Source: Photo by Yosh Ginsu on Unsplash
Every week we can read in the news that something terrible has happened somewhere. It might be a flood, a shooting, an airplane crashing, or an accident in which a number of people have been killed.
Social media picks it up and within an hour over a million people are looking at pictures and seeing videos of disasters somewhere. And then we find ourselves feeling anxious—you might be afraid of traveling, going to Walmart, or swimming off the Florida coast. We hear about a dangerous event and we then conclude that we are in danger.
But we never see the following in the news headlines: Everything is almost exactly the same as yesterday!
We are biased to look for something that is changing—something “new”—and something dangerous. After all, our ancestors who survived were tuned into danger because the risk of predators or other dangerous humans would help them survive. But simply noting that “Nothing New is Happening” would not protect you. It might make you feel calm, your heart rate might decrease, but none of that would help you survive. So, we are programmed to look for danger. And if you have access to social media and the news, you will find it. Every day.
The Four Sure Ways to Prove That Things Are Bad
Each of us has a core belief about danger and threat. Some people are biased to focus on—and remember—information related to physical danger. Others focus on interpersonal rejection, others on health issues, and others on financial threats. You might find yourself biased toward more than one set of threats. Which are most important for you? Let’s call this biased lens through which you see things your “Schema”—which is simply a concept that you have. It’s like putting on dark sunglasses and concluding that it is the middle of the night: You experience and see what your lens allows in.
Now that you know what your schema is we can see that there are four processes that keep reinforcing your negative view of things.
- Confirmation Bias. This is our tendency to be biased toward information that confirms our schema or pre-existing beliefs. For example, if I think I’m a loser, I will automatically attend to, focus on, and value information that is consistent with that belief. I will see my failures, shortcomings, and deficiencies in almost every interaction. If I think that the world is unsafe, I will selectively attend to and recall information about homicides, natural disasters, and airplane crashes. What I don’t do is make a concerted effort to look for information that disconfirms or contradicts my belief. For example, if I think I am a loser I don’t attend to and recall my successes, positive comments from friends, or obstacles I overcame. If I think that air travel is dangerous I don’t notice that millions of flights land safely each year. One way to challenge this confirmation bias is to intentionally make a list of all the examples that things are safe, that you are competent, or that travel is safe. Have a balanced view, not a biased view. You can apply this to your intimate relationships. If you think your partner is a negative person, look for information contradicting this belief. For example, make a list for a week of all the positive things your partner does. Track their positives for a while, instead of their negatives.
- Limited Search. Related to our confirmation bias is our tendency to do a limited search for information. For example, if we start out with our negative schema (danger, illness, rejection, failure) we search for information until we find evidence in favor of it and then we give up searching. We point to the negative as if it is “case closed” and don’t ask any more questions. It’s as if the prosecutor makes her case and then the defense rests. It’s not a contest. Do you give up looking for information too quickly? One way of asking this is to think about how someone would look for evidence that did not confirm your negative outlook. When we are too quick to judge we often are inaccurate in our judgments. Maybe there are alternative explanations, maybe there are new facts, maybe there is a different point of view. Keep looking.
- Ignoring Base Rates. People with health anxiety often misinterpret a headache as a brain tumor or indigestion as stomach cancer. People with a fear of violence interpret a news story about homicide as evidence that the streets are dangerous. But real risk—the probability of real danger or illness—is often best reflected in what is called “base rates.” Base rates are the frequency of an event over a period of time. Let’s say that you have heard about a recent mass shooting. These are terrible, tragic and horrifying events that occur too frequently. But there are 325,000,000 people in the United States. As of August 9, there have been 62 people killed in mass shootings in 2019 (Source: Time). I don’t mean to minimize the tragedy of these events, but how likely is it that you will die from a mass shooting? Let’s look at the major causes of death in the USA according to the Center for Disease Control (2017).
The number of deaths for leading causes:
- Heart disease: 647,457
- Cancer: 599,108
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
- Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
- Diabetes: 83,564
- Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis: 50,633
- Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173 [Source: Deaths: Final Data for 2017, table B]
If we used the base rates—the most likely cause of death—we can see that illnesses that largely affect older people, such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness, stroke and Alzheimer’s, are the major causes. Accidents are also a major cause. But mass shootings are never in the top listing.
Let’s say you have a headache and you then think this could be a brain tumor. It could be. But if we used the base rate—what percentage of people have headaches who don’t have brain tumors—we would realize that headaches almost never predict brain tumors. The same goes for air travel: The base rates indicate that you are more likely to die driving to the airport than flying to Chicago.
4. Focusing on What is Recent and Salient. When we evaluate risk or danger we usually put greater emphasis on the most recent and dramatic information. For example, a plane crashing or a mass shooting somewhere may be in the news recently. Or perhaps you have heard of a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. This recent and dramatic news affects our perception of threat and danger. (As I indicated above, we don’t seem to register “Nothing Happened.”) Now that we have the recent information of danger, we conclude that we are at higher risk. But is this logical? If we want to know what is the risk of something happening, we need to return to the Base Rates, do a more extensive search for information, and specifically look at the information that disagrees with the perception of danger. We need to doubt our thoughts.
For more, see my book Cognitive Therapy Techniques, Second Edition.