How we’re always fooled in the same way by the same sensationalism
Although most of us imagine we’re capable of reason and that we understand the world around us, for the most part it’s not actually true. There’s now a wealth of scientific evidence that shows we’re very easily fooled in a wide variety of ways.
As we’d expect, many people over the millennia have realized there’s a good living to be made from exploiting our inbuilt cognitive weaknesses and we are reliably exploited every single day of our lives.
Fortune tellers, astrologers, psychics, priests, shamans, gurus, witch-doctors and so many others are a constant feature of human society, ready to mug us psychologically in order to extract a handful of dollars or some other important resource for practically no effort at all. Politicians know how easy it is to gull vast numbers of citizens in order to secure votes and gain the temporary illusion and trappings of power.
The mass media likewise knows how to exploit our tiny ape-brains for profit, which is why in so many countries the “news” is nothing more than fear-mongering sensationalism.
This week’s sensation is of course the corona virus. The media knows we can be terrified by tales of infection rates and death, so that’s what it feeds us. And we take the bait because we’re too indolent to do even thirty seconds of research on the matter. So we’re all terrified of the corona virus just as we were terrified of H5N1 a couple of years ago.
But here’s the thing: World Health Organization data shows that every single year around one billion people contract flu. And every single year between 250,000 and 500,000 people (mostly the old and those with compromised immune systems) die because of the flu.
In comparison the corona virus has infected around 80,000 people and under 3,000 have died.
This means the media is terrifying us over a virus that has so far infected 0.008% of the people infected last year with flu and which has killed 0.6% of the people who died of flu last year. And despite the media’s breathless hype it’s not spreading as fast as regular flu either.
Which means the corona virus is absolutely negligible as a meaningful risk factor in our lives. It’s not even a rounding error in the regular flu statistics.
So why isn’t the media terrifying us every day about regular flu? Simple: regular flu is boring. Flu comes around every year, and every year about the same number of people contract flu and about the same number of people die from flu. No one gets excited about regular flu and very few people can be terrified by something they’ve learned to live with.
So the media has to search for something new. This year, the corona virus is that nice shiny new thing they can use to whip up fear and thus boost the value of their ad slots because lots of terrified eyeballs will be scanning articles for news about this awful humanity-killing threat that is going to kill us all.
But it gets better. Because the media whips us up into a frenzy of fear, politicians feel they must do something. Sure, thousands will die on the roads and tens of thousands will die of obesity-related diseases and thousand will die of smoking and thousands more will die of hypertension but the government can’t be blamed for these problems because they happen all the time and we’re accustomed to them. But if just one person dies of the corona virus they’ll be held responsible by an ill-informed panicked citizenry and so Steps Must Be Taken.
Now that the government is taking it so seriously this “proves” to us how “real” the threat is and so we get even more alarmed. Soon people are attacking buses carrying potentially infected people, because there’s nothing nicer than a good old-fashioned witch hunt when we’re terrified.
And it’s not just diseases that can be used by the media to boost ad revenues. Let’s remember the nonsense that occurred when an autonomous vehicle struck a person crossing the road a few months back. Forget about the fact that on that same day in the USA more than 100 people were killed by standard human stupidity and incompetence behind the wheel and another 120 were injured for the same reason. No, that’s boring because it happens every day. But a computer-driven car hitting a person! Wow! That’s big news. Now we can be terrified of “killer cars” on the roads and of course Steps Must Be Taken to save us from calamity.
It’s the same with airplane crashes. Airplanes are thousands of times safer than automobiles per person-mile. But we’re used to auto accidents. They’re boring. A nice fiery plane crash, however, is wonderful precisely because it’s such a rare event. It makes for a great sensation and so millions of people can be terrified and many of them will try to avoid air travel because of the “risk” of a terrible death.
Many of those folk will be injured or killed in a regular old auto accident over the following decade.
Why are we such suckers for distorted information? Why do we always, every single time, fall for the same old trick?
Our tiny ape-brains are hardwired to rely on anecdote because for 95% of our evolutionary history we lived in very small groups and relying on what we heard and saw was the best we can do. But that’s a useless way to approach risk in our modern world. Our ape-brains don’t understand large numbers, probability, subtle risk factors, and things we can’t see.
What this means is that we get worked up over things that don’t matter and fail to address things that do matter. If the flu every single year infects a billion people and kills up to half a million worldwide, surely we should be thinking about how to reduce that number? For example: legislating to ensure that sick people stay at home and don’t “heroically” drag themselves into the office to infect all their colleagues. For example: legislating to require a much higher standard of competence before being permitted to drive a vehicle.
But no. Governments don’t do these things because there’s no popular demand, and there’s no popular demand because our ape-brains are too busy being filled with mindless noise by a media that depends on sensationalism in order to generate ad revenues.
My advice: throw away your television, stop reading so-called newspapers, stop listening to the radio. Select one or two reliable sources of non-sensationalist information such as The Economist or l’Obs or the BBC World Service or France 24. Ignore everything else.
Sure, it will feel very odd to be calm when all your friends and colleagues are telling you how terrified you should be of the latest media sensation. But in time you’ll learn to smile inwardly and let the mindless noise wash over you like water off the proverbial duck’s back. You’ll be happier, more relaxed, and far more able to make better decisions about the things that really do matter in your life because you won’t be running around like a headless chicken, terrified by the media, in order that a few senior executives can continue to afford their corporate jets and penthouse suites.
Or you can stock up on facemasks. Because even though the corona virus isn’t going to kill you, there’s sure to be another Everyone’s Going To Die!!! sensation coming in a few months, so they won’t go to waste.
After all, there’s serious ad revenue to maintain.