Feeling Safe Is Not the Same Thing as Being Safe

One of our top human needs is security. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the first two tiers of human needs are physiological and safety needs. Physiological needs include basic requirements for human survival such as food, water, shelter, and sleep. Safety needs give us protection from elements, security, order, stability and freedom from fear. Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in which the basic needs must be more or less met prior to meeting higher level needs of love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Therefore, it is no surprise that we go to great lengths to feel safe. We spend a good deal of time, energy and financial resources on security. This may be in the form of national defense, home security systems, data security, transportation security, guns for personal protection or building a border wall.

But here’s the deal. We can be secure even though we don’t feel secure. And we can feel secure even though we’re not. The feeling and reality of security are related, but not the same.

As a personal example, I am tempted to build an outdoor fence so that my dogs can run free and unsupervised while I remain inside the comforts of my house. A fence would make me feel secure, but the fence does little to protect my pets from coyotes who can jump a six foot fence. I would still need to supervise them as a measure of protection.

The reality of security is mathematical, based on probability studies of risks and effectiveness of countermeasures. It is a calculation of various factors such as crime rates and personal habits. There is no such thing as absolute security, and any gain in security always involves some sort of trade off. For example, statistics show that more than 530 people were murdered in Chicago in 2018, yet I am unwilling to wear a bullet proof vest each time I visit.

Bruce Schneier in his blog The Psychology of Security, explains that humans are hopelessly bad at making good security trade offs. We get it wrong all the time. We exaggerate some risks while minimizing others. Things that can go wrong are the severity of the risk; the probability of the risk; the magnitude of the costs; how effective the countermeasure is at mitigating the risk; and how well the risks and costs can be compared.

The human brain is wired for fight-or-flight reactions based upon the primitive emotional centers of the brain. This area assesses risk and reacts immediately which works great in some situations, such as being faced by a tiger. Schneier believes the world is actually more complicated than that. “Some scary things are not really as risky as they seem, and others are better handled by staying in the scary situation to set up a more advantageous future response. This means that there’s an evolutionary advantage to being able to hold off the reflexive fight-or-flight response while you work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation and your options for dealing with it. We humans have a completely different pathway to deal with analyzing risk. It’s the neocortex, a more advanced part of the brain that developed very recently, evolutionarily speaking, and only appears in mammals. It’s intelligent and analytic. It can reason. It can make more nuanced trade offs. It’s also much slower.”

In trying to assess risk, we are best served by utilizing both areas, the emotional and the rational centers of our brain. Take your time, slow your immediate reaction, gather all relevant data. Don’t confuse the feeling of security with the reality of security.


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