Psychology of Fear: Rome's Earthquake Prophecy

Original facade of the colosseum. (Image credit: Jimmy Walker)

Despite seismologists' assurances that there is absolutely no reason to fear a massive earthquake in Rome today (May 11), residents have fled their city by the thousands. They are basing their decision on rumors of a prophecy made almost a century ago by a long-dead pseudoscientist named Raffaele Bendandi. Back in 1915, Bendandi may or may not have predicted that a Rome earthquake would take place on May 11, 2011.

Seismologists say earthquake prediction decades ahead of time is impossible. Secondly, there's no major fault line underneath Rome, so massive earthquakes don't happen there. Furthermore, no abnormal seismic activity in the area has been detected, so there is no reason to believe a large quake might be imminent. Lastly, Bendandi's chief biographer says the prophecy rumor is unfounded in the first place: Bendandi never actually predicted an earthquake would hit Rome today. [Read: Near-Zero Chance of May 11 Earthquake In Rome, USGS Says ]

Despite these considerations, thousands of Romans have decided not to take any chances, and to leave the city anyway. Why? What leads the Romans and people in general to succumb to irrational fears ?

According to University of Delaware fear neuroscientist Jeffrey Rosen, it's because they heard the bad news first. "First thoughts, beliefs, and responses are very powerful, and very hard to change," Rosen told Life's Little Mysteries.

"First you have some information that leads you to become fearful and you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this earthquake is going to happen what happened in Japan could happen here!' Then you get some other information that's telling you that those ideas that you have aren't valid. Well, often that's not sufficient enough to reverse your thoughts ," Rosen said.

"Basically, it's very hard to dampen that initial response."

The fight-or-flight response that follows fear begins in a central region of the brain called the amygdala. "The amygdala receives all sorts of information from the body about heart rate, hormones, subconscious thoughts, and then it's really important for analyzing that information and producing outputs that rev up the system to respond in protective or defensive ways," Rosen explained.

Once a person's response is all revved up, he said, he or she can be very hard to calm. The person must be bombarded with counter-evidence over and over again before their initial response dampens. This is often a problem. In fact, Rosen's research focuses on dampening feelings of fear or anxiety after they have set in. (Case in point: Italian television networks have repeatedly broadcast information dispelling the Rome earthquake rumors.)

Why would irreversible panic an inability to reassess things upon receiving more information evolve? How does it help?

"Assume we're out in the wild way back when, and a predator comes along that could harm you: It's very good to protect yourself and respond very quickly, almost without thinking. Your first response to protect yourself and your second response is to say, 'OK, what happened?'" Rosen said.

"When there's an immediate danger like an earthquake, people go into these old and instinctual modes of response. And the parts of the brains that are important for that are being activated."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.