JANUARY 27, 2005
Today I’m flying to Montana to begin a weeklong skiing and driving vacation in the Rockies. Because the atmosphere is thinner at 37,000 feet, my exposure to ionizing radiation is 100 to 300 times as great as it would be at sea level. A study in Great Britain found that flight-crew members are exposed to significantly more ionizing radiation per year than workers at nuclear power plants are. Other studies have noted slightly
elevated cancer rates among crew members, but the health danger is negligible for less-frequent fliers like me. Dear Diary: not worried. Suddenly, though, the plane jolts with turbulence, seeming to drop 150 feet before catching itself. Dear Diary: freaked out.
I know this is senseless, and subsequent research supports me. Flying is the safest form of transportation around, with an infinitesimal average annual fatality rate of 0.03 deaths per 100 million passenger-miles. The rate for driving is almost 30 times as high. Irrational fear isn’t my fault, though—I’m just wired that way. Joseph LeDoux, a neurobiologist at New York University, uses functional MRI and other brain-imaging studies to look at how the brain processes fear. One of his conclusions is that the thalamus usually dominates, reacting quickly and powerfully to potential threats by triggering behavioral, autonomic and endocrine responses. The cortex, responsible for the thoughtful consideration of danger, steps in later. We fear first and think second. This may help to explain why it is that if a risk evokes powerful emotions, your fear level will be mostly unaffected by the actual odds. This cognitive error, known as probability neglect, has been well documented. In one study, people indicated that they were willing to pay roughly the same insurance premiums whether a catastrophic risk’s odds were 1 in 100,000 or 1 in 10,000,000. In another, participants were asked to imagine that they might be given a “short, painful, but not dangerous electric shock” and asked how much they would fork over to avoid it. On average, people were willing to pay $10 to avoid a 99 percent chance of receiving a shock, and nearly as much—$7—to avoid a 1 percent chance. The outcome was sufficiently bad that the odds didn’t really matter.
FEBRUARY 3, 2005
Driving to Distractions
I’m headed north on Highway 191 toward the Tetons, with a view of the jagged range that gets more mesmerizing each minute. I crack the windows and crank the stereo but avoid the country stations—because I feel like listening to rock, not because of the alleged hazard to mental health. For “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide,” published in 1992 in the journal Social Forces, researchers Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach analyzed the music played in 49 metropolitan areas and found that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the higher the suicide rate. “Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with . . . marital discord, alcohol abuse and alienation from work,” the authors wrote. I’m learning to interpret research like this cautiously. The study established a statistical correlation, not definite causation, and noted that the effect, if real, would only be on people already at risk of committing suicide.
Cruising along at 65 mph, I pull out my digital camera and snap a few pictures through the windshield. The cellphone rings. It’s one of my editors, back in New York, and we talk for 10 minutes about an upcoming story.
In my journal, I correctly rank driving as the riskiest thing I do—car crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 4 and 34. I didn’t, however, appreciate how significantly distractions increase the danger. Talking12 while driving can cause inattentional blindness, a perceptual phenomenon vividly illustrated in a 1999 study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. Their experiment concluded that when you concentrate on one thing (the study’s subjects counted basketball passes), you can miss something completely obvious (many of them didn’t see a person walking by in a gorilla suit). In a study last year of inattentional blindness that employed a driving simulator, University of Utah psychologist David Strayer found that drivers took 18 percent longer to hit the brakes when they were talking on the phone. Previously, he’d shown that cellphone users drive worse than people who are legally drunk.
FEBRUARY 4, 2005
I challenge myself while skiing; it’s the only sport that I’m even remotely good at. The runs at Grand Targhee in Wyoming are pretty easy, so I go beyond the resort’s boundaries to a bowl topped by a semicircle of low cliffs. I get ready to ski down.
I view resort skiing as pretty safe, and for the most part, I’m right. During the winter of 2003-2004, 41 people were killed and 37 seriously injured at U.S. ski resorts; overall, a person’s chance of dying on any given visit is less than one in a million. As a result of improved binding technology, the rate of broken legs has declined by 90 percent since the 1970s.
Exposure, however, determines risk. New Yorkers don’t fear getting smacked by falling coconuts, whereas if you live in Papua New Guinea, the problem is considerable.13 Similarly, avalanches are a non-issue for most Americans, but they’re a big deal for anyone who ventures outside the safety-regulated confines of a resort—as I’ve done today. In the past five years, an average of seven backcountry skiers a year have been killed in avalanches, making it a sizable risk considering that there are fewer than 300,000 enthusiasts in the U.S.
I know that backcountry skiing is among the most dangerous things I do, but today I feel pretty safe. Maybe I suffer from what’s known as optimistic bias. Most of us do. Surveys have revealed, for instance, that the majority of people think that they’re better than average at driving, a mathematical impossibility. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that I am better than average at skiing. Does that make me safer?
The short answer is “no,” for the reason that experts at skiing and other risky endeavors take bigger chances.14
Researcher Ian McCammon analyzed information on 598 U.S. avalanches between 1972 and 2001 and found that people with avalanche-assessment abilities severely undercut their skills by taking risk-assessment shortcuts. The accident victims relied on social proof—they witnessed other people skiing where they were going to ski and assumed that meant the slope was safe. (Think: monkey see, monkey do.) They were trapped by commitment—the need to stick to a decision, even a bad one, in order to appear consistent and decisive to peers. And they fell prey to a form of familiarity—the belief that if you’ve done something in the past and gotten away with it, you can do it again with guaranteed safety.
Skiing down, I choose my line carefully.