Gavin DeBecker

The Gift of Fear

VTR Date: September 9, 1997

Gavin de Becker explains when and how fear can be a gift.


GUEST: Gavin de Becker
VTR: 9/9/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And in this age of violence, I’ve been so taken with the importance of understanding what, on the surface, appears to be an internal contradiction to both the title and the thrust of Little Brown’s new best-seller, The Gift of Fear, that I’ve asked author Gavin de Becker, an international expert on predicting violent behavior and protecting his starry clients from it, to explain when and how fear can be a gift, but when too it becomes curse and a dangerous hindrance.

Now, in his intriguing new book, my guest refers to the famous line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But I would first ask Gavin de Becker whether what FDR said further doesn’t best illumine his and the president’s thesis, as Roosevelt said, “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Isn’t that addition more of what you’re saying, Mr. de Becker?

de BECKER: Absolutely. That is absolutely correct. In fact, I amend his quote slightly to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, when there is a reason for fear. And, you know, I’m asked all the time, “What should we be afraid of?” And I say, “Well, it’s not a choice, what you’re afraid of. It’s not a decision you make.” True fear comes in here, you know, and takes over this animal, and it causes all these physical responses. Our vision becomes more focused, lactic acid pumped into the muscles. A chemical called “cortisol” is released into the bloodstream, which prepares you for fighting, because it causes blood to coagulate if you’re cut. I mean, all these extraordinary things happen with true fear. That other thing, you know, that unwarranted fear, the voluntary fear, like worrying, that’s what Roosevelt’s really talking about. And I agree with him 100 percent. That fear will kill more Americans this year than violence will.


de BECKER: Heart disease, stress-related disorders, high blood pressure, depression, suicide, defensive acts of violence when there wasn’t a need for them. And, you know, the fear that we get in this culture that really centers this culture, I would say the overwhelming majority of it is unwarranted.

HEFFNER: Unwarranted?

de BECKER: Right. No cause for it.

HEFFNER: Do you think that your book, The Gift of Fear, in any way adds to that unwarranted fear in the public at large?

de BECKER: Well, not for readers. I mean, certainly when people pass it in the bookstore and it has the big, you know, word “FEAR” on there — of course, “gift” is this big, and “FEAR” is this big — but people who read it come away with much less fear. I mean, if the hundreds of letters and all the responses I’ve gotten are any indication, people feel informed about what risk really looks like. So that it’s not this monster, this faceless as Roosevelt said, it’s not this demon that we imagine, but it’s the real thing. What is it really?

So I certainly hope it doesn’t contribute, because the message of the book is: Here’s where fear has a role, here’s where it’s a gift, and here’s where it’s a curse, and here’s how to tell the difference, which is the real key issue.

HEFFNER: Well, if a little paranoia is a healthy thing to have, what’s your definition of “appropriate fear?”

de BECKER: Well, appropriate fear is a brief signal that is in the presence of danger. It’s based on something you perceive about your environment or your circumstance. That’s all. I just said the whole definition. A brief, simple, in the presence of danger.

Now, “unwarranted fear,” that’s got a much longer definition. That’s anxiety and worry. And the way to tell the difference pretty quickly is that, if true fear is based on your perception, something you perceive in your environment or your circumstance, then unwarranted fear is always something from your memory or your imagination. And here’s a practical example: Most of us have had that experience of going to the airport and you think, “I shouldn’t get on this plane. I should cancel this flight.” And I ask the person who experiences that fear, “Is that based on a news story you saw three weeks ago of an air crash? Or is that based on seeing the pilot stumble out of the bar at the airport?” One would be in your environment, something you perceive. I’d take another flight. But if it’s based on something in your imagination or your memory, it’s not relevant to your safety.

