NROP: Psychology of fear; Are we afraid of the right things?

Last week, a plane (Boeing 737) flying from Ethiopia to Kenya crashed, killing all 157 passengers plus crew on board. Those who perished were of 35 different nationalities. This came less than six months after a Boeing 737 MAX 8 went down into the Java Sea, just minutes after taking off. 189 people died then.

Ethiopian Airlines, operating the ill-fated plane, are considered to be relatively safe. 6 out of 7 on the rating scale. Even though the cause of those crashes is yet to be determined, this particular type of an airplane (Boeing 737 MAX 8) has been grounded indefinitely worldwide.

What could have gone wrong in Ethiopia? The flight data recorder from the previous crash revealed an issue with the aircraft’s air speed indicator. Supposedly the indicator was malfunctioning during its last FOUR flights. How lucky were the people on the flights before the crash?

All clues point to the new safety system in that particular type of plane. Some safety system, huh? Those who analyzed the crash from late last year, paint a vivid picture of what happened. The new system called MCAS’s (short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) job is to pull the plane’s nose down if it senses it is at risk. During the Lion Air flight, the sensor “thought” that the nose was tilted more than it should be, which could cause stalling. Then, the pilots tried to correct the machine’s errors, but every time they thought they did, the system would override it and go back to what it was doing. Supposedly, after the Indonesian crash, Boeing sent an urgent bulletin asking that all pilots be trained on recognizing the potential dangers of the system and know how to switch it off.

If you want to know more about planes, tech and software, I found an insightful article HERE.

Should we learn to trust the machines, or should we rally and support the humans?

Yesterday, the mourners gathered in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital) to pay their respects and to honor those who died in the crash. Even though there were coffins present on sight, there were no bodies in them. Authorities are working on obtaining DBNA samples and matching them to those found at the crash site. However, due to the impact, it is hard to find the missing pieces. In an effort to give people closure for the time being, officials allowed the mourners to obtain about a kilo of soil from the crash site.

The crash and its aftermath made me think of the psychology of fear. I fly quite a bit, and have felt safe in an airplane since I was a little kid. However, having watched all these plane disaster movies, I am more aware of what could go wrong now than ever before. Hearing news about plane crashes does not help the matter.

I know people who are petrified of flying.

I know people who have never been on a plane, and probably never will.

But they drive a car.

“What does that have to do with anything” – you ask?

It just makes me think of how irrational some things can be.

Someone kills with the use of a gun and we run to ban such weapons. But we are blind to the fact that a gun is not the only thing that can be used in such a devious way. No, it was not the gun’s fault. It was the person’s who pulled the trigger. There are many more nuances than that, and this is not that type of post.

Today, I want to talk about why we fear one thing way more than the other. About why we fear planes so much more than cars, for example.

It is safe to say that your fears are not the same as mine. However, there are five categories of fear that pretty much all of us share.

  1. Extinction
  2. Mutilation
  3. Loss of autonomy
  4. Separation (abandonment)
  5. Ego-death (fear of humiliation)

Does anyone NOT fear those?

In those two crashes, 346 people died. Sounds like a lot, right? Do you know how many people die in a car accident every day in the U.S.? One hundred and ten. That means that it takes just a bit over 3 days of car accidents to kill as many people as those two crashes did. If you were to divide those passengers over the time period between those two incidents, you would find out that less than 3 people a day died in a plane accident. 110 vs. 3. And yet more people seem to fear the airplanes than the cars. Before those two fatal flights, there were thousands of perfectly safe ones. However, the planes are grounded, while cars still drive.

It is the perceived risk vs. the actual risk that explains why we do not always fear what we should, and why we fear things that are less risky. We often rely on availability heuristic when estimating probability of something happening. The more difficult an event is to imagine, the less probable it is to happen. At least that is what we tend to think. More dramatic events stand out in our memories more than other events, making us fear them more. Moreover, we are not all that good at accurately assessing risk, because we use two different parts of our brain. The first one is the amygdala, which is responsible for the emotional response to a situation. The neocortex is the one responsible for the actual analysis. Even though we have the numbers and the statistics, the amygdala tends to push the emotions into the forefront and the logic to the back.

Fun fact: The chance of you dying because of a shark is 1 in 3,748,067, while the odds of you dying in a car accident are 1 in 84.

Bonus fun fact: If you were to fly every day all your life, statistically speaking, it would take you nineteen thousand years to die in a plane crash.

