We Worry About the Wrong Things
5 examples of how our anxiety goes awry (and the implications for our wallets).
Posted July 22, 2016
Americans are anxious—a recent poll showed that only 21% of people think the country is headed in the right direction. The Internet is full of doomsday talk about our living in a time of unprecedented danger. And in his speech last night at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump warned of the "violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities."
But are we right to be nervous? And are we anxious over the right things? I suggest that the answer is both yes and no. The things we tend to worry about—the things that drive those pessimistic statistics—often pose little personal risk. At the same time, we overlook things that are, probabilistically speaking, much more realistic threats.
The key to figuring out what’s worth our worry (and our money and tax dollars) is to pay attention to trends, and not simply how we feel in the moment. Of course, taking into account the bigger picture requires more cognitive effort than simply letting emotions and intuitions guide our judgments. But we would be happier, and make more sound investments, in the long-term if we put in that effort.
Here are five examples of the way our minds go awry, and why it matters.
1. We are convinced we've entered dangerous times, when we’re actually living in the most peaceful era in history. Steven Pinker has done a brilliant job making a case for the decline of violence. Among other things, war and violent crime have gone down, women enjoy more professional opportunities than ever before, and the treatment of gays and lesbians has improved.
But why don’t we notice it? Or when we notice it, why doesn't it "stick"? One reason is because of something called the availability heuristic. We judge the frequency and severity of a certain event, in part, by how easily we’re able to call examples of it to mind. When the mainstream media is a flood of sensational stories about terrorists attacks, mass shootings, and plane crashes, we begin to believe that such tragedies are more common than they actually are. And we overestimate the likelihood of ever being personally affected by these kind of events (and spend our money and our tax dollars accordingly).
2. The corollary here is that we also underestimate the risk of less obvious threats to our well-being—for example, failing infrastructure, texting while driving, and falls in the home. Because these issues aren’t as sensational (it’s hard for people to get worked up about infrastructure), they do not receive the same media coverage, and aren’t as likely to capture our attention. But probabilistically speaking, they are more likely to harm us than much of what appears on the news, and deserve a greater share of our collective attention—and our tax dollars.
3. When it comes to the climate, it’s remarkably hard to get people to change their habits—to recycle more, to conserve energy—despite a vast mountain of evidence that the planet is experiencing a warming trend. One part of the problem is that we can always find days of the year that seem to fly in the face of that evidence. A cold snap in the winter. An unusually cool day in the summer. When we anchor on these days— when we use how we feel in the moment to guide our judgment about what has happened and what will happen next—we end up with biased estimates of the risk of climate change. (For another reason why it's difficult to get people to recycle, see here).
4. We undervalue modern medicine. When we see healthy people all around us, vaccinating our kids or listening to our doctors might, on some intuitive level, seem less necessary or less urgent. But we may very well think differently if we zoomed out, and considered how health and medicine looked when we didn't have vaccines or when we had to rely on holistic approaches to treating diseases. To put it bluntly, things were grim (see for yourself here)—people died from a multitude of devastating illnesses that are now entirely preventable.
5. We make poor lifestyle choices, because we have trouble seeing how decisions we make each day add up to changes over time. Smoking cigarettes, eating unhealthy foods, etc., all fall in this category. When we make decisions on the basis of impulse and emotion, we’re more likely to discount their costs, especially when those costs come down the line (as is the case with long-term health consequences). I recently wrote a post on this here.
Generally speaking, we'd live smarter, healthier, more peaceful lives if we made judgments and decisions based not on how we feel in the moment, but on long-term trends and probabilities. And even if it requires a bit more effort, seeing the big picture is likely to be our friend this election season.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK.
(C) Sarah Cotterill. All rights reserved.