HEFFNER: But if you turn to the kind of violence, crime in the streets, that we’ve been so concerned about in this country — it’s going down now, but there are those who say it will go up again when certain demographic changes take place — what’s real, and what’s not real? Don’t we feel, as we watch the tabloids and watch the tabloid programs, and hear all about violence on every moment… You’re very tough on the media, particularly the electronic media. Doesn’t that become almost a real fear in itself?

de BECKER: Well, it’s a real fear; it’s just not tied to real danger. The thing is this: In normal, human experience, we would experience the calamities in our own lives. In the abnormal, bizarre experience that you and I are having today as members of the 1990s United States, we experience the calamities in everyone’s life. I see a local news story about a bunch of people hanging out of a building in a fire, and ladders and emergency, and it looks terribly alarming, and I turn on the sound and it’s in Caracas, Venezuela. Well, I’m here happily to tell your viewers that the fire in Caracas, Venezuela cannot burn you. And the hostage-taking scene with the gunman at the supermarket that’s 40 miles away, since bullets only go one mile, cannot shoot you. And the kinds of things we see that are designed to make us watch, by using fear, those headlines that say, you know, “Cellular phones can kill you. News at eleven. Earthquake dust choking your children. News at eleven. Contaminated Thanksgiving turkey kills family of three. Could your family be next?” Those are all real. Well, in LA that contaminated Thanksgiving turkey was one turkey in a community of 11 million people. So I’m here to say that turkey could not kill your family next unless we all had very small servings. That was one turkey. It’s designed to get around our reasoning ability and go right to the emotional fear response. And I think most of the time… And, you know, you’re older than I. Did you ever in your life, ever once, see anything on local news which was immediately relevant to your safety? Ever once? Do you know anybody that did?

HEFFNER: Well, since you’ve been nasty enough to say that I’m older than you…

de BECKER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: …I’ll be nasty back and say: In a sense, yes, because if you live in a large metropolitan area, as I do, as you do, and you turn on your local television set and you see almost nothing but catastrophe in this instance, my instance, within the five boroughs, the sense that this has something to do with you has to be there.

de BECKER: The sense.


de BECKER: But the direct relevance of it is… I’ll give you an example from New York City. A few months ago I was here and there was a story out on Long Island about a rapist who was caught. He had raped and murdered a woman in a park, and he was caught and arrested. And here’s the news story: “He was caught and arrested, and now we interview people. ‘I’m afraid to go into the park. Of course I am.’ Next woman: ‘Of course I’m afraid to go into the park.'” Interesting. He was caught. That news story could’ve been “Happy birthday, people of Long Island. One fewer rapist in our park. Isn’t this good news?” And instead it is tied to the fear button that it pushes. The fact is there is always the risk of a rapist in a park. That exists. And the news media telling you that there’s a new thing to be afraid of every week. Los Angeles, it was freeway shootings. That was a big fad. You remember, it was a national story.

HEFFNER: I certainly do.

de BECKER: Do you know that that is no longer on the news. Now, do you suppose that people stopped shooting people on freeways? No more hot days, no more guns and angry motorists? No. That still goes on, but it’s last season’s episode. This season’s episode is home-invasion robberies, which I always get a kick out of, because every robbery in the home involves an invasion. You rarely invite them in. Home-invasion robberies, with a checklist, with an expert, with, you know, with all of the alarming stories about what happened to people. And next season it’ll probably be, as I joke in the book, it’ll be robbers who hide out in your purse and rob you when you get home. And there’ll be a checklist: purse feels extra heavy; voices coming from purse. That’s the way it is, is it’s designed to cause fear, and if there isn’t anything there in New York City where you live, they’ll show you something from Reno, Nevada, or something from Las Vegas, or something from Caracas, Venezuela.

HEFFNER: But you have your own checklists, and you must consider them particularly important. Warning to a woman, and you’re mostly concerned here about women.

de BECKER: That’s true.

HEFFNER: What are your checklists?

de BECKER: Well, I would just define the difference between the two. Mine are authentic. They are based not on the fact that I have a little video to show of a woman’s feet sticking out of a sheet on a stretcher being wheeled to a coroner’s van, but they’re based on the true nature of these kinds of violence. So in spousal homicide, there are behaviors that men display prior to spousal homicide that help make them predictable. And they’re based on thousands of cases. There’s one every two hours. One every two hours in America. So we’ve got no shortage of cases of spousal homicide to study. So when, in the book, I say, “If a man makes reference to violent news stories and revenge and talks about weapons as instruments of power, displays weapons, threatens to kill his wife, tears up wedding photos — which is symbolic violence — if he is an abuser of alcohol, if there have been incidents of violence in the past, if he is uncommunicative, if he minimizes acts of violence, if he seeks to control the wife. And on and on. Then that woman is in a situation where the likelihood of escalating to homicide gets pretty high.

