96 Psychology Today January/February 2008 WAYS WE GET THE O D DS WRONG

96 Psychology Today January/February 2008


10 O u r minds are f l u m m oxe d by m o d e r n t h re at s . H ow to

s p o tre a lr i s k s — a n dk n oww h e nyo u ’ rej u stfo o l i n gyo u r s e l f. BY MAIA SZALAVITZ I ILLUSTRATIONS BY GUY BILLOUT



s your gym locker room craw l- ing with drug- re s i stant bacteria? Is the guy with the bulging backpack a suicide bomber? And what about that innocent-looking arugula: Will pes- ticide residue cause cancer, or do the l e aves themselves harbor E. coli? Bu t wait! Not eating enough ve g e t a b l e s is also potentially deadly.

These day s, it seems like eve r y t h i n g is risky, and worry itself is bad for yo u r health. The more we learn, the less we seem to know—and if anything make s us anxious, it’s uncertainty. At the same time, we ’ re living longer, health- ier live s. So why does it feel like eve n the lettuce is out to get us?

The human brain is exq u i s i t e l y adapted to respond to risk—uncertainty about the outcome of a c t i o n s. Faced with a precipice or a pre d a t o r, the brain is biased to make certain decisions. Our biases reflect the choices that kept our ancestors alive. But we have yet to evo l ve similarly e f f e c t i ve responses to st a t i st i c s, media cove ra g e, and fear- m o n- gering politicians. For most of human ex i st e n c e, 24-hour news channels didn’t ex i st, so we don’t have cognitive shortcuts to deal with novel uncertainties.

Still, uncertainty unbalances us, pitching us into anxiety and p roducing an array of cognitive dist o r t i o n s. Even minor dilem- mas like deciding whether to get a cell phone (b rain cancer v s. dying on the road because you can’t call for help?) can be i n t o l e rable for some people. And though emotions are them- s e l ves critical to making rational decisions, they we re designed for a world in which dangers took the form of pre d a t o r s, not p o l l u t a n t s. Our emotions push us to make snap judgments that once were sensible—but may not be anymore.

I. WE FEAR SNAKES, NOT CARS Risk and emotion are inseparable.

fear feels like anything but a cool and deta c h e d computation of the odds. But that’s precisely what it is, a light- n i n g-f a st risk assessment performed by your reptilian bra i n , which is ever on the lookout for danger. The amygdala flags p e rc e p t i o n s, sends out an alarm message, and—before you have a chance to think—your system gets flooded with adre n a l i n e. “This is the way our ancestors evaluated risk before we had st a- t i st i c s,” says Paul Slovic, president of Decision Re s e a rch. Emo- tions are decision-making shortcuts.

As a result of these evo l ved emotional algorithms, ancient t h reats like spiders and snakes cause fear out of proportion to the real danger they pose, while experiences that should fright- en us—like fast driving—d o n ’t. Dangers like speedy motorized vehicles are newcomers on the landscape of life. The inst i n c t i ve response to being approached rapidly is to fre e z e. In the ances- t ral env i ronment, this reduced a pre d a t o r’s ability to see yo u — but that doesn’t help when what’s speeding towa rd you is a car.

II. WE FEAR SPECTACULAR, UNLIKELY EVENTS Fear skews risk analysis in predictable ways.

fear hits primitive brain areas to produce reflex i v e reactions before the situation is even consciously perc e i ve d . Because fear st rengthens memory, catast rophes such as earth- q u a ke s, plane cra s h e s, and terro r i st incidents completely cap- t u re our attention. As a result, we ove re stimate the odds of d readful but infrequent events and undere stimate how risky o rdinary events are. The drama and excitement of impro b a b l e events make them appear to be more common. The effect is amplified by the fact that media tend to cover what’s dra m a t i c and exc i t i n g, Slovic notes. The more we see something, the more common we think it is, even if we are watching the same footage over and over.

