Myth 26: “Better Safe Than Sorry” Is Rational Thinking

stopsignWired.com has spoofed the syndrome that many of us concerned parents are vulnerable to — access to and believing too much scary information and believing our children are extremely vulnerable to harm. Their June 1, 2009 piece called “Alt Text: Beware Nebulous Internet Disease” starts with this jab, “The infection typically begins when the victim reads about an unusual affliction on a news site or current-events blog. Upon reading, the victim begins to experience one or more symptoms of that disease, typically minor symptoms such as a scratchy throat or slightly reddened area of skin.” – Wired

We all consider ourselves savvy people who know where to find the answers we are looking for, but that may actually be our undoing. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Instantly believing something is going to happen to us or ours without fully comprehending the odds of contracting the problem is a misguided thing. Taking action on fear with no further information or guidance than our sense that we’d “rather be safe than sorry” is an irrational thing.

We see a tv expose’ about child prostitution in Cambodia and it is so heart-wrenching and horrifying that in subtle ways we start protecting our daughters from our own awkward, lonely, male neighbor. We read the headline “Polio Outbreak Occurs Among Amish Families In Minnesota” and rush our babies to the pediatrician, ignoring that in paragraph four the article begins to ambiguously explain that there were actually anti-bodies against polio in Minnesota (in other words “immunity to polio”).

But aren’t we just being practical? Or are we being totally bloody irrational to the point that a whole book was written about the phenomenon, we are all equally subject to it, and it affects our lives in every area from how we purchase eggs, to how we make decisions about our children’s safety? In the book “Sway: The Irresistable Pull Of Irrational Behavior” Ori and Rom Brofman pick apart our tendency to err on the side of caution. It turns out that, in short, it is human nature to totally overreact to the threat of losing something. For example: “If you reduce the price of eggs, consumers buy a little more. But when the price of eggs rises, they cut back their consumption by two and a half times…[the] research illuminates a mystery that economists have been grappling with for years. For no apparent logical reason, we overreact to perceived losses.”

The same compulsion about loss aversion is why gamblers will bet (and ultimately lose) thousands of dollars in effort to recoup an original$10 loss. Its why stubborn people stick in their heels and resist admitting error even if their erroneous claim to “right” results in harm to others. It is why many don’t let their children walk to school, play outside, drink from plastic, get vaccinations, play with old toys… Many of us can’t off-the-cuff quote credible studies about any of these dangers (yes, some can, but be truthful, without Googling, can you?), but we do know that at some point in time we have heard somebody we trust tell us that these activities were dangerous and “we’d rather be safe than sorry”.

I must encourage all parents, who tend to feel the world is a dangerous place, to pick up a copy of the book, Sway. (It is even available in audio book form at Audible.com for those of us whose reading has to take place while driving or washing the dishes.) I promise that it will be (as it almost always is) a humbling experience to have what you think of as a sensible reaction (aka “better safe than sorry”) picked apart and shown back to you as hard-wired psychological knee-jerk silliness, but it is a punch worth taking.

Reading the book will help you understand why, even though driving is one of the most dangerous activities you can engage in, you feel that it is safer for your child than letting him walk to school. The reason? You don’t perceive driving to be a dangerous activity. Whereas, you do perceive walking to school to be a dangerous activity (child abduction).

Take this quiz to gauge your reaction to each of these statistics. Be sensitive and truly notice which of these raises your heart-rate more?

  • Auto Fatalities: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the 41,059 traffic fatalities annually in the U.S. 1,670 (4%) of them are children age 14 and younger. (1)
  • Child Abductions By Strangers Fatalities: According to the National Non-Family Abduction Report October 2002 (recent study performed by the U.S. Department of Justice) there are 115 non-family-member fatal kidnappings per year. (2)

You’ve just read the facts, but be truthful, which of these activities, driving to school or walking to school, still feels more threatening?

Allow me to rephrase. A child is 15 TIMES more likely to be in a fatal traffic accident while you are driving than be abducted and killed by a stranger.

I ask you again, which of these activities are you more likely to allow your child do today, ride in a car or walk to school?

Are you still certain that your perspective regarding your child’s safety is rational?

Semi-related Postscript:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a campaign called “Safe Routes To School” in which they acknowledge the relative safety of walking to school versus driving to school. The program includes educational components for families and schools advocating for changes that get children out of cars and onto their feet and bicycles. Read and download it here.

___________________

1. Traffic Safety Facts 2007: Children

2. NISMART National Non-Family Abduction Report October 2002

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5 Responses

  1. Man…I have a constant interior monologue about this very thing-constrasting my paranoias with common sense and reality. It’s a really hard thing to overcome, but well worth the conversation with yourself, assuming of course, it’s not out loud. 🙂

    We don’t drive, and people always look shocked. But to me, staying out of the cars 99% of the time IS the common sense answer for us.

    Thanks for the book link. I shall pick this up.

  2. Another risk of over-reacting is that your children might stop trusting you when there is a legitimate risk. In elementary school, teachers had me convinced that if I touched matches or a lighter, they would instantly burst into flames and burn my house down. One of my teachers actually referred to poop as “poison”, in an effort to convince us to wash our hands after using the bathroom (which I already did anyway). As a child, my only view of “poison” was a cartoonish portrayal where one crumb of poison would make you die an instant and horrible death. I even had a teacher that literally told us that glancing at a solar eclipse for a fraction of a second would make us go blind instantly. She even told a horror story of a curious boy at a different school who sneaked a glance with one eye and went blind in that eye. Eventually I realized that all these things were exaggerations, and when I got to high school “health” class, I knew better than to believe that taking one sip of alcohol before my 21st birthday would ruin my life forever.

  3. […] Mythbusters quoted this Wired article today, too, in their post busting Myth 26: Better Safe Than Sorry Is Rational Thinking. The post is about the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. I think I’m […]

  4. Thank you for the article. I’m remembering the recent irrational behavior of people vis-a-vis swine flu. What bothers me is that many people who behave irrationally and contribute to fear-mongering don’t seem to see the need to apologize for asinine behavior after the horrific “danger” has passed, or take a deep look into themselves as to why they behaved this way.

    Another thing that occurs to me is that people who are afraid of things they shouldn’t be can sometimes make it less safe for those who don’t. I have had many people tell me they would never bike in my town because it’s too “dangerous”. Of course if there were more active and responsible cyclists on the road, I think bicycle awareness and bicycle rights would increase, thereby making things easier for those of us who are already quite active in this regard.

    Thank you for the book recommendation; I will definitely read it!

  5. To be a real comparison, you would need to know the total number of hours children spend in cars and compare it with the total number of hours children spend walking home (or elsewhere) alone. Since we don’t know those numbers, it’s really an apples to oranges comparison. I would imagine that in this country, at least, the number of hours children spend riding in cars is quite a bit higher than the hours they spend walking alone.

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