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Tons of people are afraid of sharks, but the reasons have a lot more to do with how our brains deal with risk than anything to do with these super cool sea critters.
Heads up: This video contains footage of sharks.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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[♪ INTRO].

Tons of people are afraid of sharks. Which is really a bummer, because sharks are awesome, amazing, totally incredible, and so fascinating.

And also, they're not very likely to hurt you. Of the tens of thousands of people that go in the water, sharks only kill around one person per year on average. And often, that's because they're provoked or make a mistake.

Cows, on the other hand, kill about 20 people a year on average. And not many of us are afraid of them! So, why is our fear so misguided?

Why are so many people afraid of sharks, and airplanes, and other things that aren't actually that dangerous? It comes down to the way our brains deal with risk. When you start assessing whether something is risky, your brain doesn't jump into logic and statistics mode.

Instead, the first stop for sensory information is the brain's emotion center, the amygdala. Eventually, that info does get processed by higher-level areas, like the prefrontal cortex. But even then, when there's a mismatch between emotion and logic, emotion usually wins.

And ultimately, that means our brains are prone to a number of biases. Some of them aren't that surprising, especially when it comes to certain fears. Like, there's one called availability bias, which is when things that come to mind more easily are judged to happen more often, especially if you have strong emotions about that thing.

This bias pops up all the time when it comes to sharks. Like, when you see these animals on TV or in a movie, they're rarely being majestic and minding their own business, sharking around. No.

They're usually in the middle of attacking someone. So if that's the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a shark, you might believe these attacks are super common, even though they're not. Besides availability bias, there's also a concept known as dread risk.

This says that, the greater potential something has for harm, the riskier you perceive it to be. So, since sharks are fearsome predators and could really hurt you, you might start to think that being around one at all is super risky, even though it probably doesn't want anything to do with you. These biases are pretty intuitive, but there's another big factor that might come into play here, and it's less obvious: It's that sharks are unpredictable.

This idea comes from something called the Cognitive Vulnerability Model. It's a tested model that says that people are more afraid of things they perceive as unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous. And when you think of sharks… yeah, this makes sense.

Historically, sharks and humans haven't been around each other a lot, especially when you think in geological time scales. So, sharks can seem hard to predict just because they're so different from us. And the fact that shark encounters are so rare makes those events harder to predict, too.

A lack of control is also a big factor in this model, both when it comes to controlling the hazard and controlling your response to it. And again… this tracks. Like, you're probably fine if you see a shark in an aquarium, because the enclosure keeps the situation controlled.

But a shark while swimming at the beach? Not so much. And besides, when it comes to sharks, not only do we have less control when we're swimming, but many of us also don't know what to do in the rare event that a shark does attack.

I mean, there's a lot of conflicting advice out there. Do you play dead? Punch it in the nose?

Poke it in the eye? Sing Baby Shark? The confusion takes away some of your sense of control.

Now, just to be clear, the Cognitive Vulnerability Model doesn't just explain a fear of sharks. Even though I love talking about them. The model also explains some of our other seemingly irrational fears, like why some people are terrified of flying.

Because, sure, cars kill more people than planes, but unless you're a pilot, you don't have much control over the aircraft. And that could feel scary. Regardless of what you're afraid of, though, understanding why can be really helpful.

Like, if you know why you're afraid of something, maybe you can take a step to address that. But when it comes to sharks specifically, understanding our fears is also important for keeping these animals safe. Many shark species are at risk of extinction, often due to human activity.

And if unpredictability and lack of control are why we fear these animals, then understanding them better may be a way to reduce that fear. I mean, shark-human interactions are really rare, and so they are not studied super extensively. But there's work being done to change that.

And on an individual level? Well, research suggests that exposure to sharks, like seeing them in an aquarium, can also make people fear them less. So, learn about these amazing creatures!

You'll discover something totally awesome, and you might feel a little less afraid as a result. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you want to learn more about the weird things our brains do and the quirks that make us human, we'd love to have you along for the ride.

To keep up with our latest videos, you can go to and subscribe, or click the button below this video. [♪ OUTRO].