June 25, 2014
By Michael Craig Miller M.D.
Harvard Medical School
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to recognize risks in their environment and react to them quickly. It helped them survive. In modern times, humans are still wired to pay close attention to conditions that might be dangerous.
Today, it's almost impossible to avoid signs of danger. They reach us from every part of the world through our televisions, computers and smartphones. School shootings, natural and human-made disasters, worries about health risks (your weight, diet or cigarette habit) all require us to think about risk. And they can overwhelm our warning systems. Sometimes, our ancestral survival mechanisms have their disadvantages.
You can develop your ability to think critically about risk. It takes gaining some perspective, which is not always easy. If you do, your decision making should improve. Learning how to look at risk could also help improve your health and quality of life.
How We Fool Ourselves
We humans have a tendency to make risk appear greater — or smaller — than it actually is.
Risk perception is not entirely rational. Instead, we assess risks using a mixture of mental abilities.
We weigh evidence using reason and logic. But our emotions also kick in. Depending on the nature of the trigger, we may feel fear, sadness or disgust. Our intuition or imagination goes to work, affecting our perception of risk. So certain perils can seem more dangerous than others.
We also learn to distort risk in several ways. We tend to minimize the risks that we choose to take. But if someone else puts us at risk, we exaggerate it. We also minimize risk if we feel that we have some control over what we're about to do. For example:
- A New Yorker who smokes may downplay or deny the health risks of smoking, while exaggerating the dangers of an environmental accident in Japan.
- Rationally I know I'm at greater risk in a car than a commercial airplane. But I don't feel anxious driving my own car. However, I am a little fearful before every airplane trip.
Here are a few other quirks regarding how we perceive risk:
- We fear human-made dangers (for example, terror attacks) more than natural harms (such as sun exposure).
- We fear large, sudden events, such as earthquakes, more than chronic ones, such as heart disease or diabetes.
- We exaggerate dangers that are uncertain, unfamiliar, hard to see or hard to understand. Radiation exposure or newly discovered viruses fall into that category.
- We are particularly affected when danger hits close to home, such as a friend being diagnosed with cancer. High-profile media coverage can make any danger in the world feel closer to home.
- Harms to children, such as school shootings or childhood illnesses, are particularly devastating to us.
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A way to push back from all this input is to learn perspective. Consider the factors that make risk appear greater or smaller than it actually is. In other words, develop your capacity to think critically about risk.
One key question to ask: Whom do you trust? We tend to believe the people or institutions we trust: family members, friends, clergy or the news outlet that most closely reflects our political beliefs. We make them the keepers of our risk perception.
But you should ask yourself whether those people or institutions are trustworthy sources of information about subjects of great concern. For example, you may love your daughter, but she may not be the person most knowledgeable about the latest diet fad or how to manage your heart disease.
It is impossible to ignore or completely control our emotional reactions to danger. We are wired to react.
And if you are in the direct vicinity of high-profile disasters, like New Yorkers were after 9/11 or the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there is indeed a higher risk of suffering mentally and physically.
Nevertheless, if you understand the factors that distort your risk perception, you may avoid needless anxiety. You may also develop more realistic coping strategies for dangers that come your way. You may also have more fun if this learned perspective helps you pursue the risks that are worth taking.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is the former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 30 years.