You hear it on the news every day, the list of things you're supposed to be afraid of today (and just how afraid you should be). Whether it's killer cholesterol in your food, hidden terrorist cells or menacing muggers on the street, it seems that you can hardly draw a breath these days without the risk of inhaling a fatal dose of fear.
But is there, really, all that much to be afraid of? Let's take a look:
Well, for starters, you're almost seven times more likely to die in a car accident than to face any violent assault. And yet I'd be willing to be that most of you feel far more at risk crossing a parking lot at night than climbing into your car in the bright light of morning. (http://www.nsc.org/lrs/statinfo/odds.htm) And as far as terrorists go, you're more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than die in a terrorist attack. (http://www.mattbarr.com/archives/2006/09/your_chance_of.html) Remember that the next time you start to get irate about those potato chips that won't drop down.
So why are we so afraid of these things? It's a combination of intentional information manipulation and poor risk assessment skills.
Let's consider these things separately. In the case of data manipulation, you need to understand that there's good money in keeping the American public afraid. People who can be provoked into fearing car accidents will buy bigger and more expensive SUVs, instead of opting for smaller gas-sipping compacts, while people afraid of home invasion will buy any and every home-security gadget there is, if they can be convinced that doing otherwise puts their family at risk. Fear-mongering can sway elections, create groundswells for or against certain political issues or legislation, and distract our attention away from embarrassing or illegal activities.
Whenever you hear about something you should be afraid of, your first reaction should be to consider the source. Health scares in a fitness magazine serve to sell more magazines, and provide a steady flow of money to advertisers. Political scares affect elections. Economic scares change buying and investment behaviors. Ask yourself, "Who gains if I agree to be afraid of this? Who loses? And can I really do anything about it, or will it just leave me full of anxiety with no way to affect the outcome?"
Secondly, humans are horrible at risk assessment. Vivid, scary-sounding news makes a bigger impact on our decisions than cold, hard statistics about its likelihood. I'm sure everyone has heard of people who refuse to wear seatbelts, in spite of all the evidence that buckling up save lives, because they know of or have heard of someone who was injured by a seatbelt when they might have otherwise have escaped an accident unscathed. This is called the "misleading vividness" fallacy, and unfortunately, it's very persuasive.
The Van Restorff effect also plays a role, causing us to be far more likely to remember (and thus obsess about or consider likely) a prominent event like 9/11 and ignore the far more prevalent (but boring) reality that most of the time nothing blows up or falls down. Finally, confirmation bias leads us to listen to evidence that supports what we already believe (the sky is falling!) than contradictory information, no matter how weak the supporting evidence or how strong the negative argument.
Put all these (and many other cognitive biases) together and you have a species that is ripe for obsessing about unlikely events, viewing dramatic but extremely rare dangers as immediate and ongoing potential threats, and ignoring any information that tries to convince them otherwise. If this weren't the case, no one would ever buy a lottery ticket (which would, perversely, make each ticket increasingly more likely to be a winner).
So how can you combat anxiety in your life?
Who profits from convincing me to be fearful? What am I likely to do if I'm afraid, and who benefits from that? Is this fear realistic, or merely captivating melodrama? Am I worrying about real dangers, or merely perceived (or even invented) threats? Can I actually do anything about this fear, or is this just something to worry about to no real end? What cognitive biases could be affecting my judgment? Am I ignoring sound evidence to the contrary? Where can I find out more about my real risk, concrete actions I can take to reduce these risks and what actions are actually helpful (as opposed to pointless dithering)?
Life is a dangerous game, there's no denying that. But huddling in a corner paralyzed with fear is no way to live, and worrying about unlikely or even imaginary threats does you no good and could even cause you harm. So dump the fear-factor lifestyle and start focusing on what's really important, instead of what someone else wants you to worry about. After all, stress-related illnesses like heart attack and stroke are far more likely to get you than any random act of violence.
David B. Bohl may be contacted at http://www.slowdownfast.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Coach David Bohl shares the viral message "Slow Down FAST" and helps people raise the roof on all facets of their lives without risking implosion. Get some must-haves for persevering in challenging times! Sign up for David's online newsletter, The Bohl Report, today at http://www.slowdownfast.com/the_bohl_report.html