HEFFNER: When you say, what is it, “one every two hours…”

de BECKER: One every two hours in America.

HEFFNER: And then you go through this checklist, you scare me to death.

de BECKER: Well, are you in danger of spousal homicide?

HEFFNER: Not quite. Not quite. But you scare me to death for my society, because you’re saying… Look at the figure. One every two hours. It’s a very significant figure…

de BECKER: Sure is.

HEFFNER: …in a country of more than a quarter of a billion people.

de BECKER: I’ll tell you why I do that. I say right at the beginning of the book, “Here’s where we are.” And there’s a lot of figures like that. Seventy children every week killed in the United States by a parent. Seventy a week. That’s where we live. Twenty thousand guns every day coming into commerce. More guns in America than there are people right now. And so we have to start with where we live to remove the denial, because the denial says, “Things like that don’t happen in my neighborhood. Oh, yeah, I saw it on the news, but I’m not in a relationship right now, so I’m not at risk.” Or, “That’s only a risk for the old, or for the young, or for the armed, or for the drug-user.” What do we all do when we hear about some violent death is we immediately find the way in which we can exclude ourselves from that risk. We say, “Well, I don’t live in the inner city,” or, “I don’t engage in that behavior,” or, “I’m not out that late at night.” I wanted to say to people strongly and powerfully and clearly, “Violence is a part of the human condition. It’s not going anywhere.” Violence and conflict are part of human beings as much as they are part of chimpanzees and orangutans and lions. And we have to start by recognizing that we have got in this country an opportunity to introduce matriarchy, feminism now has power in the United States. Women have power in the United States. Where in ever other culture men had power because of violence, women have power because of communication.

So we have an opportunity to do something to change it in our country. We’re not using that opportunity in a country where we fear violent crime, and what do we do every Friday and Saturday night but line up to see it at the movies?

HEFFNER: Couldn’t one say that — forget the tabloids, let’s stick to this medium, or the electronic media — couldn’t you say that reporters being honest and wanting people to deal with reality are reporting the violent news, just as you want to report the violent news in your book, and you do, and that’s what led me to wonder whether there wasn’t some internal contradictions.

de BECKER: Well, I’ll tell you what I think is different. I report information that you read, and by nature of reading you need to be in a relaxed state. You have no emergency, your heartbeat doesn’t go up, you’re not panting as you read that. But when you turn on the children and they say, “Okay, well, we’re in the back of the building now. Lucy, are you there? How many police officers? Have ambulances arrived yet?” And show me the pictures of the fire and show me the pictures. “Whether more will die remains to be seen.” What is a thing like that for? Whether more will die remains to be seen all the time. It’s in the nature of life. You know, they have these stories that never end and they’re offered to you with urgency and with an emergency nature to them.

If I, you know, broke into your house and said, “Quick, quick, come with me to save your life,” you might follow me, and you’d be pretty excited about it and pretty high-energy. That’s what they’re doing 40 hours a day in most major cities, 40 hours a day of local news. The difference is, if I give you a piece of information in order to inform you, and I choose that information because I think it’s valuable to you, they choose that information because it’s got some graphic video, because “There’s a gruesome discovery made today in Reno. Police made a gristly discovery today.” They choose it because it’s going to be fear-provoking, and most notably it’s not about your survival. Because why is something on the news? Because it’s unusual. “A cougar attacked a family of five today in Big Bear County.” Well, I’m going to tell your viewers now I’ll give a thousand dollars to anybody this week who’s attacked by a cougar in America. So your viewers can find me through this show, and if somebody gets attacked by a cougar, they’re getting a check from me. Because the fact that it’s unusual is what makes it newsworthy. You don’t see that those 70 children died this week killed by a parent. You don’t see that a woman will die, you know, before this show is out, another woman dying from spousal homicide. That’s not news.

HEFFNER: Okay. You make your case, and you make your case very well. What would you then do?

de BECKER: To make that different?

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

de BECKER: I think I would do, I would introduce something that was around even when I was younger, to news, and even to local news.

