Blog

Ideas and stories from my growth journey. Warning: If you are interested in a casual, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.

Facing Our Fears with the De Minimus Test

Fear is a powerful motivation. And influencers today know it. We are bombarded with messages of danger, trouble, and risk all day long. The news tells stories of accident and assault. Commercials show what calamity will befall you, unless you buy their product. Even non-profit causes tug our hearts with the terrible danger we are in, explaining how taking action with their cause is the way out of our trouble.

So one of the keys to a healthy life is learning to filter all these fear messages. How do we know when it’s a legitimate danger? How do we know when to dismiss the message being sent to us?

One way: apply the de minimus test.

Based on the same latin root for the words “minimal” and “mini”, lawyers and doctors use this term for risks that are “too trivial or minor to merit consideration.” They refer to this as a “virtually safe” level.

Quick example, a tiny asteroid could fall from the sky and hit me on the head. But while the outcome would be terrible, the chances of that happening are so small that I would be foolish to stay inside for the rest of my life to avoid it. The risk of being killed by asteroid strike is de minimus.

When others want us to do something, they describe what could happen if we don’t act the way they suggest. They paint vivid pictures of how awful it will be and stir up as much fear as they can. But they rarely tell us how likely it to happen.

Shark attacks are a great example of this. (This part is for you, Rachel.) Imagining a shark biting your ankle is vivid and terrifying. It’s easy to get trapped in the fear of what could be while ignoring how likely it is—or isn’t. But actual risk levels of a shark attack are really, really low. In fact, twice as many people have died from hitting a deer while driving than from shark attacks.

shark attack from Feudal Tales

We should be more afraid of Bambi than Jaws. But Shark Week is much better TV than Deer Week. The stories are more dramatic and sharks have way uglier teeth.

After growing up on the beach and reading the reports, I can assure you that (unless you are swimming at certain beaches where certain types of sharks live) the risk of shark attack doesn’t pass the de minimus test. It’s too trivial to be worth considering when making decisions.

We could apply this rule to medicines that have “twice as much chance” of causing complications as their competitors (be wary of relative percentages given without absolute outcomes included). When you get the actual numbers, you discover one is 0.003% to cause a problem and one is 0.0015% likely to cause the same problem. Both risks are de minimus.

My favorite example, though, is from the movie Dumb and Dumber. Lloyd, a total idiot, has a crush on the girl he just saved.

He works up his nerve to ask, “What are my chances?”
“Not good,” she replies.
“Not good, like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million,” she declares.
His mouth drops open. Then he slowly nods. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

He clearly doesn’t know how to apply the de minimus test. But hopefully you do, now.

photo credit: Image taken from page 145 of ‘Feudal Tales, being a collection of romantic narratives and other poems. [With coloured plates.]’ via photopin (license)

Scott WozniakFacing Our Fears with the De Minimus Test
Share this post

Join the conversation