After 9/11, 1.4 million people changed their holiday trave l plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying, and the decision to switch caused roughly 1,000 additional auto fatalities, accord- ing to two separate analyses comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before. In other wo rd s, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn’t have died had they flown instead.

III. WE FEAR CANCER BUT NOT HEART DISEASE We underestimate threats that creep up on us.

h u m a ns are ill- p r e pared to deal with risks that don’t produce immediate negative consequences, like eating a cup- cake or smoking cigarettes. As a result, we are less frightened of heart disease than we should be. Heart disease is the end result of actions that one at a time (one cigarette or one french fry) are n ’t especially dangero u s. But repeated over the ye a r s, those actions have deadly consequences. “Things that build up s l owly are very hard for us to see,” says Kimberly Thompson, a professor of risk analysis at the Ha r va rd School of Public Health. Obesity and global warming are in that category. “We focus on the short-term even if we know the long-term risk.”

Our difficulty in understanding how small risks add up accounts for many unplanned pre g n a n c i e s. At most points dur- ing the menstrual cyc l e, the odds of pregnancy are low, but after a year of unprotected sex, 85 percent of couples experience it.

IV. NO PESTICIDE IN MY BACKYARD— UNLESS I PUT IT THERE We prefer that which (we think) we can control.

if we feel we can control an outcome, or if we choose to take a risk vo l u n t a r i l y, it seems less dangero u s, says Dav i d Ropeik, a risk consultant. “Ma ny people report that when they m ove from the drive r’s seat to the passenger’s seat, the car in f ront of them looks closer and their foot goes to the imaginary b ra ke. Yo u ’ re likely to be less scared with the steering wheel in your hand, because you can do something about your circ u m- st a n c e s, and that’s re a s s u r i n g.” Could explain why your mother

a l ways criticizes your driving. The false calm a sense of control con-

f e r s, and the tendency to worry about dangers we can’t control, explains why when we see other drivers talking on cell phones we get nervous but we feel per- fectly fine chatting away ourselve s. Sim- ilarly, because homeowners themselves benefit if they kill off bugs that are d e st roying their law n s, people fear insec- ticide less if they are using it in their ow n b a c k ya rd than if a neighbor uses the same chemical in the same concentra t i o n , equally close to them. The benefits to us reduce the level of fear. “Equity is ve r y i m p o r t a n t ,” says Slovic, and re s e a rc h s h ows that if people who bear the risk also get the benefit, they tend to be less concerned about it.

V. WE SPEED UP WHEN WE PUT OUR SEAT BELTS ON We substitute one risk for another.

i nsurers in the united king d o m used to offer discounts to drivers who p u rchased cars with safer bra ke s. “They don’t anymore,” says John Adams, a risk a n a l y st and emeritus professor of geog- ra p hy at Un i versity College. “There we re n ’t fewer accidents, just differe n t accidents.”

W hy? For the same reason that the vehicles most likely to go out of contro l in snowy conditions are those with four- wheel drive. Bu oyed by a false sense of

safety that comes with the increased control, drivers of four- w h e e l -d r i ve vehicles take more risks. “These vehicles are big- ger and heav i e r, which should keep them on the ro a d ,” say s Ropeik. “But police report that these drivers go fast e r, eve n when roads are slippery.”

Both are cases of risk compensation: People have a pre f e r re d l evel of risk, and they modulate their behavior to keep risk at that constant level. Fe a t u res designed to increase safety—f o u r- wheel drive, Seat belts, or air bags—wind up making people d r i ve fast e r. The safety features may reduce risks associated with we a t h e r, but they don’t cut ove rall risk. “If I drink a diet soda with dinner,” quips Slovic, “I have ice cream for dessert.”

