What, me worry?

We know some activities are bad for us — like sunbathing and overeating — so why do we still do them? Researchers say humans have a hard time calculating risk when something feels good.

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2010

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Everyone knows that spending too much time in the sun is bad. It’ll give you leathery skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. But it feels great to see that glow in the bathroom mirror — it just looks healthier, doesn’t it? And catching only a few minutes of sunshine a day boosts vitamin D levels.

The question of how much time to spend in the sun requires a judgment on the risk of bad things happening — skin damage, cancer — against the possible benefits — that lovely glow.

But we are lousy at calculating such risks.

“That’s one of the more surprising conclusions from nearly 30 years of research,’’ said Vincent T. Covello, a former professor at Columbia University and director of the Center for Risk Communication, a New York consulting firm.

It’s not that we’re stupid: Sunburns have certainly taught most of us the downside of too much sun. It’s just that our emotions and perceptions of the world temper our intellect. The sun feels good on our skin, it’s natural and familiar, so how could it be bad? And we can always go inside — our sun exposure is mostly within our control. So we downplay the warnings from our factual mind and enjoy the warm sensation on our skin.

“It’s about how a risk feels, not what the statistics or the science say,’’ according to David Ropeik, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, and author of the new book, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.’’

This gap between how risky something is and how risky it feels can have serious health consequences, Ropeik said.

Not worried about food poisoning, though it affects one in four Americans a year and kills 5,000? You won’t be too concerned about the potato salad you left out on the picnic table last weekend.

More concerned about finishing that business call than about the dangers of talking on the phone while driving? You’re putting yourself at more risk than when flying in a plane or downhill skiing, according to research by Joshua Cohen at Tufts Medical Center — but it doesn’t feel that way.

The opposite is also true: We tend to overreact to certain risks. Fear of shark attacks keeps us onshore, and trace amounts of chemicals in our water supply terrify us — though the chance of harm may be slight.

“Our thinking about risk is influenced by two different processes,’’ said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. The first is an analytic process that’s based on numbers, fact, and logic. “The other is just intuitive or a gut feeling, and we use both of those mechanisms to evaluate risk.’’

There are some factors that push our buttons, making us more fearful, and others that lower our guard, said Slovic, also president of Decision Research, a nonprofit research organization in Eugene, Ore. “Risks have personality traits that make them feel more or less scary.’’

Viruses like those that carry swine flu seem terrifying, for instance, because we can’t see or feel them and we have little control over our exposure to them. Talking on a cellphone in the car doesn’t feel scary because we do it so often without consequence, and because we can always hang up the phone. Gaining weight isn’t much of a worry as we order an extra scoop of ice cream, because to our brain, the short-term yumminess far outweighs the long-term risks of obesity.

Fears are also different in different countries, reflecting distinct cultural interests and customs, according to research by Melissa L. Finucane, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center, an independent, publicly funded nonprofit in Honolulu. Most Americans, for instance, are comfortable eating genetically modified corn and grains, while Europeans are often fearful at the thought of consuming foods whose DNA has been tinkered with in a lab.

Ropeik says the way to protect ourselves — and outsmart the factors that play on our emotions — is to understand them. The more we know about what’s influencing our gut, the more we will be able to overrule it when reason dictates a different reaction. Personally, Ropeik said that being informed has helped him get to the gym with more consistency and pay more attention to his weight — to avoid the very real risks of being overweight as he ages.

Cohen, deputy director of the Center for the Evaluation of Value and Risk in Health at Tufts Medical Center, believes it’s crucial for people to understand the risks and benefits of their actions. He published a study a few years ago comparing the risks of taking certain medications with the risks of everyday activities, like riding in a car or working as a firefighter.

“A person who might be very very concerned about the adverse affects of a medication might still be interested in that therapy if they understand that the benefits are really substantial for them, or that by not using that therapy they might be incurring even greater risks,’’ Cohen said.

But psychology professor Slovic isn’t convinced that becoming more informed will make us more rational — people aren’t that simple. “I don’t think we really know’’ how to solve this problem, he said. “We need studies to examine whether, when people are educated about the way their minds work, it helps them to overcome some of the problems that their natural way of thinking would lead them to.’’

Smoking rates remained stubbornly high for decades after the US surgeon general officially declared cigarettes a health risk in 1964. As risk analysis would predict, Slovic said, smoking only started plummeting when people realized that secondhand smoke was also endangering non-smokers, including children.

“It’s one thing to let a smoker take the risk themselves, but when they’re imposing risk on someone else involuntarily, that becomes intolerable,’’ Slovic said.

Maybe to fight the obesity epidemic we need research into secondhand eating.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at

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