Risk: Why 24-hour news, the Internet have us afraid of things we shouldn't be afraid of

May 4, 2014

You caught an item on the news about toxic chemicals on cash register receipts. You think about the risks of handling receipts over your double cheeseburger at lunch as you step outside for a quick smoke break. What's wrong with this picture? Bad eating habits, tobacco consumption, and you're worried about dying from register receipts? We know fast food and smoking are bad for us, yet we focus on other perceived threats to our health and well-being.

This week on Take Care, journalist David Ropeik discusses how we often view risk through a distorted lens. Ropeik has taught this subject at the Harvard School of Public Health, and has written about it for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and Nova. He is the author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.”

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with David Ropeik.

Ropeik said our subconscious is incredibly powerful and has the ability to determine how we feel about certain situations.

“The first job is survival,” Ropeik said. “So it really throws every instinct and emotion it can quickly at information to sense whether it might be dangerous or not and stuff like the chemicals you just talked about versus eating that nice meaty cheeseburger, all have kind of emotional characteristics that make some instinctively feel scarier than others.”

Some may think people have two separate types of minds: one that is emotional, and one that is practical and evaluating. But according to Ropeik, your mind is really a blend of these two.

“The default mind is the lazy mind, if you will,” Ropeik said. “So it defaults to using instincts and emotions rather than having to pay attention, concentrate, ‘it makes my head hurt to think.’ That’s calorically expensive. So the brain defaults to these instincts pretty quickly and as a result we sometimes make mistakes about what to worry about.”

With Ropeik’s experience as a reporter, he said the 24/7 news cycle is difficult for the brain.

“What’s on our radar screen screams louder.” Ropeik said. “The fact that we’re surviving longer than ever before as humans isn’t on the radar screens, the scary stuff is.”

Ropeik said the constant coverage of scary events, such as the Malaysian Airlines incident, by journalists is primarily due to the thought that hard-hitting news sells.

But the media does not keep us from living our lives; Ropeik believes our mind will pick and choose what we find scary.

“Bungee jumping for God’s sake! You play down the risk! Mentally you do that so you can do what you want to do in life,” he said.

The choice, or voluntary action, makes a major difference in what we choose to do.

“An imposed risk, just because it’s imposed, feels bad. Industrial chemicals, that’s industrialized food, they feel like someone else is doing it to us,” he said.

He says we psychologically believe that nature is good, so we consider human-made chemicals to be riskier.

“We eat chemicals all the time when we eat a banana or an orange! But they’re natural chemicals! So we don’t think of them as chemicals! Because human-made risks scare us more than natural ones,” he said.

Ropeik points out that we regulate only human-made chemical products, such as pharmaceuticals, with little to no regulation of anything naturally made, even if it has side effects.

“There’s lot of psychology that suggests we have an affinity to nature…human-made things have a component of ‘somebody out there who ought to have done better did this to me.’”

What makes this even more difficult, according to Ropeik is the accessibility of the Internet. He says you must question every fact you read on the Internet and the intent of the source.

“It’s hard because we like affirmation more than information, sometimes, and the Internet is really poisonous with that…but the goal here is that if you want to make a healthier choice, get more information, pause, don’t make a knee-jerk reaction and be suspicious of the agenda of any source.”