VI. TEENS MAY THINK TOO MUCH ABOUT RISK—AND NOT FEEL ENOUGH Why using your cortex isn’t always smart.

pa r e n ts wo r ry endlessly that their teens will drive, get pregnant, or ove rdose on drugs; they think youth feel immortal and don’t consider negative consequences. Curi- o u s l y, howeve r, teens are actually l e s s l i kely than adults to fall into the trap of thinking, “It wo n ’t happen to me.” In fact, teens massively ove re stimate the odds of things like con- t racting HIV or syphilis if they have sex. One study found that teens thought a sexually active girl had a 60 perc e n t

98 Psychology Today January/February 2008 January/February 2008 Psychology Today 99





As a result, teaching reasoned decision- making to teens backfire s, argues Re y n a . I n stead, she say s, we should teach kids to rule out risks based on emotional re s p o n s- e s —for exa m p l e, by considering the wo r st- case scenario, as adults do. But re s e a rc h s u g g e sts there may be no way to speed up the development of mature decision-mak- i n g. Repetition and practice are critical to emotional judgment—which means that it takes time to learn this skill.


people tend to maintain a st e a dy level of risk, sensing what range of odds is comfortable for them and st aying with- in it. “We all have some propensity to take risk,” says Adams. “That’s the setting on the ‘risk thermost a t .’ ” Some people have a very high tolerance for risk, while oth- ers are more cautious.

Fo rget the idea of a risk-taking person- a l i t y. If there ’s a dare d evil gene that glob- ally affects risk- t a k i n g, re s e a rchers have n ’t found it. Genes do influence impulsivity, which certainly affects the risks people t a ke. And test o st e rone inclines males to t a ke more risks than females. But age and situation matter as much as gender. Me n 15 to 25 are very risk- p rone compared to s a m e-age women and older people.

Mo re importantly, one person’s risk

t h e r m o stat may have different settings for different types of risk. “Somebody who has their whole portfolio in junk bonds is not necessarily also a mountain climber,” explains Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon Un i ve r s i t y.

V I I I . WE WO R RY ABOUT TEEN MARIJUA N A USE, BUT NOT ABOUT TEEN SPORTS Risk arguments cannot be divorced from values.

if the risks of smoking marijua na are coldly compa r e d to those of playing high-school football, parents should be less concerned about pot smoking. Death by marijuana ove rd o s e

100 Psychology Today January/February 2008

chance of getting AIDS. So why do they do it any way? Teens may not be irrational about risk but t o orational, arg u e s

Valerie Reyna, a psyc h o l o g i st at Cornell Un i ve r s i t y. Adults aske d to consider absurd propositions like “Is it a good idea to drink D rano?” immediately and intuitively say no. Ad o l e s c e n t s, how- eve r, take more than twice as long to think about it. Bra i n -s c a n research shows that when teens contemplate things like play- ing Russian roulette or drinking and driving, they primarily use rational regions of the bra i n —certain regions of cortex— while adults use emotional regions like the insula.

When risky decisions are weighed in a rational calculus, ben- efits like fitting in and feeling good now can outweigh real risks.




has never been reported, while 13 teen players died of football- related injuries in 2006 alone. And marijuana impairs driving far less than the number one drug used by teens: alcohol. Alco- hol and tobacco are also more likely to beget addiction, give rise to cancer, and lead to harder drug use.

If the comparison feels absurd, it’s because judgments of risk are inseparable from value judgments. We value physical fitness and the lessons teens learn from sports, but disapprove of unearned pleasure from re c reational drugs. So we ’ re will- ing to accept the higher level of risk of socially pre f e r red activ- ities—and we mentally magnify risks associated with activities society rejects, which leads us to do things like arresting mar- ijuana smokers.

“Risk decisions are not about risks alone,” says Slovic. “Pe o- ple usually take risks to get a benefit.” The value placed on that benefit is inherently subjective, so decisions about them can- not be made purely “on the science.”

IX. WE LOVE SUNLIGHT BUT FEAR NUCLEAR POWER Why “natural” risks are easier to accept.

the word r a d i a t i o n stirs thoughts of nuclear pow- e r, X- ray s, and danger, so we shudder at the thought of ere c t- ing nuclear power plants in our neighborhoods. But every day we ’ re bathed in radiation that has killed many more people than nuclear reactors: sunlight. It’s hard for us to grasp the danger because sunlight feels so familiar and natural.

