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  • Sam Darling

Risk – perceived and actual

There were times when my anxiety crippled my ability to live my life. I learned to manage my anxiety and one of the main tools I use for that is skepticism. When I believed something that caused me anxiety–for example that my college dorm might be haunted as it was reputed to be by almost everyone in Boston–I used skepticism on myself and examined the facts instead. It wasn’t too long before I stopped believing in ghosts as I always found a rational explanation for the weirdness. Without skepticism I wouldn’t have used detective work and I would have been left with a supernatural explanation, perhaps believing in ghosts to this day and living with unnecessary fear.

We are born credulous; critical thinking is a skill we have to develop.


[The Charlesgate in Boston, Massachusetts.]

I didn’t realize how much skepticism had become a central component of my life until I noticed those around me who don’t use it. They’re prone to belief in media hype, hoaxes, superstition, and all many of anxiety-provoking stories. In order to quell my anxiety I like to turn to math and make a judgement based on data, rather than my gut.

Skepticism helped me when I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was rife with anti-vaccination fear. The scare-mongering against vaccinating my newborn was all around me. I turned to the data and it became obvious that the potential risk of side effect from vaccine was tiny compared to the definite long-term problem of losing herd immunity. Choosing to vaccinate was the best choice even though my gut was trying to freak me out and tell me it was a bad idea.

When I read The Hot Zone and worried about catching diseases, critical thinking helped me realize that I was at greater risk of getting hit by lightning than dying of ebola. Hey, I’ve been freaking out about ebola since before it was fashionable. I even had the plushy!

ebola plushy

It shocks me how often people deny the math. People will more often go with their gut than facts. Even though your gut is almost always wrong. Your gut is terrible at parsing actual risk from what it perceives as dangerous.

When I think about riding in an airplane my gut says it’s way scarier than the cab ride to the airport, even though all the data demonstrates that my gut is wrong.

According to my gut, singing in public is the scariest, most dangerous life-threatening thing I’ve ever done. My gut is a liar, and so is yours. Ask yourself why you worry about terrorist attacks, stranger danger, or ebola when there are far more likely threats to your health currently in your own home. Cardinal rule in my house: No standing on chairs.

I’m possibly the only person who attends a toddler’s birthday party and views the balloon decorations with more fear than the sugar in the cake, but then the numbers tell me I’m correct and those cheerful balloons are a dangerous choking hazard.

The parsing of perceived and actual risks is a useful life tool.

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