it — than you should be.
For starters, you are reading this, which means you consume at least some news media. And the news is, lately, a scary place. Perhaps you saw some stunning graphs recently that depicted the most common actual causes of death in the United States, the causes of death most commonly searched for online and those that get the most news coverage. In reality, most people die of diseases of old age, such as heart disease and cancer. By contrast, more than half of news coverage is devoted to homicides and terrorism, which account for a minuscule fraction — less than 1 percent — of actual deaths. Perhaps as a result, about 10 percent of white-knuckled web searches for likely causes of death are for these largely unlikely outcomes.
We disproportionately buy, click on and share scary stories about people killing other people. And for this, you can blame your brain. Your brain’s most important job is to take in information about the messy, confusing world we inhabit, find patterns embedded in the noise and use them to make predictions about the future. Brains particularly like actionable intelligence — and the most useful information pertains to threats that can be avoided, thus increasing your odds of survival.
Heart disease and strokes don’t provide much fodder for this prediction machine. We know why they happen: because we get old. Talk about unactionable intelligence. The best you can do is stave them off for a while by doing things we already know are healthy: Eat well, exercise, don’t smoke. You can almost hear your brain yawning.
Now consider a gunman mowing down a crowd of innocents. Acts like these are rare, vivid and unexpected. The combination sets your brain whirring, generating a red-alert signal called a “prediction error,” a surge of activity deep in the brain’s emotional core. A prediction error signal screams: “Look for a cause! Prevent this next time!” This leaves you craving even more information about such attacks, in the vain hope you can predict the next one.
Your brain responds this way to scary natural disasters like earthquakes, too. But unlike earthquakes, murder and terrorism carry yet another feature that really throws the prediction machinery for a loop: They are caused by people. Predicting the actions of other people is unusually difficult, because it requires understanding the minds directing them.
Read more at Washington Post