A century ago the average lifespan in the developed world was around 45. It's now well into the 70's. Clean water, public sanitation, vaccines and medicines and health care...they have all given us much longer, and generally healthier, lives. So why are so many people in developed countries so worried? Why is it that a substantial number of people think these are among the riskiest times in which humans have ever lived?
Well, with apologies to Omar Khayyam; The Moving Risk Scares, and Having Scared, Moves On. Polio was a scary thing when I was a kid, but then vaccines came along and that risk moved off our radar screens. The Cold War and the threat of all-out nuclear holocaust was a scary thing when I was a kid. But the Doomsday Clock has been set back a few minutes since U.S.-Russia military hostility has eased a bit (though it's still set at only 6 minutes before midnight).
Things change. Old risks disappear, or diminish. But new ones take their place. Climate change, endocrine disrupting chemicals, international terrorism, new infectious diseases, and the global travel that lets new germs spread worldwide within days...our industrial/technological/global age is safer in some ways, but along with its benefits it certainly is producing plenty of risks. But on top of that there are some interesting psychological factors that play into our modern fears.
Psychologists have known for some time that we subconsciously use something called the Availability Heuristic to help us make the snap judgments we constantly have to make before we have all the information we'd need in order to make a fully informed, rational choice. ("Heuristic" is academese for "mental shortcut for decision making".) Basically, the more readily or more loudly something rings a bell in our head, the more our head says "Wow, that came to mind pretty easily. Must be important."
Well, availability can come from what we learned or experienced a while ago, or it can come from what's staring us in the face at the moment. And in our modern industrial/technological/global/INFORMATION age, the radar screen is full of the Risk du Jour. The immediacy of news, and blogs, and social media, now guarantee that word of a new germ can travel around the world faster than the germ can. And given the explosion in the number of sources of information, the competition for our attention guarantees encourages a "He Who Screams Loudest, Wins" attitude among information providers. That heightens the emphasis the news media place on the frightening or dramatic or negative news of the day.
But the information media only magnify what is intrinsic in all of us. We want to survive, and survival is about what lies ahead, not behind. We already made it through yesterday. The challenge is making it through tomorrow. We don't compare how safe we are now with how safe we were, or weren't, way back when. Risk perception is about detecting danger around the next curve in the road, not the one we've already travelled. For example, we're not worried about measles mumps or rubella anymore. They're effectively gone. But the media has dramatized the possibility that the MMR vaccine may be a risk. (It's not, but a lot of people still think so.) So the risk of vaccines to future generations worries us more than the risk of diseases that mostly affected people in the past.
The vaccine fears demonstrate another quirk of our risk perception system. We're Loss Averse, which means that between equivalent gain and loss, the loss feels worse than the gain feels good. In a tradeoff between risk and harm, the harm side is going to matter more. So we pay more attention to the risk of the vaccines, than their benefits. Things that could harm us in the modern world get more attention than things that keep us healthy and safe. It's just how risk perception works.
This sort of affective risk perception carries its own dangers. If we give too much attention to the risks that lie ahead, fed by information media spotlighting every new possible danger, we can lose sight of the ones we haven't completely put behind us. Measles are coming back in many communities where people have refused to vaccinate their kids. Children are getting sick again, some even dying, from a disease that isn't completely gone. Risk perception really does need to look backwards as well as forwards. And if our Loss Aversion leads us to ignore the benefit side of a risk/benefit tradeoff, we end up doing things like avoiding healthy seafood because we're worried about the low levels of mercury in some species.
There is also the less-than-obvious risk of just plain worrying too much. Biologically, that's stress, and stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, weakens our immune system, impairs memory and fertility and growth, and is associated with diabetes, clinical depression, and gastrointestinal problems. Worrying too much about staying healthy can be one of the worst things you can do, to stay healthy.
So we need to take stock of the way we "do" risk perception. We need to recognize the distorting effects of the Availability Heuristic, combat the Chicken Little information media by educating ourselves a little better, and keep in mind the tradeoffs most risk choices entail, if we want to keep our sense of risk in perspective and make the healthiest choices we can manage in a safe AND risky modern world.
David Ropeik is a consultant in risk perception and risk communication and author of "How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts"