The most fearless and the most fearful people

While I was in Europe, someone commented to me that Americans are the most fearless and the most fearful people on Earth. We put men on the moon, and we walk around with hand sanitizer. We start bold business ventures and have ridiculously cautious safety regulations. We’re the home of cowboys and helicopter parents.

One response I had was that it’s not necessarily the same people who are being so bold and so timid. There’s a tension between the risk-tolerant and the risk-averse in America. The former are free to be bold in the private sector while the latter outvote them in the public sector.

Another explanation might be that an individual can be fearless and fearful about different things. Someone may be willing to risk millions of dollars but not be willing to risk eating unpasteurized food. There may be some sort of general risk homeostasis, though I imagine people willing to take risks in one area are often more willing to take risks in another area.

10 thoughts on “The most fearless and the most fearful people

  1. Of course everybody will see it from his/her own vantage point, mine is European. To me the US of A are a land of extremes anyway:

    - the land of billionaires and tent cities
    - the land of the Ivy league and of a great percentage of illiterates
    - the land of Obamacare and the Tea party
    - the land of the most rational people and the most religious people
    - the land of the free and the land of the NSA
    - …and, as you mentioned: the land of the most fearless and the most fearful people
    - to be continued

    Does this make sense? To me it kind of doesn’t because in Europe everything seems to converge more and more whereas in the US the extremes seem to get bigger and bigger and I don’t find a good reason for these contradicting developments – do you?

  2. I disagree with some of your particulars. For example, the idea that there are tent cities in America. There was something like that during the Great Depression in the 1920′s, but the only thing like that I know of in more recent times was the rich kids who lived in tents for the “occupy Wall Street” protests. But I agree that America is a land of extremes. Modernism is characterized by extremes, and America is the quintessential modern country. Europe is not very different in that regard, though the pace of life is more moderate in the parts of Europe I’ve seen.

  3. The fact that these tent cities can be listed on a short page, and that one of them is notable for having over 100 people, shows that not many people live in tent cities.

  4. John: Thank you for your reply because I think it shows the real difference between you guys and us. The very fact of the existing of tent cities doesn’t seem to bother you, you say “ah, only one page and most of them below 100 people, so what is the problem?”

    In Europe we would have no other topic if we had *only one* tent city, it would be THE scandal. And Europe is certainly not richer than the US but our wealth is more evenly distributed… and we think that this is a good thing.

  5. @vonjd: but we do have people living in something like tent cities in Europe. If it needs to be on Wikipedia, take this example.
    In big European cities, there are plenty of homeless people. In villages there is lots of poverty, too, although it may be less visible: there are people living in very shabby houses (small wooden constructions that look like a hunting lodge rather than a house).
    It’s just easier to think of other continents in terms of extreme contrasts. At the local level it is always more complex, or maybe we get used to gross injustices too easily.

  6. I can see why somebody would say that. However, I think the health-related and financial risks one is willing to take primarily depends on that person’s financial status. And not whether he or she is American/European.

  7. Response to risk is not nearly as rational or consistent as we want to think — especially ‘we’ in the analytical community.

    I once worked with a very intelligent woman, a PhD in Human Factors Engineering whose area of expertise was conveying risk information. She was a Presidential Young Investigator, on the fast track to tenure, widely published, lots of research grants, doing good work.

    And she was afraid to fly in an airplane.

    She recognized that this was irrational of her, but that didn’t change her fear, nor alter her behavior. She did not fly, period.

    I think the same people can be both bold and timid, depending on their subjective impressions of the associated risks. The same people who put their savings into opening a restaurant, which is about as risky a venture as you can imagine, don’t vaccinate their children because there’s a rumor that there’s a small chance that this could cause autism. The same people who commute by bicycle daily in urban traffic don’t eat beef for fear of prion disease. Personal risk intensity/aversion is real, but local — it doesn’t always generalize to other contexts.

  8. @Sylvia has a view I can appreciate: “It’s just easier to think of other continents in terms of extreme contrasts.” Moreover, extreme may not manifest in some sort of obvious manner. For example, many in the USA view Europeans as “extremely complacent” with respect to government intervention in their personal lives.

    Irrespective of the referential locus, the extremes aren’t necessarily something that needs to be fixed, rather are a consequence of a society that experiments with a wide variety of ideas. I believe it was the theoretical biologist Stewart Kauffman that first advanced the theory behind this phenomenon as a way to describe evolutionary complexity: “the adjacent possible” (

    The idea is that innovative or creative ideas occur incrementally. While they may appear as substantial leaps forward, they are in fact derived from a collection of adjacent ideas that coalesced to make a single idea possible. As an individual explores deeper and farther into an idea space, they extend the boundaries around which adjacent ideas collect, increasing the potential for new idea combinations. In other words, increasing the likelihood of creative or innovative ideas.

    Organisms (and societies) that survive and thrive experiment with a wide variety of possibilities. Some of those combinations work out (Apple Computers) and others don’t (Enron). And that, @Vonjd, is what’s behind the “reason for these contradicting developments.” In my experience, people from many (not all) countries are uncomfortable (even extremely uncomfortable) with the unpredictability of this process, fearful (even extremely fearful) of their inability to control this process, and supportive (even extremely supportive) of finding ways to numb the effects rather then work with them.

  9. I think that Americans are more in touch with their mortality than us Europeans. You are constantly being reminded that you are either winners or losers. It is for that reason that you appear to us as over cautious with your health. When one is constantly being shown that another is more successful, richer, cleverer and so on, then by mere comparison and envy the average person through a type of herding behavior does not take risks, not because they cannot but so as to appear not to be inferior, stupid or outdone by another. It is a selfish type of behavior driven by comparisons rather than originating in the person himself?

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