I'm afraid of flying, but not in the way you assume.
I'm not scared of the bumpy landing. Turbulence doesn't faze me. I'm never really concerned that the Delta 747 will nose-dive from 30,000 feet, hurtle toward the ground at 550 miles per hour and plunge nose-first into Lake Michigan.
I'm properly armed with my seat-cushion flotation device. I passed beginner's swimming lessons after five tries. I'm ready.
But here, alas, is the thing that makes me white-knuckle the armrests. Here is the scenario that makes me keep my seat belt fastened and my tray table in the upright-and-locked position even as my fellow travelers read trashy novels and slumber the flight away.
I am scared — absolutely, positively terrified — that someone is going to jump from his seat, sprint to the emergency door and yank it open. I'm scared we're all going to be sucked into the sky.
I'm terrified of this even though I also assume that it is in fact impossible — or at least, really, really hard — for a person to carry out the strange scenario stuck in my head.
I'm terrified of this even though I'm fairly sure that this has never actually happened.
I confess this dark secret to a man named Joseph Brown, a University of Nebraska at Omaha psychology professor. He lights up like I just handed him an early birthday present.
“Isn't that interesting?” he bubbles. “Your logical self knows that never happens. And yet this other part of you has seen it happen in your mind and it's very vivid, and now you have trained yourself to be afraid of this thing that never happens!”
I do not share Brown's enthusiasm for this particular wrinkle in my brain's gray matter, but Brown's focus — the subject of a public lecture on Tuesday night — does turn my crank.
Brown, the vice chairman of UNO's psychology department, happens to be an expert on fear. And he's excited to explain why the vast majority of our fears make no sense — and also perfect sense.
Let's start with this fact: If you boarded a commercial flight in the United States between 2009 and today, you had approximately a one in 45 million chance of dying during that flight.
In fact, the U.S. commercial flight industry just ended a stunning, unprecedented four-year streak when not a single human being died on a jetliner. The streak ended in July, when an Asiana Airlines flight crash-landed in San Francisco, killing two people.
Flying is almost unfathomably safer than driving. It is also far safer than getting onto a ladder, riding a bicycle around the block, walking to work or standing outside in a thunderstorm.
(In 2011, fewer Americans died from lightning strikes than in any other year on record. That year, 26 Americans died after being struck by lightning. No one died in a U.S. commercial airline crash.)
Yet a huge number of us are scared of flying in a way we aren't scared of the more likely possibility that we will eat a kiwi fruit, go into anaphylactic shock and meet our maker.
So why does almost every American overestimate the amount of risk we take when we climb onto an airplane?
The miscalculation starts with a sort of mental shortcut that we take countless times every day — and one that tends to work well, until it doesn't.
If somebody asked you, 'Are there more Fords or Mercedes on Dodge Street?' you wouldn't look up sales figures or traffic studies. Instead, you would oh-so briefly think of all the times you have driven Dodge Street and say, “Fords.”
That answer, known as a heuristic, is a combination of personal experience and what seems like common sense.
But this heuristic process goes wrong when certain memories go a little haywire, Brown says.
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Think about the day a plane crash happens. The networks cover it live. Newspapers put the photo on the front page. And we talk to each other, and to ourselves, about the horrific nature of the tragedy we have just witnessed secondhand. We imagine losing a loved one, or our own life, in this way.
People don't do that for fatal ladder accidents, even though they are far more common. It's not as sexy. It doesn't create as vivid a memory.
“You may think you think with that logical voice in your head ... but that's only a small minority of the processing we actually do,” Brown says.
What happens next isn't much different from what a Russian dude named Ivan Pavlov discovered late in the 19th century when he repeatedly rang a bell before feeding his dogs.
After a while, the dogs start salivating when the bell rings, before they even get their Kibbles 'n Bits.
And after a while, many of us start getting freaked out when we enter the airport. We've conditioned ourselves to be anxious on airplanes.
Humans, of course, are freaked out by all sorts of things: Snakes. Spiders. Joan Rivers.
And there may actually be an evolutionary reason for at least that first one, Brown says. He has read research findings indicating that infants are remarkably able to follow the slithering motion of a snake.
It suggests that we evolved to be hyper-aware of the potentially poisonous creatures — that our fears and phobias keep us safe even when they don't stand up to logic.
Maybe we're afraid of flying because there's something inherent in the human brain that tells us, “Hey, this is insane, stay on the ground!”
I don't know. But what I do know I went to a movie several hours after meeting with Professor Brown. And a trailer for a new movie called “Gravity” popped onto the screen.
And Sandra Bullock is an astronaut, and she is floating and spinning alone in space, and yes, I'm white-knuckling the movie theater armrests just like I'm on an airplane.
“You have these vivid memories of these events that never actually have happened,” says Brown, speaking of my specific fear of flying. “And, it's just a guess, but I bet you maybe saw it in a movie once.”
Pass the popcorn, Professor Brown. The popcorn and the fear.