worries.jpgWe humans are a funny lot. We voluntarily take on significant risk when we “think” we are in control and frequently shun the mildest safety precautions, no matter how easy, simple, and effective they may be.

At the same time we vehemently, even violently, object to mild involuntary risk where we lack a sense of control. We greatly prefer to have a sense of control no matter how illusionary it may be.

The risk of flying or of a terrorist attack are infinitesimal compared to the ordinary risk of major accidents we run every time we get in a car. Run the numbers: 300 million Americans, slightly under 40,000 road deaths every year. Divide it out: Your odds of dying in a traffic accident each year are 1 in 7,500.

But will we buckle up? Not most of us! Will we wear a motorcycle helmet? Heck, no! Yet the risk of death by car accident is so much greater than any rational risk assessment of a terrorist.

In order to “protect” ourselves against terrorists, to gain the most ethereal sense of control, we become a nation of sheep, willingly giving up the freedoms and civil liberties that our forefathers fought and died to bequeath to us. We allow ourselves to be virtually strip-searched, we allow the government to invade our private lives by listening in our phones and reading our emails, and we spend hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars we don’t have, debt that will rob our grandchildren of their rightful inheritance.

The same people who willingly pay huge amounts of money to live in earthquake prone areas, in mud slide zones, on hurricane vulnerable tropical beaches and barrier islands, in dry climes repeatedly threatened by wild fires irrationally choose to worry more about the improbable but uncontrollable terrorist than the much more probable threats they have voluntarily assumed. So we cheerfully spend resources irrationally in a misguided attempt to gain an often unattainable sense of control.

If saving human lives is what we truly care about, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that obesity kills 400,000 Americans a year and cigarette smoking kills yet another 400,000 each year. Now that is terrorism! Saving American lives (and improving our quality of life as well) is very simple: eat less, drink less, stop smoking, and start exercising.

I’m amazed that in all the debate about reining in health care costs, there is no call for Americans to start practicing the most effective form of preventive health care: mild exercise, good nutrition, moderate intake. And no, you shouldn’t need or wait for an expensive government program to motivate you, to poke, prod, or push you into doing what common sense and enlightened self interest make perfectly clear and plain.

Both as individuals and collectively, as a society, our goal should be to think rationally and deliberately, not viscerally!

Closing quotes:

“They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” — Benjamin Franklin

“A ship is safe in harbor but that’s not what ships are for.” — William Greenough Thayer Shedd (1820-1894)

“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” — Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

NOTE: This blog was inspired in part by “How Pilots Think About Risk” by J. Mac McClellen, Flying, September 2009.