Saturday, August 7, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 1

We must never become so busy slapping at mosquitoes that we walk into the quicksand.
Richard L. Evans

The young woman was a bloody mess, writhing and screaming in agony. She had been riding behind her boyfriend on a motorcycle, wearing a bikini when the bike crashed. Her legs, arms and torso were covered with scrapes, scratches and ground in dirt. Bystanders, urged on by the distraught boyfriend, tried to help. The young man appeared fine; he had been wearing protective clothing.

At the hospital emergency room workers cleansed, disinfected and bandaged her wounds. They did a good job and she recovered completely... In fact she was able to attend the funeral of her boyfriend. The accident ruptured his spleen and he died from internal bleeding. His injury was neither obvious nor particularly painful. It was only fatal.

It is a fact of life: The attention we pay to an event is seldom related to its importance. The young woman’s wounds were dramatic; her boyfriend’s unseen injury was deadly. Spectacular events, celebrities, and scare-mongering distract us from less noticeable but more important issues. Modern life conspires to focus our attention on the trivial. We are constantly faced with the equivalent of an obnoxious male mosquito buzzing around our ears. While he distracts us, the female quietly sneaks in for a sip of blood.

Focusing on the spectacular hurts us two ways:

1. Distracted by the trivial, we ignore the important.

2. Fearing the benign, we devitalize our lives.

Residents of the Washington, D.C. area of the United States will long remember October 2002. For nearly a month they lived in fear as a sniper shot thirteen people, apparently at random. Adults, children, Blacks, Whites, men, women. Nobody was immune. News reports across the country and around the world trumpeted the danger. School recesses were held indoors. Football games were moved to secret locations with no spectators. Shoppers hurried through parking lots, looking over their shoulders. Nobody felt safe.

Finally two suspects were caught and the reign of terror ended. Children again played outdoors, much to the relief of parents and teachers. Everybody felt much safer. That “increased safety” was a misperception. While the danger from the snipers was gone, traffic accidents, street crime etc. continued to kill and injure people. The difference was that the press paid little attention to accidents and street crime.

Snipers are big news; they get a lot of media attention. However in any large metropolitan area accidents and street crime kill and injure people every day, drawing little if any press attention. Yet the risk of being shot by a sniper was insignificant compared to the risks we all run in our daily lives.

The terror those snipers created is an example of an all too human tendency. We fear spectacular but unlikely dangers but give no thought to common, often worse, hazards. Yes, the criminals did murder at least eleven people and wounded two others. However, the chance of them shooting any one person out of the millions living in that area was miniscule. In fact, the death rate from all causes probably dropped during their reign of terror. People were staying home, not exposing themselves to traffic accidents and other hazards. Common hazards kill and injure many more people than the snipers ever did.

At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

News outlets in particular distort our perception by emphasizing the spectacular and unusual. Unless a celebrity is involved, it really isn’t very big news when a traffic accident kills a driver, or a drug overdose kills an addict. A sniper or an airplane crash has much greater news value. Because of this, our perception of danger is often warped.

Snipers, airplane crashes, terrorist threats all get our attention even though any one of us has almost no chance of becoming a victim of those dangers. Meanwhile, we continue to travel on our roads without a second thought, often even driving when we are tired or under the influence of intoxicants. Warped perceptions both blind us to the real dangers of what we may think of as safe, and cause us to fear things that are not really very dangerous. Only by using our intellect to decide what's really important can we overcome this problem.

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1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

Yes, I remember when we used to walk a half mile to grade school and now kids seem to need a chauffeur for one block. How much is that paranoia depriving our kids of their normal curiosity and interaction with other kids?