Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Should We Be Afraid Of?

In 2008, the number of Americans killed around the world by terrorists was 33.  The number who died from seasonal (not H1N1) flu?  More than 33,000. 

This week one of my favorite skeptics sent me a list* of facts about what we're freaking out about versus the hard numbers.  It's not only an interesting illustration of the nature of human fear, it also tells a tale about our daily information diet. There were only 321 fatal airline crashes in 2005, versus over 34,000 deadly car crashes annually in the US.  So why are so many of the same people who are afraid to fly not afraid to drive or be passengers in cars?  Because a large number of people dying separately doesn't make a news story, but 100 or more dying together as strangers does. 

Another list caught my attention last week.  What are the characteristics of people who are easily manipulated?  Seth Godin, who frequently provokes my thoughts, has a few ideas in this post.  People who are easily worked over, says Seth, do the following:

  • Focus on now at the expense of the long term.
  • Repeat a mantra heard from a figurehead without considering whether it's true.
  • Try to find a short-cut to losing weight, reducing debt, or making money.
  • Have an inability to tolerate fear and uncertainty.
There are more, and reading the post made me wonder how well I question authority. 

Godin points out that the bulk of advertising time on AM radio was devoted three years ago to companies selling mortgages; now it's to those selling gold. I'm pretty sure it's true for cable television also, but given his premise I need to go and find out if that's true or just an observation that rings true.  I don't really consume either, at least not on purpose, so I need to determine if there are facts behind it.

Newsweek, the source of the list of fears v. numbers, is on the market to be sold by the Washington Post company, but according to former publisher Ben Bradlee in this interview, there may not be many takers.  Yet AM radio is prospering.  I'll leave that to my readers to think through for themselves. 

*Apologies to Newsweek for not publishing the link to the original article but the bad .pdf.  I will continue to look for the original, but it was just too compelling not to include.

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