How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

Why Do We Keep Predicting The Future If We Are So Often WRONG?

Knowing what lies ahead, or thinking we do, is a matter of survival.


Welcome to 2011. Here we are, on the cutting edge of genetically personalized medicine and cars that can fly and artificial life forms made in the lab and... Wait a minute. Haven't all those things been predicted for years? Aren't they supposed to be here already? Well, yeah. Which begs two questions. Why not? And, why do we keep trying to predict the future when we are so often wrong?
Some thoughts on the psychology of why we need to try to figure out what's going to happen, from an essay I was asked to contribute recently to the New York Times in a wonderful series they run called Room for Debate;

I predict that far in the future, people will still be trying to predict what will happen far into the future. For the same reason we do it now...to give ourselves the feeling of control over our fate. And not fate as in "What will cities look like" or "How will people travel in the year 2110?" I mean fate as in safety...survival...life and death.
The study of the psychology of risk perception has found that one of the most powerful influences on fear is uncertainty. The less we know, the more threatened we feel, because lack of knowledge means we don't know what we need to know to protect ourselves...which equates to a lack control over health and safety, life and death. Try this little thought experiment. Imagine driving 85 miles an hour down an open highway on a clear dry day... air rushing past the car, the engine roaring with the speed. Now CLOSE YOUR EYES! Keep driving, accelerator mashed to the floor...eyes still closed...half a mile...3/4 of a mile...a MILE!

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(Take a moment to stop reading and actually try this and imagine how it would feel.)

Welcome back. How does that feel? Most people in the lectures I give say this feels scary. Naturally. They are feeling uncertain, not knowing what they need to know to protect themselves. Knowledge, even if it's incomplete, is power over how things turn out. Power, a feeling of control (even if it's false) is reassuring. Without knowledge, and some sense of control, we're more afraid.
So we look down the road, and try to see what lies around the next curve, in all sorts of ways. Futurism, whether it's in books or movies, or experts predicting what "Tomorrowland" will look like, or religions answering the ultimate futurist question, "What happens after I die", are all speaking to the same innate desire we have for some control over our future, our fate, our survival. And even when hindsight lets us look back and see how blind and optimistic our foresight usually is, the reassuring nature of the exercise means that the future for futurism is really bright.

David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts"

 

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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