Our built-in bias for the natural led a California town to choose a toxic poison made from chrysanthemums over a milder artificial chemical to fight mosquitoes: People felt more comfortable with a plant-based product. We see what’s “natu- ral” as safe—and re g a rd the new and “unnatural” as frightening.

Any sort of novelty—including new and unpronounceable c h e m i c a l s —evo kes a low- l evel st ress re s p o n s e, says Bruce Pe r- ry, a child psychiatrist at ChildTrauma Academy. When a case report suggested that lavender and tea-tree oil products caused abnormal bre a st development in boy s, the media shrugged and a c t i v i sts we re silent. If these had been artificial chemicals, there l i kely would have been calls for a ban, but because they are nat- u ral plant pro d u c t s, no outrage resulted. “Na t u re has a good re p u t a t i o n ,” says Slovic. “We think of natural as benign and safe. But malaria’s natural and so are deadly mushrooms.”

X. WE SHOULD FEAR FEAR ITSELF Why worrying about risk is itself risky.

though the odds of dy i ng in a terror at tack like 9/1 1 or contracting Ebola are infinitesimal, the effects of chro n i c st ress caused by constant fear are significant. Studies have found that the more people were exposed to media portrayals of the 2001 attacks, the more anxious and depressed they we re. Chro n- ically elevated st ress harms our phy s i o l o g y, says Ropeik. “It i n t e r f e res with the formation of bone, lowers immune re s p o n s e, i n c reases the likelihood of clinical depression and diabetes, impairs our memory and our fertility, and contributes to long- term cardiovascular damage and high blood pressure.”

The physiological consequences of ove re stimating the dan- gers in the world—and revving our anxiety into ove rd r i ve— a re another reason risk perception matters. It’s impossible to live a r i s k-f ree life: Everything we do increases some risks while low- ering others. But if we understand our innate biases in the way we manage risks, we can adjust for them and genuinely st ay safer— without freaking out over every leaf of lettuce. PT

MAIA SZ A L AV I TZ is the co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as

a Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook.

102 Psychology Today January/February 2008


1 . W h at’s more common in the United St ates, (a) suicide or ( b) homicide?

2 . W h at’s the more frequent cause of death in the Unite d St ates, (a) pool drowning or (b) falling out of bed?

3 . W h at are the top five causes of accidental death in America, fo l l owing moto r -vehicle accidents, and which is the biggest one?

4 . Of the top two causes of nonaccidental death in America, (a) cancer and (b) heart disease, which kills more wo m e n?

5 . W h at are the next three causes of nonaccidental deat h in the United St ate s?

6 . Which has killed more Americans, bird flu or mad cow d i s e a s e?

7. H ow many Americans die from AIDS every ye a r, (a) 1 2 , 9 95, (b) 129, 95 0, or (c) 1,299, 5 0 0 ?

8 . H ow many Americans die from diabetes every year? (a) 72 , 8 2 0, (b) 72 8 , 2 0 0, or (c) 7, 2 8 2 ,0 0 0 ?

9. Which kills more Americans, (a) appendicitis or ( b) salmonella?

1 0. Which kills more Americans, (a) pre g n a n cy and childbirth or (b) malnutrition?

A N SWERS (all re fer to number of Americans per ye a r, on ave ra g e) : 1. a 2. a. 3. In order: drug ove rd o s e, fire, choking, falling down stairs, bicyc l e a ccidents. 4. b. 5. In order: st ro ke, re s p i ratory disease, diabetes. 6. No American has died from either one. 7. a. 8. a. 9. a. 10. b.

S o u rces: Ce n ters for Disease Co n t rol and Prevention (Division of Vi t a l St at i st i c s), National Tra n s p o r t ation Safety Board .



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