HEFFNER: Responsibility?

de BECKER: Two things. Responsibility. Ethics would be another. And the last would be that, when I was young they used to say things like, “We have some shocking video. Those of you who don’t want to see it can leave the room at this time.” Now they say, “Shocking video” to make you stay.


de BECKER: They advertise shocking video.


de BECKER: These men and women who I used to see were characterized by one thing above all. What was Cronkite characterized by? Calmness. Calmness. He told you, “The Cuban Missile Crisis is at this state, and here’s what’s going on.” He wasn’t hands gripping the edge of the news desk like people are today, you know, froth being dabbed from their mouth as they tell you how many bodies were involved in the car crash. And, I mean, that’s a real line from a news story in Los Angeles. An oil-refinery fire, and our newscaster says, “Ambulances have not yet arrived.” Well, I’ve got news for you. Ambulances never arrived, because there was nobody there. But what a line, “Ambulances have not yet arrived.” Doesn’t that imply that ambulances are streaming toward the site?

You know, the whole nature of ethics is gone. Because those men and women today — and I don’t say it despairingly about the men and women, you know, the individuals — but the institution of it now is “If it bleeds, it leads,” is, “Make it as exciting and scary as you can make it.” Promos, you know. “The dangers of debit cards.” Well, look, I just wrote a book about real danger. There’s no danger of debit cards. What, are people eating them? Do I have to see that? Are they cutting themselves with them? There’s no dangers. “Dangers of debit cards.” That’s not about risk. But everything is couched in your safety and violence. And it isn’t the truth.

HEFFNER: That’s a part of a wish list that we could turn the hands of the clock back to Walter Cronkite and before. Nobody asked you for a wish list. What would you do, Gavin de Becker, who knows about fear, knows its negative impact upon us…

de BECKER: And its favorable impact.

HEFFNER: Favorable in terms not of unreasoning fear, or when you come to unreasoning fear you say it throws us off balance…

de BECKER: Sure.

HEFFNER: …it makes us incapable of dealing with the real article.

de BECKER: Right. It actually makes us more at risk.

HEFFNER: What would you do?

de BECKER: Well, with regard to the media, I am doing it right now in my life personally. And that is, I don’t watch the local news ever. And people are surprised to hear that since I’m in the business of evaluating risk and danger. Can you imagine that if Martians came to this planet and they interviewed Americans and they said, “What do you do for the last half-hour before you go to sleep?” “Oh, we watch coroners’ pictures, and fires, and children killed in car accidents. And then we go to sleep.” “And what do you do when you wake up?” “Well, we watch coroners’ pictures, and children killed in fires, and car accidents. And that’s what we do all day.” That’s what we do. So what I’ve done to change it for myself is I don’t watch the local news. I just don’t watch it. I used to feel the big “should.” You know, you “should” be informed, you “should.” I don’t know what I’ve missed. I’ve yet to have somebody come to me and say, I did actually have somebody say, “Did you see that plane crash where…” And I stopped him. I said, “No, I didn’t see it.” “Well, let me finish,” he said. I said, “I assure you I didn’t see it.”

HEFFNER: But, you know, I don’t think you’re worried about me. And I’m not worried about Gavin de Becker. So when he doesn’t watch, I don’t say, “Thank God. He’s not going to be infected or affected by the garbage that’s on.” But I’m asking you a larger, social-based question. What are we going to do? What would you have our society do…

de BECKER: I see.

HEFFNER: …about all the others who haven’t come to the conclusion you’ve come to the conclusion you’ve come to: turn the damned thing off?

de BECKER: Well, in the most personal sense, the most contribution I’ve been able to make is to write a book that says, “Here’s what risk really looks like.” You do need this information. There are risks in the world. There are people who act out violently. What does it look like? “Here’s what predatory crime really looks like.” If I could give a single gift to American women, it would be to lift from them the idea that they are required to be polite, that they are required to engage in conversations with strangers, that someone who offers them help is a good person or a nice man. I talk a lot in the book about the words “nice” and “charming.” “Charm” is a verb. It’s not an adjective. A person doesn’t have charm; they use charm. To compel by allure. So a single gift that I could give, and that I try to, is to teach young women… I would have a high-school class, to answer your question very directly, that teaches young men to hear the word “no,” and teaches young women that it’s all right to speak it explicitly.

You know, when you and I say “no,” it’s the end of a discussion. When a woman says “no,” it’s the beginning of a negotiation. I say, “Would you like to go out with me?” “No, I’d really rather not.” “Oh, come on. You know, I just mean, how about just lunch?” And it’s a discussion. And we could work on that a great deal so that women wouldn’t find themselves denying true hesitation signals and fear signals.

