Fear is incredibly motivating, right up there with love, shaping our choices, shaping our lives. At it’s best, fear keeps us alive. But fear has a flaw that love and imagination do not. Fear is very easily aroused. A very small trigger can produce a tsunami of fear, washing away all other thoughts and driving us to action—NOW.
More and more influencers—from advertisers to leaders of noble non-profits—realize the unrivaled power of fear in moving people to action. There are naked appeals to subtle suggestions, we are bombarded with messages of fear. You are at risk, your family is at risk, our nation, our way of life is at risk—unless you act in a particular way, of course.
I don’t see them changing tactics anytime soon. So if we’re going to make wise decisions, I think we need to get smarter and more disciplined in responding to all these messages of fear. Mastering this is multifaceted and doesn’t fit in one blog post. But I can expose one of the most common manipulation techniques: confusing relative risk with absolute risk.
Beware whenever you hear something like, “twice as likely to cause blood clots” or “three times more accidents from” or “50% greater chance of causing cancer”. If that phrase is not followed with absolute numbers, showing how many people actually got cancer in one group versus another, or how many more accidents there were, then distrust what they told you.
Example: there was a drug commercial some years back with this message, “Our drug gets the same results as the other drug you already know, but that other drug is twice as likely to give you blood clots in your legs. And here’s what blood clots look like.” They got you afraid of blood clots—and then repeated how the other guys are twice as likely to cause them. They didn’t lie—it was totally true. But they only told the relative risk, not the absolute numbers.
The real numbers: the drug in the commercial has a 0.015 chance of causing blood clots and the “dangerous” drug has a 0.03 chance of causing blood clots. For every 100 people who take each drug, 1.5 or 3 people get blood clots, In absolute terms, there’s no meaningful difference.
50% more cancer from a food could mean a jumpy from 6 to 9 people out of a group of 10,000. In fact, most of the “causes cancer” claims on food are actually a slight increase in relative risk, when you read the fine print.
It takes extra work to look past the dramatic statements in our commercials and political speeches and grocery stores. It requires mental discipline to withhold your judgement when it seems so obvious But what you earn for this work is peace of mind. You don’t have to live in a cloud of constant fear. More importantly, you can know which things you really should fear and make wiser choices as a result.
In fact, I think you’ll be five times as likely to avoid looking like a fool if you take my advice. 🙂