How insane is that?

Why are we afraid of plane crashes?

  • When a plane crashes, the media coverage is intense.
  • The crashes do not happen often, but when they do, they shake us all.
  • We cannot control a plane (while we are more in control of a car).
  • Cars are more familiar to us and we use them habitually (it is the opposite for planes).

Have you ever been on a plane?

Are you afraid of flying?

Do you do anything to decrease your flying-related anxiousness?

Stay golden,



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53 thoughts on “NROP: Psychology of fear; Are we afraid of the right things?

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  1. I too have been flying as long as I can remember, and I was aware of the statistics.
    More than that, I trust that I am in the hands of my Father, who will not allow me to leave this earth one moment before (or after) it is my time to “go home.”
    This perspective came sharply into focus when I was on a small plane flying through a stormy area. (I found out later that a tornado had passed that way moments before, and the airline had had no business letting our plane take off.)
    While the plane bounced around and one poor soul who had never flown before gripped her armrests and muttered “I’ll never fly again, I’ll never fly again…” I was having the time of my life. I had spent most of the day traveling and taking advantage of the time to pray and draw closer to Jesus. By the time we hit the turbulance, I was so into His presence that I felt like a small child being bounced on my Daddy’s lap. I knew that I was safe, and if this was going to be the last flight I would ever take, I would be in heaven that day. So what’s there to be afraid of?
    ARE we afraid of the right things? No. What we should really fear is leaving this world without a relationship with the One who created us and has a purpose for our lives. How tragic to get to the end of life and find out that, whatever we’ve “gained” in this world, we’ve actually missed it all.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Your comments always fill me with calm and hope. You have such a soothing effect on people. Are you aware of that?

      I share the same believes. It’s not time until it’s time.

      It’s human to be afraid of death, because it’s something unknown to us. And over all, we don’t want to perish. There’s always something more we could experience. But that’s as far as the fear/ regret goes. However, many people only in time of crisis realize what they haven’t done. Wake up and do it now!

      Well said.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bless you! I would love to believe that I can soothe people who need soothing. On the other hand, if someone needs to change their course (a.k.a. “repent”) something other than “soothing” is needed. (That I’m not as good at…) It has been said that the Church has two jobs: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Great article. I also wrote a post about fear. I found it interesting that some people are afraid to confront their boss, but will do risky activities like sky-diving, for example. I guess fear is a complex emotion.

    Personally, I have only flown a handful of times but never felt any fear.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting indeed. I guess sky-diving is a 1 time thing. I mean, you either survive, or you die. While confronting your boss often leads to long-term effects (problems at work, lack of work, etc.).

      I used to be an adrenaline junkie. I still am, but not as much. Sky-diving is still on my to-do list. Have you done it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have not, but not for fear of it…just haven’t taken the time to plan it and didn’t want to spend the money. I might try it one day.
        Fear of boss was taken care of when I quit my job.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I hear that. I also had a certain way of doing things, but recently I’ve been emboldened to try a new way. Only time will tell if it is worthwhile.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve flown many times in my life. But the fear of flights began only the last 10 years. I remeber not being afraid when I was small.
    To stop thinking about my fear I watch movues or play games.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think as we grow older, we become more cautious. As a kid, I did not consider my odds. As a responsible adult, I do think of all the risks. And that does hinder my enjoyment a bit.
      Also, I think in the past decade, as you say, things have become more dangerous. Or at least it’s because of the media. Now we hear about all sorts of disasters around the world.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Skydiving isn’t scary, it’s serene as ocean diving. Bungee jumping, that’ll put your stomach in your throat! It really pits your cortex against your amygdala to leap from solid ground to thin air. Still a lot of money for the amount of enjoyment, either way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bungee jumping was always on my list, but when I had the chance to do it, I was sick. I took it as a sign. As much as I think it would be thrilling, I don’t think health-wise it’s something I should do. But I totally see skydiving as something so scenic. It does sound expensive, though.


  5. Thought provoking post. I understand that ‘Sully’ Sullenberger has thrown in his insight…poor training on a complex aircraft. This reminds me of my significant other. His biggest gripe about his truck is too many buttons, bells & beeps. Too much to deal with… Too much to break… Too much money to repair said technology… “I wish I had my ’73 LeMans back. Hell, my ’85 Thunderbird would be better than all this crap!”

