Risk Literacy and Emotional Stress

Risk Literacy and Emotional Stress

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer argues that better risk literacy could reduce emotional stress. To emphasize this point, Gigerenzer writes about parents who receive false positive medical test results for infant babies. Their children had been screened for biochemical disorders, and the tests indicated that the child had a disorder. However, upon follow-up screenings and evaluations, the children were found to be perfectly healthy. Nevertheless, in the long run (four years later) parents who initially received a false positive test result were more likely than other parents to say that their children required extra parental care, that their children were more difficult, and that that had more dysfunctional relationships with their children.

 

Gigerenzer suggests that the survey results represent a direct parental response to initially receiving a false positive test when their child was a newborn infant. He argues that parents received the biochemical test results without being informed about the chance of false positives and without understanding the prevalence of false positives due to a general lack of risk literacy.  Parents initially reacted strongly to the bad news of the test, and somewhere in their mind, even after the test was proven to be a false positive, they never adjusted their thoughts and evaluations of the children, and the false positive test in some ways became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

In writing about Gigerenzer’s argument, it feels more far-fetched than it did in an initial reading, but I think his general argument that risk literacy and emotional stress are tied together is probably accurate. Regarding the parents in the study, he writes, “risk literacy could have moderated emotional reactions to stress that harmed these parents’ relation to their child.” Gigerenzer suggests that parents had strong negative emotional reactions when their children received a false positive and that their initial reactions carried four years into the future. However, had the doctors better explained the chance of a false positive and better communicated next steps with parents, then the strong negative emotional reaction experienced by parents could have been avoided, and they would not have spent four years believing their child was in some ways more fragile or more needy than other children. I recognize that receiving a medical test with a diagnosis that no parent wants to hear is stressful, and I can see where better risk communication could reduce some of that stress, but I think there could have been other factors that the study picked up on. I think the results as Gigerenzer reported overhyped the connection between risk literacy and emotional stress.

 

Nevertheless, risk literacy is important for all of us living in a complex and interconnected world today. We are constantly presented with risks, and new risks can seemingly pop-up anywhere at any time. Being able to decipher and understand risk is important so that we can adjust and modulate our activities and behaviors as our environment and circumstances change. Doing so successfully should reduce our stress, while struggling to comprehend risk and adjust behaviors and beliefs is likely to increase emotional stress. When we don’t understand risks appropriately, we can become overly fearful, we can spend money on unnecessary insurance, and we can stress ourselves over incorrect information. Developing better charts, better communicative tools, and better information about risk will help individuals improve their risk literacy, and will hopefully reduce risk by allowing individuals to successfully adjust to the risks they face.

On Our Relationship With Things

I have written quite a bit about minimalism in the way that The Minimalists approach the idea of having less stuff. The more things you have, the more time you have to spend organizing, maintaining, and working with your stuff. It takes time to earn enough money to make purchases, to afford the storage space for items, and to fix parts of things that break, or to keep them clean and up to date. Once we have lots of things, we have to think about where we are going put them, we have to move them around if we need something else at any given time, and we need to pack them up and move them if we ever need to move where we live in the future, and we may have to pay to have someone else store them for us.

 

Despite the difficulties that can come from having lots of stuff, it is hard to get out of the mindset that says you should buy more things and always try to acquire bigger and better things. Sometimes, we need some clear thinking to help us remember what is important and what is not when it comes to our stuff. Seneca writes, “understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”

 

In Seneca’s quote we find the idea that what makes us great people, what makes us interesting, and what drives us in interesting and meaningful ways comes from within us. It is our mindset, our worldview, and our goals that determine what value we see and pursue in the world. Effort to obtain lots of things and to have impressive shiny stuff for showing off amount to nothing more than useless toil. The time we spend working so that we can have the bigger and better thing is time that is effectively wasted.

 

The more we feel compelled to have a newer and more expensive car, the more we feel we need a bigger house which will bring a bigger mortgage payment, and the more we feel that we need expensive things in general, the more we will have to work and potentially spend our time doing things we don’t enjoy. We make a trade off, our time (and sometimes our well being, stress, anxiety, and healthy) in exchange for a thing that we think will make us impressive. Sometimes we obtain so many of those things that we end up in a continual cycle of anxiety and stress from the work that we take something more important away from our lives. We risk a point where the things we own occupy all our mental energy and it is fair to question whether we own our stuff or whether it owns us. We may find that life can be more simple and all our needs can be provided without the material possessions we seek, which gives us back time and energy to focus on things that we enjoy and that interest us.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.