Staying Safe in a Fast-Changing World
The way we think about being careful is likely due for an upgrade.
Posted Mar 30, 2017
Do you look at your phone while driving or walking? Hurry through yellow lights? Stand on chairs? Stand on swivel chairs?
What are you thinking?
I can tell you what you’re thinking when you do these things. You’re thinking: I got this. Or: I’m in a hurry, and it’ll just be this one time. And most of the time, it all works out just fine. After all, we’re pretty careful.
But after a hundred years during which the world got safer and safer, we’re seeing an unprecedented rise in the rate at which people are being hurt or killed as a result of “accidents” — the name we give to unintentional but usually preventable injuries. Car crashes are up, and so are the number of pedestrians and bicyclists who are getting hit by cars. People are falling off ladders and falling down stairs like never before. No fewer than 333,527 people presented themselves to an emergency room in 2014 after using a kitchen knife. While doctors and medical researchers work busily to extend our lives, it seems, more of the rest of us are figuring out ways to cut them short.
Despite what some books would have you believe — books that try to entertain readers with news of injurious deaths — we aren’t turning into incompetent galoots who are headed toward extinction. If you’re reading Psychology Today, then you’ve probably heard of the Flynn Effect. Our measured IQs seem to be rising with each generation. Don’t you just feel smarter than your parents? I know I have since about age two. And on top of our rising intelligence, college education has doubled over the past 30 years and now afflicts more than 25 percent of the population.
OK, maybe there is a new culture of danger out there. Perhaps there are more daredevils among us who throw caution to the wind. But that doesn’t sound right, either. Sure, we now have extreme sports, like car surfing and parkour, but there aren’t enough of these thrill-seeking types to drive up the fatality numbers for an entire nation. And we see safety messages everywhere today, and we take lots of precautions that our parents didn’t. In 1987, seat belt usage was 42 percent. Today it’s 87 percent. The laissez-faire parenting of yesteryear has given way to helicoptering. Seen an 8-year-old with a BB gun lately? They were standard issue when I was a kid. And how many times do we hear the simple phrase “Be careful” exchanged between friends and loved ones?
What more likely explains the rise in injuries is that our world is becoming more complex, and our opportunities to get hurt are ever expanding.
Modern life means phones, texts, emails, digital signage, televisions, radios, and sometimes even actual human beings pulling our attention in many directions at once. Psychologists have known for many years that our ability to pay attention is limited. And while our attention is being pulled over there, hazards sometimes pop up over here.
To err may be human, but we’ve never been entirely comfortable with the idea that we sometimes slip. Whenever I fall off a ladder, the best I can usually come up with is something like: “Okay, fine. Mistakes were made.” The problem is that the objects and activities that surround us today are even more loaded with potential for harm. We have faster cars, and there’s nothing stopping us from trying to watch a movie while we’re driving one. We couldn’t do that back in our day; where would we have plugged in the VCR? The number of prescription drugs available in the U.S. is soaring — omeprazole, itraconazole...Do you think mix-ups are happening with any of these drugs?
We go about much of our day "on autopilot," as we try to be efficient and keep up in a fast-paced world. But we’d be better off stopping to ask ourselves questions like: “How could this go wrong?” and “Is there a safer way to do this?” When you work your way into a crowded public space, do you stop and think how you would get out if you needed to? Think about crossing a street while staring down at your phone. We so often assume that the driver in that car will see us. But what if he’s on his phone, too? We might even be texting each other!
Reasoning about risk is now harder, too. Ten thousand years ago, we had wild animals and sharp sticks by way of hazards. The dangers of these things are apparent: I challenge you to find anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to poke a moose with a stick. But now find me a driver who’s willing to hold a phone in one hand, a coffee cup in the other, and steer with their knees while driving on the freeway at breakneck speed. There is a whole parade of them on the roads right now.
We white-knuckle the armrest of an airplane that wouldn’t crash if we flew on it 25,000,000 times, and yet we’re astonished when a fire breaks out in our home, even though it happens to 1 in 320 families each year. Wait until we have nanotechnology: At a few billionths of a meter wide, that won’t look dangerous at all.
Possibly the greatest resource we’ve ever had for staying safe is each other. But put us in traffic, hurrying to go anywhere, in hot weather, cold weather, or in a sour mood even in nice weather, and our concern for the well-being of others can shrink quickly. Psychologists tell us that empathy and concern for others may be declining. Meanwhile, a study by AAA confirms that the number of middle finger deployments among drivers is on the rise.
So how do we stay safe in a modern world? Do we even stand a chance in the future? Sure we do: We just have to think it through and up our game a bit. The world is more sophisticated and so must be our way of thinking about being careful in it. To do that, we’ll need to think through the psychological vulnerabilities that we just talked about and learn how to stay out in front of disasters before they have a chance to happen.
We are creative, resilient, problem-solvers. We have minds as versatile as a Swiss Army knife. That’s how we've survived in the face of famine, disease, the cold, and smartphones that spontaneously burst into flames in the back of otherwise safe airplanes. We can use those same cognitive faculties to take back control of our own safety. We just need to put a little more thought into it.
These are the topics I talk about in my new book Careful and that we’ll expand upon in this blog. And we’ll talk about them in the context of everyday activities. If you check in regularly, it will help keep carefulness on your mind, which probably wouldn’t kill you. And if you have a great story that we could all learn something from, send it on in.
Until the next installment… Be careful out there.