The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

There Are No Accidents

Go for it, but look both ways first.

Life is a gamble. You can get hurt, but people die in plane crashes, lose their arms and legs in car accidents; people die every day. Same with fighters: some die, some get hurt, some go on. You just don't let yourself believe it will happen to you. - Muhammad Ali

 

My interest in the psychology of accidents began more than a dozen years ago when I was fortunate enough to gain access to the longitudinal Terman data. This research originally began in 1921 when Lewis Terman* of Stanford University identified highly intelligent youngsters in California. These individuals - called Termites, if you like bad puns - have been followed ever since. Originally intended as a study of genius, the Terman study has become an almost unique source of information about the psychological development of well-functioning US adults throughout the 20th century.

My interest was in optimism and its relationship to health among the Termites. I was able to score optimism from open-ended survey responses completed in 1936 and 1940 by 1182 of the respondents, when they were in their late twenties. Because the respondents have been followed ever since, how long they lived was known, as was the cause of their death if they had died.

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My research group assessed optimism, but we did not do the further statistical analyses. Instead, we collaborated with other researchers who knew how to do the appropriate number-crunching. This was back before e-mail was the default mode of communication, and I vividly remember a phone conversation I had with one of my statistically-savvy collaborators about what the data showed.

"Explanatory style [AKA optimism] predicted how long respondents lived," I was told.

"Oh cool," said I. "And what about cause of death? Were there any differential predictions?"

"Not for heart disease," he said. "And not for cancer. But there was an effect for death by other."

I more-or-less knew what he mean. "Other' was a miscellaneous coding category for deaths not otherwise captured in the coding scheme. But I was in a mood, so I made a joke.

"Does that mean death by significant other? I've had relationships that seemed to be going that way, although thank goodness I recovered."

He laughed, a little, and then said, "You're more right than you think you are. The 'other' category is mainly deaths by accident and in some cases deaths by deliberate violence."

Interesting. Optimists, in comparison to pessimists, were more likely to avoid fatal accidents, fatalities that can be described as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did follow-up studies showing that the same result occurred for non-fatal accidents as well.

As I wrote the scientific papers reporting these results (Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998; Peterson et al., 2001), I delved into the relevant research literature on accidents. At first, I thought there was no literature, because I could find no pertinent studies. Then I realized what was going on. Researchers do not typically  use the term accident in their papers. Why? Because they are predictable. "Accident" has a very clear connotation of randomness, and if you can predict accidents, then they are not random. Researchers instead opt for more clunky but less misleading terms like traumatic mishaps.  

Various risk factors for traumatic mishaps - accidents, if you will - have been frequently documented. Male gender. Younger age. The traits of extraversion and sensation-seeking. Anxiety and depression, which I think reflect not a subconscious death wish but simply inattentiveness; the gaze of those who are depressed is typically downward, not a good thing to do when crossing a street. Perhaps left-handedness, which makes sense given that we live in a right-handed world. Certainly alcohol. Chronic alcoholics seems less at risk for mishaps than inexperienced binge drinkers, but please draw no strong conclusions about this finding!

Situations also present risk factors, not simply in the obvious form of dangerous jobs but also in the form of a cross-cutting feature described as "newness." That is, for six months or so following a new job, a new residence, a new school, a new automobile, or a new route to work, the risk of traumatic mishaps goes up.

My interest in the psychology of accidents has been rekindled by a recent project in which I am involved that attempts to characterize the psychological risk factors for suicide among US Soldiers. This is an important project, but when the number of deaths due to suicides is juxtaposed with the number of deaths due to accidents, guess which is overwhelmingly larger? Indeed, even at the height of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, US Soldier deaths due to accident usually exceeded those due to enemy fire. This makes a lot of sense, given the known risk factors for accidents. Soldiers tend to be young males, and they are often outgoing.  Deployment to a foreign country to wage a war entails newness to the nth degree.

 

Accidents may not garner the attention or societal dismay that suicide does, but in terms of the sheer human cost, accidents usually take a greater toll. I also suspect that things can be done to reduce - dramatically - accidental deaths, not only among Soldiers but also among civilians. In the contemporary US, for example, more than 100,000 people die "accidentally" every year, an all-time high, and a number that greatly exceeds deaths by homicide. A likely intervention target is the mistaken perception that we are invulnerable to accidents. While we would not want to create paranoia on a large scale, a little information about the likelihood of accidents as well as their risk factors might be powerful stuff.

My essays here often focus on positive psychology. So what's the positive psychology point? If you read carefully the list of risk factors for traumatic mishaps, you may have noticed that some of them contribute to the good life: extraversion, sensation-seeking, and newness in all of its senses. The point is that everything has a cost, even good things.

So, go for it, dear reader, but look both ways first.

*Among Terman's contributions to psychology, besides initiating this study, was translating Binet's intelligence test from French to English; hence the name it still bears: the Stanford-Binet.

References

Peterson, C., Bishop, M. P., Fletcher, C. W., Kaplan, M. R., Yesko, E. S., Moon,  C. H.,  Smith, J. S., Michaels, C. E., & Michaels, A. J. (2001). Explanatory style as a risk factor for traumatic mishaps. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25, 633-649.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., Yurko, K. H., Martin, L. R., & Friedman, H. S. (1998). Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science, 9, 49-52.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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