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Tuesday 28 June 2011

How Worry Seems to Prevent Disaster

Everyone worries, some of us more than others.  But why?  Sometimes it just seems to happen.  Suddenly our minds are filled with future catastrophes.

Sometimes, though, it can seem important to worry – as though the act of worrying can actually prevent disaster.  We can sense ourselves conjuring up images of bad outcomes in a compulsive way.  This tendency can become habitual in some people, and can contribute to a life consumed by worry.

But surely the simple act of imagining disaster doesn’t actually reduce its likelihood unless it actually affects our behaviour.  Perhaps a concern about skin cancer will motivate us to use sunscreen and hats, but the worry itself probably doesn’t stop cells from growing out of control.  How does this idea take root?

One of the main influences is statistical.

Even people who claim to worry “about everything” don’t.  They worry about specific things.  The cab to the airport will be late.  The plane will crash.  There will be an earthquake upon our arrival.  The list of worries is long, but finite.

The list of catastrophes that could actually happen is much much longer.  The cab could get in an accident.  The airport will be shut down due to a bomb threat.  The airline could go bankrupt.  There could be antigovernment riots at our destination.  There could be a hurricane, but no earthquake.  The hotel will have no air conditioning.  We will come down with the flu.  And a thousand other possibilities.

What happens over time?  The specific things we worry about tend not to happen.  Most of them are, after all, only remote possibilities.

The things that DO happen to us come from the long list of possibilities that we never considered.  A moose darts in front of our rental car.  We twist an ankle in the shower.  Our spouse brings up a disagreement from five years ago.

Result:  When we worry about something, it seldom seems to happen.  When we have bad outcomes, it’s almost always something we did not worry about.  Gradually it begins to seem that our worry actually prevents disaster.  Worry feels important, magical, helpful.

Human beings are bad at intuitive statistics.  We do not automatically take the “base rates” of possible outcomes into account in our calculations.  Consequently, we are prone to developing erroneous connections between our behaviour and its results.

One solution is to be more diligent in our attempts to worry about everything.  More of the things we dwell on will come to pass, and we may learn that worry doesn’t help.

A better approach is to remind ourselves that our thoughts do not control reality.  We can plan, we can problem solve, we can set goals. But envisioning a kitchen fire does not keep our home safe. And neglecting to stress about something doesn’t make it happen.

After all, you’ve never worried about Woody Allen coming to steal your toothbrush in the night, and thus far it hasn’t happened, has it?

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