Look at this fact: A woman gets into an elevator late at night. Elevator arrives, door opens up, there’s a guy inside she’s afraid of. For a hundred political reasons, she says, “I feel fear of this guy, but I don’t want to be that kind of person, and just because he’s not dressed well, and I don’t want to let the door close in his face.” And so she gets into a steel, soundproofed chamber with someone she’s afraid of. Now, there isn’t an animal in nature that would even consider that, would even have that thought process. And women in America do it because of this culture that says you’re really not allowed to rebuff explicitly. You’re not allowed to be rude. The cost of being rude might be death. You might be killed for that. Because you don’t want to make a man angry, because if you’re angry he may kill you. That’s the thing I would change most of all. A high-school class, I mean, that’s the practical answer that I’m talking about.

And the concepts in the book are, you know, is my small way of contributing to all of that and to reduce unwarranted fear.

HEFFNER: Would you do anything about the media that increase unwarranted fear in your estimation?

de BECKER: I believe it’s really the market. You know? And if we’re going to watch this stuff, I think it’s the consumer — which is why I don’t think it’s a small thing that I’ve stopped watching the local news — it’s the consumer that controls all of this. There was an illusion that news was a public service. News, television news, is a business. Period. It’s not any different than selling, you know, toothpaste. Or, in fact, it’s tied to selling toothpaste. But I grew up believing that it was good, decent people making a contribution to keep us informed. And maybe it was. I don’t know. But now it’s a whole different animal.

So what I would do about it? I don’t think there’s anything to do except turn it off. I don’t think there’s anything to do except exercise the power of the marketplace.

HEFFNER: You indicate that you believe the media have responsibility in terms of giving us fear that is unwarranted, unreasoning, and therefore making us unreasonable in terms of protecting ourselves. A seeming contradiction. What about the impact of the media in terms of fostering, fomenting, violent acts? In your profession, do you find that to be an adequate, accurate formulation?

de BECKER: I think it is. It’s a very tough question, you know. I’ve faced it a few times in my career. I remember a case where two young boys shot each other, shot themselves, each of them, in a suicide pact, in the head, to kill themselves. And they said they’d done it because of the rock group called Judas Priest. And their parents sued Judas Priest. And I came to that case thinking, “Oh, this may be…” I was an expert in the case — for the record store who was being sued for selling them the record without warning them without warning them that it might cause suicide. Ridiculous, I thought. And I came to it thinking this might be an interesting exploration into this question: Can the media cause specific acts of violence?

It turned out to be something quite different, that case, for me. It became an exploration into the nature of youth in America, and violence in America. But the question, “Can the media cause specific violence?” the closest answer I have has to do with one form of violence, and that is assassination. Public-figure attack in America is a partnership between the assassin and the news media. I think they together invest years in the crime, and they together reap the rewards on the same day. There will be at every public-figure attack (which happens about once every two and a half years, by the way), there will be at every public-figure attack a newscaster saying, describing the act as “senseless.” And yet his presence there is part of the sense it makes. We take the assassin and we show you his boyhood home, just like the president, him being flown off in an armada of helicopters (the Unabomber), just like the president, him in a motorcade protected by federal officials, just like the president. The way we portray them as Unabomber, all three newsmagazines used the word “genius” to describe him on the cover. Not a bad accomplishment to be on the cover of every major newspaper with a word, I mean, every major newsmagazine with the word “genius.”

I think we could change the way we cover public-figure attack and major media crimes like the Oklahoma City bombing. He was on the cover of Time magazine, of course, and the top of every news story being escorted in and out by federal officials. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see the gift for public-figure attack and huge media crimes being anonymity. I’d like to see that assassin at the end of a long corridor handcuffed to a pipe guarded by a woman wearing an old, dingy t-shirt. I don’t want to see him walked out by ten federal officials and taken off in a group of helicopters. Because we are creating stars in that process. And people want to get in the world stage, and we’ve given them a very good way to do it with a handgun.

HEFFNER: Mr. de Becker, there isn’t any question but that this all comes out in The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence, the print getting smaller and smaller naturally. I find, in terms of the fascination you have for the subject, and your professional involvement, a gift of yours to me. Thank you for making that gift, and thank you for joining me on The Open Mind.

de BECKER: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.