HalloweERM Special: Fear Factor

From the Big Screen to Real Life: Fear Motivates

It’s Halloween season, and through Oct. 31, I will be watching the AMC channel’s “Fearfest,” a 16-day virtual film festival of contemporary and classic scary movies from the “Bride of Frankenstein” to “Village of the Damned.”

I am not sure whether I am enjoying all of the offerings, but as a risk professional, I certainly appreciate the benefits and teachings of horror films. From psychological thrillers to zombie cult classics, scary movies are, in essence, a fun way of modeling risk scenarios. Protagonists face risks of uncertainty and danger, and either fail or succeed to control and overcome those risks. Watching the incredible and painful struggles of others, we may learn how to avoid such tragedies in our own lives. As Stephen King explains it, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

Why Are Horror Movies Like Risk Models?

From alien abductions to silver-clawed slasher films, almost all horror movies share three common elements that trigger fear responses in the viewer: Tension, relevance and unrealism. First, a haunting musical score, shadowy photo shots, crazy camera angles and pressure-building sequence of events combine to create anxiety. Second, horror plots typically have themes based around the common human terrors of darkness, danger and death, which all viewers can relate to. However, the situations presented, while relevant to the viewer’s own fears and experiences, are “worst case scenarios.” They are exaggerated to the point where they are so unreal that the viewer feels they are “safe” watching the movie – what is happening on the screen won’t really happen to them. This enables observers to become fully engaged in the struggle - emotionally and intellectually. 

Together, these traits make horror movie plots eerily familiar, and establish a model of “what are the potential outcomes that could happen” in extremely risky or perilous situations – essentially a personalized “stress test,” in risk management terms. As a result, horror movies can get people thinking about possible controls, solutions and alternatives that a person might take – or never want to take –  in precarious, life-threatening circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that people should start hoarding silver bullets or carving wooden crosses to fight werewolf and vampire attacks. But fearing an attack of any kind may get viewers thinking about corralling resources and improving safety through more realistic measures. Personally, one could take self-defense classes. Businesses may tighten security or improve disaster planning efforts.

From Fantasy to Reality

On a larger scale, horror movies often mirror current economic, cultural or scientific problems or concerns. They can generate thought and discussion about social values and priorities, and highlight our core fears about disease, true incidents of pandemics, or natural catastrophes. The greater our fears of a risk, the more attention and resources we may put to preventing, mitigating or eliminating it.

In real life, we also must deal and respond to a wide range of “scary” risks. For example, 10 years ago, it would have been hard for most people to picture the financial crisis that was to come in 2008. With the markets and economy still recovering, there is now a real fear within many organizations when it comes to effectively managing risk. Has your organization defined and articulated a risk appetite? Do you have experts on board who can effectively lead risk management efforts? These are just some of the questions insurance firms face. And it’s also what’s led to a stronger focus on managing risk at the enterprise level. More resources are being allocated now to prevent harm and mitigate future potential loss.

The Potential “Downside” of Fear

On the downside, and important to note from an enterprise risk management (ERM) perspective, fear may have an impact on risk assessments, in the form of bias. A bias is a systematic error, or deviation from the truth, in results or inferences by participants in a study. In my prior blog, Rose Colored Risk: Reducing Bias in ERM Risk Assessments, I talked about how optimistic bias, the tendency for people to  expect things to turn out better for them than for their peers, can have a significant impact on evaluation of risk.

Inordinate fear can also alter people’s perceptions of the risks they face on a daily basis. While a little fear is good, and can make people more cautious in some situations, frightened or anxious people may magnify or exaggerate their assessment of how harmful or dangerous a particular activity is, or how frequently a risk might happen. Opportunities may be foregone, regardless of the true probabilities of a risk. For example, in his paper “The Consequences of Fear,” David Ropeik, director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, says:

  • The more we are aware of a risk, the more we are likely to be concerned about it. Concern about murder and personal safety rises when the papers are full of coverage of a local incident, although the actual probabilities are the same before that crime showed up in the news, and after it is resolved. Any risk also seems greater if you believe that you or someone you care about could be a victim. In most cases, citing statistical probability may not adequately communicate the true degree of risk to an individual. A risk of 1 in 1,000,000 can still seem threatening if you think you could be “the one.” This helps explain why the only acceptable level of risk to many people is zero.

 

  • The more uncertain we are about a situation, or the more new or novel a technology might be, the more cautious we may be. For example, many people are very fearful of genetically engineered foods. Without fully understanding the science behind such advances, they see great dangers in genetic engineering – perhaps envisioning mutants or poisonous invasive spores – and cannot easily see the benefits.

 

  • Hazards that kill a group of people at one time in one place (such as plane crashes) evoke more fear than hazards that may take more lives, but over space and time (such as heart disease).

 

Fear as the Great Motivator

In sum, fear can be a strong motivator. It can help us make decisions and better prepare us for the future. Horror movies, by creating similar physiological and physical responses effects to a real-life scare, may model both the upside and downside effects of fear. Whether as a technique in risk models, or through fantasy in horror movies, “imagining the worst,” can both reflect and shape reality. The risk professional’s task is to explore all possibilities and make appropriate choices to be prepared for whatever evil comes our way.

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