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Why We Worry About the Wrong Things
jtogonon | December 7, 2006 at 03:57 amby
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Why, indeed, do we worry most about the things we shouldn't? This TIME article might help enlighten us:
Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we'd get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. We agonize over avian flu, which to date has killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.
The writer then shows us the following reasons based on research:
- Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on
a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most
creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you're eaten
by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over.
That's not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering
something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least
quicker the death, the less it troubles us. "We dread anything that
poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in
a traditional way, like an auto crash," says Slovic. "That's the dread
factor." In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get,
and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds
of the thing actually happening.
- Unfamiliar threats are similarly scarier than familiar ones. The next
E. coli outbreak is unlikely to shake you up as much as the previous
one, and any that follow will trouble you even less. In some respects,
this is a good thing, particularly if the initial reaction was
excessive. But it's also unavoidable given our tendency to habituate to
any unpleasant stimulus, from pain and sorrow to a persistent car alarm.
- We similarly misjudge risk if we feel we have some control over it,
even if it's an illusory sense. The decision to drive instead of fly is
the most commonly cited example, probably because it's such a good one.
Behind the wheel, we're in charge; in the passenger seat of a crowded
airline, we might as well be cargo. So white-knuckle flyers routinely
choose the car, heedless of the fact that at most a few hundred people
die in U.S. commercial airline crashes in a year, compared with 44,000
killed in motor-vehicle wrecks. The most white-knuckle time of all was
post--Sept. 11, when even confident flyers took to the roads. Not
surprisingly, from October through December 2001 there were 1,000 more
highway fatalities than in the same period the year before, in part
because there were simply more cars around. "It was called the '9/11
effect.' It produced a third again as many fatalities as the terrorist
attacks," says David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant and a
former annual instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
- Then too there's what Ropeik and others call "optimism bias," the thing
that makes us glower when we see someone driving erratically while
talking on a cell phone, even if we've done the very same thing,
perhaps on the very same day. We tell ourselves we're different,
because our call was shorter or our business was urgent or we were able
to pay attention to the road even as we talked. What optimism bias
comes down to, however, is the convenient belief that risks that apply
to other people don't apply to us.
- Finally, and for many of us irresistibly, there's the irrational way we
react to risky behavior that also confers some benefit. It would be a
lot easier to acknowledge the perils of smoking cigarettes or eating
too much ice cream if they weren't such pleasures. Drinking too much
confers certain benefits too, as do risky sex, recreational drugs and
uncounted other indulgences. This is especially true since, in most
cases, the gratification is immediate and the penalty, if it comes at
all, comes later. With enough time and enough temptation, we can talk
ourselves into ignoring almost any long-term costs. "These things are
fun or hip, even if they can be lethal," says Ropeik. "And that
pleasure is a benefit we weigh."