How do you react to the following words?
These words have neutral definitions. But they also have subjective meanings. For some of us, in certain contexts, those words are loaded (no pun intended re: "guns"). They suggest harm or danger, evoking what the academics call an "aversive' response. Trouble is, the aversive response isn't just to the word, but to anything associated with it. And that can be dangerous all by itself.
Airplanes can represent a fun way to go on holiday, or things that crash. Chemicals can mean the stuff we're made of, or substances that poison us and the environment. Hospitals that cure are good. Hospitals where people are sick or die, are bad. Guns? Hunters like them. Victims of gun crime don't. Words are like any other data inputs into our brains. They're neutral, meaningless, until we interpret those data.
One of the first areas in the brain to interpret words is the amygdala, the area discussed in an earlier blog (Try to Think Carefully About Risks! Oops! You Can't!") where fear begins. The amygdala is our 24/7 radar, scanning for possible danger. If it senses even the hint of danger in a word, the amygdala immediately initiates the Fight or Flight response, the biological and chemical changes that are the quick, protective, instinctive response that helps keep us alive. (The scarier the word, the stronger the response.) Once this protective "Uh Oh!" sort of response has been triggered, it sets the context for how we respond to other information about that scary word.
But how does the amygdala know a word connotes possible danger? That's where a mental shortcut called the Representativeness Heuristic comes in. We quickly make sense of information by comparing it against what we already know, against the background knowledge the new information seems to represent. Consider how this colors what we think of when we hear the world" chemicals".
A lot of what we already know about "chemicals" is scary. Yeah, without them life itself would be impossible. But "chemicals" are also strongly associated with pollution and poisons and Love Canal and Bhopal and a greedy industry that puts its profits in front of our health. So when we hear or read the word "chemicals", we immediately associate it with all that other stuff. A survey asked people what came to mind when they heard the word "chemicals" and the leading category of answers included words like toxic, hazardous, deadly, destruction, accidents, kill, harmful, bad, and cancer. Not a happy word!
You can see this reflected in a lot of what has been in the news lately. The headline of a recent OpEd column in the New York Times by Nick Kristof read "New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer" . Kristof's first paragraph ends with "Chemicals threaten our bodies", the point of a report by a group of government science advisers on cancer. Way down in paragraph 16 Kristof acknowledges that the word has other meanings..."This is not to say that chemicals are evil..." he caveats, adding "...and in many cases the evidence against a particular substance is balanced by other studies that are exonerating." But just like our risk response, the dangerous meaning of ‘chemicals' takes precedence in the column, in this case by 15 paragraphs, over other ways we might think about the word.
Or look at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico. To clean up the oil spill, government officials and BP are using dispersant chemicals that break up the oil. The chemicals are themselves toxic, but not as much as the oil, so it's a lesser-of-two-evils kind of choice. The New York Times headline on a story about this read "In Gulf of Mexico, Chemicals Under Scrutiny" Uh Oh! The "C" word! The article clearly emphasizes the worry about ‘chemicals", and in paragraph seven the reporter notes that the dispersant failed an environmental test by the British. But a paragraph later the report tell us that the test wasn't in an environment like the Gulf of Mexico and the dispersant chemical passed the test for use in that kind of environment, the place where it's actually being used. The scary potential of the chemical came first. The other, more relevant, more reassuring finding about the chemical, came second.
Don't blame reporters. They're people too. (I was one, and used to report like this all the time, playing up the scary parts and playing down the parts that moderated how scary things were.) This is how we ALL respond to risk. If information, even just the meaning of a word, portends danger, it sets off protective systems that then set the context for how we interpret all the other information connected with that situation.
But, as with "airplanes" or "hospitals", or "guns", that makes it harder for us to keep our minds open about all the pros and cons about a situation or a substance or a technology. Danger, even if it's only suggested by the meaning of a word, comes first, setting off a protective reaction that makes it harder to think carefully about anything else. Which means that the judgments we make about risks, from off shore drilling to flying to going to the hospital, might feel protective but might not produce the most thoughtful, safest, healthiest choices. So...beware your risk response. It's good at protecting you, but in a world of complex modern risks, it can get you into trouble too. Sticks and stones, and words, can figuratively break your bones.
David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard and author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts"