One of the ways I rationalize it is that I always looked up to my older sister and did what she did -- I played with her barbies, I grew my hair long, and she was afraid of spiders, so I was afraid of spiders. But, of course, a lot of people are afraid of spiders, and I read one study that found that even newborn infants have a stress response when they see a picture of a spider.
Now, of course, most spiders don't pose any threat to humans. But we aren't always rational when we're evaluating risk. When our bodies are worried, our stress response turns on, and the only thing we can think about is fight or flight. Which is great when you actually need to run away from a poisonous spider because then once you've gotten away from it, you can relax. But if the thing that your brain flags as risky is not being good enough at your job, and if that's causing a physical stress response with adrenaline and defensiveness, and that keeps going on day after day because you can't just run away from it or squish it like a spider, then that's gonna make you sick. And if the thing that your brain flags as risky is the mere thought of stepping outside or seeing other people, and that's been on your mind every day for the past two months, with no clear end in sight? You can't run away from that. You can't squish it like a spider. Our brains don't know what to do with it, and it's making us sick.
We don't want to treat every threat like it's a spider. The framework I learned in my high school debate club for trying to rationally categorize risk had three parts. First: timeframe. When wildfires are spreading now, it's better to prioritize responding to those rather than retrofitting for the next big earthquake that might come sometime in the next 20 years. Second: probability. It's better to prioritize responding to the thing that has a 50% chance of happening than a 5% chance. Third: magnitude. All else equal, we'd rather prioritize fixing a big problem rather than a small one.
Even when we have a framework, though, that doesn't mean we're always gonna be rational. Remember, our brains think that everything is a spider, so even when we're trying to be rational, we often go with what makes the most visceral sense, and it's really hard for any of us to think about abstract stuff. I understand what "right now" means -- if there's a spider in front of me right now, I need to get away. I understand what "today" means -- I'll probably want lunch in a couple hours. I kind of understand what next week means -- I'll need to get some groceries. But next month? And even if we weren't in a time of such rapid change, what does "next year" mean on a visceral level? So when someone says that if we don't cut our carbon emissions, we'll have a one degree temperature rise 30 years from now, what does that even mean? And if we can't grasp that on an intuitive level, is it any surprise that we don't tend to worry about risks over long timeframes?
The problem with probability is that high probability means risky, but high probability also means normal. Cars kill over 30,000 people in the US every year. But it’s normal. And we tend to start to forget about normal risks no matter how serious the consequences.
What we're left with, after all these attempts at rational risk analysis, is being afraid of the things that are right in front of us and big and unknown. Still just jumping at spiders but missing the risks that really matter because they're hiding in plain sight. Or, as the Lorax might say,
Jumping at spiders, forever we'll be
Ignoring the later, and normalcy
Unless our community can bring us back in
Remind us to breathe and see our strength that's within