You’re probably afraid of the wrong things

Arlen Parsa
Aug 29, 2018 · 4 min read
I made this video about my fears (and maybe yours).

Humans are dreadful at estimating stuff. Here’s an eye-popping statistic:

One of the biggest trends in world history is the steady decline in the global extreme poverty rate over the last 200 years. In the last 20 years alone, the speed of this progress has increased at a record rate!

Yet when Americans are asked if extreme global poverty has increased or decreased over the last 20 years, 85% of us answered the question incorrectly.

We’re often really bad at prioritizing threats, too

You may have heard an old slogan related to news reporting: “If it bleeds, it leads.” That expression means that if the editor is forced to choose which story will lead the nightly news broadcast or take the top headline on a website or newspaper, it’s often going to be the bloody gory one that seizes our attention and captures clicks.

Why? As humans we’re naturally drawn to pay attention to threats. Suppose you hear that somebody died after eating a particular type of contaminated lettuce. It’s natural to instantly scan the refrigerator wondering, could that happen to me too?

Lettuce… the silent killer

Threats in the modern world are super easy to spread info about

And because threats are easily publicized — from terrorist attacks to car crashes — it might seem like the world is more dangerous than ever before.

As Donald Trump ran for president he famously capitalized on people’s fears declaring that America is more dangerous today “than I have ever seen and, frankly, than anybody in this room has ever seen.” Of course, the truth is, violent crime of almost every type in the US is in the midst of a long steady decline. (One exception: Some data suggests that mass shootings are becoming deadlier, though perhaps not more frequent.)

Fear can be an extremely useful emotion… If you channel it properly

None of us would be here today if just one of our ancestors lacked a healthy dose of fear — at least enough to avoid fatally dangerous situations.

Today the axis of threats we feel like we face seems bigger and more diffuse than ever before. So it’s important to channel your fears into realistic things. We should be prioritize our fears toward things that we can actually take action to avoid.

For instance, fear of flying is fairly common (about 10% of U.S. survey respondents listed it among their top fears). But unless you’re a pilot or an aviation safety inspector, you probably can’t do much to avoid a plane crash. And although they’re spectacularly tragic when they do happen, the truth is, almost nobody dies in plane crashes. They’re newsworthy precisely because they’re rare. In fact, not a single person died in commercial plane crashes in 2017.

On the other hand, there’s probably an awful lot you can personally do to avoid getting high blood pressure, which affects almost 50% of American adults! Honestly, you are the only person in the entire world who has the ability to reduce your own personal rate of risk for diabetes or obesity.

Here’s another example. Almost half of American adults worry about another economic downturn. But there’s very little any one of us can do to avoid a financial meltdown on our own.

On the other hand, something like 70% of Americans could be doing more to prepare for their own personal retirement!

We should all probably spend less time worrying about terrorism. After all, terrorists kill vanishingly small numbers of people in the grand scheme of things. But we should probably spend a bit more time worrying about those potato chips we’ve been eating instead.

So, what can we do? Look at the big picture

I realize it’s not easy to just stop being scared of something. And I’m not suggesting that you ignore bad things happening in the world either. But reminding yourself of how exceptionally freaking rare many of those bad things are can help. And focusing on what you personally can control is a positive way of putting the emotion of fear to work for you.

Ultimately, there will always be certain politicians, certain marketers and certain media outlets that benefit from keeping you afraid at all times. They have a vested stake in your emotional state. But the truth is, you can choose not to rent that mental space to them. Let’s all try to make that choice a bit more consciously and channel our fears into productive action.

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