Monday, August 9, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 2

Last time I described a case in which a young woman received treatment for her obvious injuries while her boyfriend died because his injuries were not obvious. The perception was that she needed medical attention while he did not. That erroneous perception cost his life. Most perception problems are not so severe but still cause trouble.

We have a tendency to fear the relatively benign. Mice, spiders, air travel, public speaking, tight places. All these and more can generate fears out of proportion to any danger they present. Appropriate caution is good, but we should avoid devitalizing our lives by overreaction to less significant dangers. How many people avoid visiting relatives because it's too far to drive and they fear flying, even though flying is much safer? How many miss the joy of visiting natural sites for fear of harmless animals? Overcoming those fears can make life more fulfilling and enjoyable.

Likewise, we often tend to fear the unfamiliar, people from a different culture, strange places, new technology, etc. That causes us to miss the enjoyment we might have if we learn of those cultures or technologies and partake of the best aspects of them. Worse, such fears lead to bigotry and class or racial warfare. That is also one reason for the widespread fear of anything “nuclear” or involving “radiation.” While radiation can be harmful, the general reaction to it is all out of proportion to the actual danger. In fact “nuclear” and “radiation” are witch words, (cf

Of course these fears reside in the emotional part of the brain and it is not always easy to allow reason to overrule emotion and normal fears. This is especially true when reason tells us we can do something unnatural such as jumping out of an airplane. OK, I admit it. I used to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Back when I wore Uncle Sam’s funny green clothes I was a paratrooper. It was fun and gave me extra pay.

My non-airborne friends used to claim I was crazy to do such a thing. The brigade commander, also a paratrooper, said something similar. He said we had to have something different about our minds to allow us to perform such an unnatural act...

I suspect our commander was right, we did have something different in our mentalities. If so, such a difference is not all bad. It allowed us to do something unnatural but not really dangerous. Most of us knew that the real danger was the trip to the airport, then back from the drop zone. For that we had to travel on the highway with cars and trucks whizzing by in the other direction. However, for humans, highway travel is an extension of our natural travel on land. Jumping out of airplanes is quite unnatural. What I did as a paratrooper was allow my intellect to overrule my intuitive fear. I knew that the parachute jump itself was statistically very safe. In fact, in all the jumps I did, many of which involved hundreds of paratroopers, I am not aware of any serious injuries, much less deaths.

We skew our thinking if we insist on classifying the natural as safe and the unnatural as dangerous. Hemlock is natural, and so are death cap mushrooms.

This problem cuts both ways. First we can overlook some real dangers in such things as food and medical products. Second, we deny ourselves, and sometimes others, the opportunity to do things that appear dangerous but in fact are relatively safe.

A friend once lost a family member to this skewed thinking. His father was a private pilot and often flew the family on vacations. The problem was that my friend’s mother did not like to fly high; she felt safer close to the ground. She insisted that her husband stay as low as he could. While such a feeling may be natural, that perception is quite wrong. The reality is that flying higher allows a pilot more time to recover if anything goes wrong. Something did go wrong over Wyoming’s Wind River Range. With no time to recover, the plane went down, killing one and seriously injuring two more. The forth person aboard was in also injured but was able to make it out and notify authorities.

That is of course an extreme example, but people make such inappropriate decisions regularly. Occasionally it costs lives; more often it costs time or enjoyment. It is common for people to drive to their destination in order to avoid flying, even though air travel is much safer than driving. The perception that flying is dangerous comes from the fact that we can’t do it naturally, and from the spectacular aspect of an airplane crash. Even the crash of a small plane will generate more news coverage than an automobile accident with the same number of casualties.

The type of misperception mentioned above tends to be widely shared. Most people tend to think of snipers as more dangerous than traffic and airplanes as more dangerous than cars. However there are individual misperceptions as well, many of which develop into phobias. The woman who wanted her airplane to stay low may have been suffering from acrophobia. Phobias are characterized by unreasonable fears, either fearing something harmless, or excessive fear of something that is a potential danger. The subject of phobias is generally beyond the scope of this article; their treatment is the province of certified therapists. However I would like to mention that those who suffer from phobias should be careful not to impose the same fears on their children. This takes effort, but no good parent wants to interfere with a fulfilling life for his or her children. If necessary, the parent should work with a therapist to avoid passing a phobia on to the children.

If we match our perspective to reality we will have safer, more enjoyable lives.

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