Searching for Control in a Risky World

Right after I'd returned to the U.S. from a month-long trip flying relief supplies into Chad, Sudan, and the tumultuous eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I overheard a woman in the locker room of my gym admonishing someone not to drink from a particular kind of plastic water bottle, because it might cause cancer.

Compared with lawless conflict zones populated with angry, AK-47-toting young men, the dangers presented by a plastic water bottle (and not a water bottle formed from an old kerosene container, mind you, but one manufactured specifically to live out its life as a water bottle) seemed rather low on the richter scale of hazardous things to worry about. 

While it's not a fair fight to compare the risks of unstable African countries with a middle-class neighborhood in a wealthy, industrialized nation, the interchange certainly highlighted how amazingly safe we are, that we can obsess about the small risks posed by a plastic water bottle. But still, why do we worry about so many small-risk factors in our lives?  Having eliminated so many lethal threats in our lives, do we now indulge in the fantasy that we can have a risk-free society or life? Or is there something else at play?
Perhaps our view of risk follows a Maslow-type pyramid of priorities. (Or my sister's 60-40 theory of marriage, which postulates that, at best, you will find 60% commonality with a spouse. Even if the two of you are incredibly similar, with similar world views, she says you'll still find 40% of small stuff to differ about.) It would make sense that the same would hold true for worry about risks. In the eastern Congo, you're not going to worry about what plastic the water comes in. In Palo Alto, California, you might.

But two sources I came across recently offer additional perspectives on the subject. In this New York Times magazine article, Peggy Orenstein looks at how parents attempt to risk-proof their children's lives, and what risks they focus on. While incidents like fire, car accidents and drowning actually kill far more children each year than cancer-causing microwave popcorn packaging, she says "it's the dangers parents can't--and may never-- quantify that go bump in the night." Including plastic water bottles.

Ridiculous as that sounds, it's in line with other research that concludes we act most irrationally about dangers that are both exotic and remote. In this 2007 Wired magazine commentary, security expert Bruce Schneier argues:

"Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis, especially when it comes to rare occurences. We tend to exaggerate spectacular strange and rare events and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. ... Our brains are much better at processing the simple risks we've had to deal with throughout most of our species' existence, and much poorer at evaluating the complex risks society forces us to face today."

Hence, Orenstein's avoidance of vinyl lunch boxes and plastics in the microwave, even as she neglects bolting her bookcases to the wall, despite living blocks from a major fault line in Berkeley, CA. She's probably correct that the risk of an earthquake toppling the bookcases is relatively small. But the chances of her children being hurt by a particular popcorn packaging are undoubtedly far smaller. (Note: Our greater comfort with traditional risks also helps explain why some people enjoy the relative "relief" of physical adventure, where the risks are more likely to be known, concrete, and measurable.)

But what also intrigues me about Orenstein's article is the question she poses at the end. Perhaps, she says, we go overboard in trying to ward off those "spectacular, rare, and complex" risks in an effort--vain though it may be--to try to control the uncontrollable. We want to believe that there is something we can do to prevent bad things from happening. We focus on the small, because we can't cope with the huge. And what's the huge? A world where threats might not be discernible, preventable, or controllable. From random acts of violence to cancerous tumors, to epidemics of swine flu.

Once upon a time, we used folkloric myths and rituals to cope. Today, maybe we buy non-polycarbonate water bottles, dutifully take off our shoes and belts at every airport, and keep our kids indoors when rumors of a West Nile-infected mosquito pop up two counties away ... even if our new cures are no more effective than the old ones. Now, as then, it gives us at least a small illusion of control.