What are you more likely to be afraid of:
A shark or a candy bar?
Driving in your car or flying on a plane?
Falling out of your bed or being hit by lightning?
The flu or avian flu?
It’s interesting how we humans assess risk. It turns out, we’re pretty bad at it. Our risk of choking on a candy bar is 3,000 times greater than being attacked by a shark. Our risk of being killed in a car accident is over 44,000 times greater than dying from an airplane crash. No one in America has died from avian flu, but 36,000 people died from the “regular” influenza virus just last year. You have a greater chance of dying from falling out of your bed than from a snakebite, shark attack, airplane crash, stampede, skydiving, dog bite, bee sting, and lightning strike…combined. And then doubled.
It’s interesting how our evolutionary development intersects with the rapid changes in human society over the last 50 years. We simply haven’t caught up, physically or mentally. A fascinating article I caught the other day explains our faulty risk assessment in greater detail, but what concerns me most is how this judgment quirk of the human brain has an impact upon our health.
A few noteworthy points:
The brain fears what is new or unusual, rather than what is likely.
The brain also has a cumulative way of reasoning. So, if you’ve (just hypothetically) gotten away with an unsafe behavior in the past – say, driving under the influence, or speeding recklessly, or eating junk food in high school without gaining much weight – your brain rationalizes that you can continue taking the risks, even though the odds are stacked considerably against you (again, a hypothetical “you”).
The brain has a bad risk memory, and a bad consequence memory, too. Though junk food might cause you to have a spare tire now, the memory is that you “have always been able” to eat junk food. We consistently underrate our risk and overrate our success. We consistently underrate consequences. That’s just part of human biology. It served us well when we had to worry about being attacked by a mammoth or filling up on all the seeds and berries one could possibly ingest in the likely event that food might not come around for a while. But, these days, with the food and drug supply being what it is, coupled with consistently sedentary behavior, hours in front of computer screens, and long commutes, it’s no wonder we are witnessing widespread health problems.
This isn’t an issue we can solve in a day. It’s simply something to be mindful of as we go about our daily business, making all manner of choices. The real things to fear – heart disease, lung cancer from smoking, fatal diseases caused by obesity – are literally hundreds of thousands of times more likely than any (admittedly scary) prospect of death by large animal or flying transport. My take on all this? Make smarter choices in how you move, what you eat, and how you handle stress, and you’ll outlive all the people worrying about avian flu and spinach. You’ll feel better, too.
Here’s the excellent and highly-enjoyable – and not even scary – article on our risk assessment ability. You’ll want to check it out. Clickativity
[tags] fear, risk, assessment, reasoning, cognitive science, brain, memory, fight or flight [/tags]
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