Human beings are good at many things – adaptability, creativity, and survival. After all, we’re still alive and kicking long after our ancestors the Neanderthals succumbed to the dangers of the world they lived in. But fascinatingly one of the things that modern man is not good at is assessing risk. We tend to most fear the things that are least likely to actually happen to us.
A few months after the events of 9/11 I found myself consulting at a company in the Midwest, among people who literally didn’t go out of the house any more, except to work and to church. They had all their food and sundries delivered to them at home, by trusted messengers, and no longer went out shopping, because they were afraid of being killed by terrorists. I did the math and pointed out to them that their statistical risk of being killed by a terrorist was lower than their risk of being hit by lightning – twice. Nothing I could say could ease their fears, or dissuade them from holing up in their houses. They felt that they “knew” the “real” risks, and were sticking with behaviors that made them feel safe.
When it comes to our own health, the things we fear that we are at risk from, and the behaviors we adopt – or fail to adopt – to protect us from those risks, the situation is just as disturbing.
Humans are not good at assessing cumulative risk
As a species, possibly a lingering carryover from our primitive “fight or flight” response, we tend to overreact to dangers we perceive as immediate, and ignore more important dangers that affect us over a longer period of time. Thus the temptation to eat that extra cupcake after dinner – even though we are already obese or getting close to it – is not perceived as a danger to our health, even though obesity is statistically more of a danger to our health than, say, our risk of contracting the latest pandemic flu. Dangers that build up over time, and have cumulative effects, somehow don’t seem to register in our brains as actual dangers.
We also tend to indulge in “risk substitution.” We order a diet soda when eating out, and feel that this enables us to order an awesomely fattening dessert after dinner. We also tend to substitute risks that we worry about for others that actually pose far greater risks. For example, we worry about our kids being possibly exposed to marijuana, which has never caused a death by overdose, but don’t worry about them becoming involved in organized school sports, which are responsible for tens of thousands of injuries and dozens of deaths every year.
We fear exposure to radiation when reading about possible fallout from the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident in Japan, but have no qualms about sunbathing, which has killed more people who contracted skin cancer than have died from all the nuclear accidents in history.
The emotional factor
One of the things that strongly affects our inability to properly assess risk is emotion. We fear snakes (which are rare), but not pollutants and dangerous chemicals seeping into our foods (which sadly are not). We fall for hype promoted by the media, who specifically target emotion. People are inordinately concerned about their risk from “flesh-eating bacteria” (which affects 15,000 people worldwide each year, fewer than 5% of them fatally), but aren’t concerned that “packing on the flesh” in the form of becoming obese themselves puts them at dangerously increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions that kill millions every year. We fear AIDS (which kills fewer than 13,000 Americans per year), but don’t fear diabetes (which kills nearly 80,000). We read about the latest outbreak of salmonella and fear that, while not realizing that more Americans die of appendicitis every year than salmonella poisoning.
Another psychological factor that skews our ability to assess risk is the idea of – and often the illusion of – being in control. After 9/11 an estimated 1.4 million people developed a fear of flying, and made the decision to drive their cars on their next vacation instead. People felt safer in their cars than they did in a plane, more “in control.” Several analyses have determined that this led to an additional 1000 auto fatalities in 2001-2002, because of the much higher number of auto accidents than airplane accidents. Similarly we may get angry when seeing other people talking on cell phones while driving, but if our cell phone rings while we’re driving we feel perfectly capable of answering it, because we’re “in control.”
If there is anything that modern science should have taught us, it’s that one of the things we are least in control of is our ability to properly assess risk. When it comes to that we fall prey to our emotions, to our primal fears, to media hype, and to wishful but often unrealistic thinking. In worldwide studies, the #1 thing that people reported being afraid of was snakes. #2 was public speaking. Fear of heart disease – which kills more people per year than anything else – didn’t make the Top Ten. Neither did fear of becoming obese, which increases your risk of heart disease more than any other known factor.