    At some point, too much technology can overwhelm a person.

    My dad has never flown. “If God had intended me to fly, I’d have wings.”

    The media has had a large part to play in showcasing fear. News, Hellyweird… In 1975, many Americans had an irrational fear of swimming in the ocean. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” In the 1950s, everyone wanted a bomb shelter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I totally believe that. I read that they didn’t even practice in a simulator. Instead, they got trained on a tablet. WHAT?

      I’m with your significant other. Not only can it overwhelm, but it also add frills that are not necessary. The engineers focus on “new” features, skipping over the vital ones, since they don’t generate all that buzz. Or they try to fix something that ain’t broken.

      You make me think of the Ironic song by Alanis Morrissette. “Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
      He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye
      He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
      And as the plane crashed down he thought
      “Well, isn’t this nice.””

      You’re right about TV influence. And now it’s the Internet on top of that.


      1. Tablet training, huh? I missed that. 🙄 I have a childhood/HS chum that is a pilot. He took me up in two-seater. The ‘back seat’ was nothing more than a wooden slat shoved into the tail section. We flew out of Houston Hobby and he showed me the area. Breathtaking. I trusted him completely. He is an engineer…and an overachiever. I watched him handle that craft. You can NOT overlook or ignore ‘hands on’…or, the human factor (gut instinct). It’s the same reason Sully, himself, bitch-slapped the NTSB. Even the BIG simulator couldn’t account for the person making a judgement call. He walked all over that group’s Monday-Morning-Armchair-Quarterbacking him.

        Give me a manual transmission vehicle with analog dials anyday.

        My dad never got that far. He also used to say that he’d have to be treated like B. A. Baracus.

        Yeah. Internet, too (why didn’t I think of that…🙄🤔).

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m afraid of things like MRIs but not big stuff like dying. I don’t really know why. With big things I’m very much ‘it is what it is’
    I’ve been on scary flights where wheels wouldn’t come down. I grew up in London in the IRA years – I’ve been in quite a few explosions and uncountable bomb scares. I’ve been hit by a drink driver – when it’s my time that’s when it’ll be.
    But things in the dark and small places and anaesthesia- terrifying

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Most of the time you can control the small ones (to a degree), while the big ones – not so much, so you just put your hands up in the air and go for it.

      Man, you’ve really lived it. Huh? So did the wheels finally come out? And how did you know that was happening? Explosions? Do you work in Hollywood for special effects? I’m glad to have met you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We had to circle and try three times. You could hear them grinding trying to come down. 3rd time we did a fly past the tower so they could see the status of the wheels. We had to fly out towards Albany and back and when we got back they managed to get the wheels down a little more. The runway was lined with ambulances and fire trucks which was very daunting. A guy a few seats ahead crapped himself and that stench just made a bad situation even worse! It was a very bouncy landing but thankfully we all walked away unhurt

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I have never been on a plane before, and I’m terrified of flying. Even with all the encouraging statistics and numbers, I still get this foreboding feeling whenever the thought of travelling by air comes to mind.

    Unfortunately, we lost someone we know to this plane crash. He wasn’t family, but he was a good friend. A very good man.

    Pius Adesanmi was his name. He was a professor of English in Carlton University, Canada. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. How much should we trust the machines, you asked.
    The only thing I know, no machine is build maintenance free. So without human interaction, we cannot trust any machine.

    I am not afraid to fly myself, but if a loved one does, I need to know as soon as they land or I will get nervous.
    I do get a feeling of excitement when the plane takes off and lands.
    It is no longer my preferred way of transport anymore however. I have been enjoying the training lately.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well exactly. And in this case, it’s possible that the human was trying to correct the machine’s actions, and yet the machine “knew better”. I cannot even imagine how it was for the experienced pilot, who was unable to show his skill. Instead, he had to give in to the machine.

      I get the feeling of excitement, too. I haven’t taken the train in a while, but I like it, too.


  9. And, getting on a plane is a bigger commitment than getting into a car. It is much easier to stop a car and get out. But in a plane, you are stuck until the landing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s for sure. Worst case scenario you can break the window and get out of the car, or jump out. Doing so from a plane is not a good idea.
      Thanks for reading, Vicky. I hope you’re having a nice weekend.


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Cathleen Townsend

Faerie Tales and Fantasy Worlds


writing science-fiction and fantasy since tomorrow

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