Moving past danger

2011-04-28

in Psychology, Security

Riding the bus past the Darlington nuclear station, between Ottawa and Toronto, I noticed a very irrational emotional reaction. Moving closer to the building, I felt a small but rising amount of anxiety, thinking about all the dangerous materials contained inside. Immediately after the bus passed the reactor, leaving it out of sight, I felt relieved.

Of course, it is completely irrational to feel relieved immediately after passing something dangerous. After all, you are still right beside it. You should feel equally nervous at equal distances.

Still, it is possible to see how the emotions involved produce the irrational reaction. Moving toward an object of danger naturally creates a certain degree of anxiety: whether it is a dangerous animal, an opposing army, or an array of hot uranium rods. The feeling of anxiety encourages people to behave cautiously and consider their actions. By contrast, moving away from a dangerous thing is naturally comforting, and arguably something that can be done with less caution.

Certainly, it is possible to imagine why a gene for feeling relieved when moving away from dangerous objects would confer a selective advantage upon the individuals who possess it. It would probably make them less likely to die in a number of different ways.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm

The phenomenal experience of anxiety and the rational consideration of danger are fundamentally different self-protection systems, that work on fundamentally different aspects of dangerous situations. Viscerally you respond to the situation insofar as you don’t understand it, whereas cognitively you respond to what you know about the situation.

alena April 28, 2011 at 6:05 pm

That is very interesting Tristan; really quite amazing.

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