Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Toronto Shooting: The Psychology of Loss, Fear and Identity

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Toronto Shooting: The Psychology of Loss, Fear and Identity

Article excerpt

Toronto shooting: The psychology of loss, fear and identity


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Author: Jordan Richard Schoenherr, Adjunct Research Professor, Department of Psychology, Carleton University

Canada, July 22, 2018. "Greektown" in Toronto, another area of Canada affected by violence.

The pundits and purveyors of polarization will soon begin to frame this event to debate the efficacy of gun legislation, the breakdown in social cohesion and the appropriate response to purported acts of terror. But rather than fear and react, we must pause and reflect. We must reflect on both why these kinds of events occur and how we can reconcile this with our Canadian identity.

Fear-inducing headlines grab our attention in the same way that advertisements for clearance sales do, even though they should be treated with the same skepticism that we view liquidation sales.

However, most of us treat the two as if there was a qualitative difference rather than being on the same mental continuum of prospective loss. This seems to be a result of a single brain that has an internal struggle between multiple motivations.

Numerous psychological studies suggest that we are loss-averse. Avoiding the loss of something we already possess is worth more to us than making a gain of the same value.

When we hear "limited-time only," "special edition" or "while supplies last," we feel drawn to acquiring that product. For similar reasons, fear and terror are primary motivators.

Dread about our own mortality

Humans have spent generations and copious resources developing elaborate belief systems (economic, political and religious) to manage the experience of existential dread that comes with reminders of our own mortality. Many of these belief systems contain information about "us" and "them," and polarization of opinions typically ensues.

This is understandable. We want to make sense of what is right and wrong and where we stand in the world. We also want to ensure that we can keep our place in it for a while longer. What is a greater issue is ensuring that those belief systems are periodically and systematically checked.

They rarely are. We want ready-made answers in an ever-changing world filled with uncertainty and ambiguity.

The inherent ambiguity of most events means that the framing of any issue can mean the difference between accepting or rejecting the same evidence and explanation.

Stop for a second and estimate the number of deaths that have resulted from terrorist attacks in the United States. Now, do the same for the number of deaths resulting from homicides. If you can, commit your numbers to paper and look at the difference between the two.

When so-called terror events are reclassified as homicides, the number of deaths attributed to terrorism only constitutes a fraction of a per cent of homicides in the United States. Yet consider the increases in government spending, media attention and discussion centred on terror attacks. It is disproportional.

Purported terror events are actually quite infrequent, yet the attention given to them in the media - the number of sources (articles and outlets) and the language used to frame them -- can all increase their salience in our memories. These factors affect our perception of risk.

Nonetheless, there is still a legitimate reason to be concerned: Imitation. In as much as a "terrorism" is an event, it is also an idea. Any idea can spread and evolve.

Contagious ideas and Canadian identity

Peru, Feb. …

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