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Come On In – The Water’s Fine

June 24, 2013

It’s summertime, which, for many families, means time to go to the beach. Being a Florida kid, summers at the beach were almost mandatory for me. Every year we saw the same families at the same beach and played with their kids. All day, every day we kept busy making sand castles, collecting coquina shells and sand dollars, fishing with sand fleas, and swimming in the bathtub temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico. I enjoyed playing with my sisters and the kids, but it was really cool when the moms and dads would get in the water, pull us around on rafts, bait our hooks, or race to the sandbar with us.

“Jaws” came out in June 1975. Because I was only nine years old, I was not allowed to see it. When we got to the beach that year, the kids were in the water, but not as many adults. We asked them why they wouldn’t come in, and some admitted, laughingly, that they were scared because they had seen the movie. “BUT IT’S JUST A MOVIE,” the kids screamed. Yet, because the adults were so scared, I began to worry if I should be scared, too.

Later in life, I came to know the source of the adults’ fear as “probability neglect” stemming from “availability bias.” In better words, if it is emotionally intense, vivid, and easy to imagine, we view it as far more probable than it really is. When we obsess about its possibility, we reinforce our imagination, and make the problem worse. I also came to know the source of my own fear as the herd mentality – if they are all running from something, then I better run, too.

Movies are in the business of vividness and emotional intensity. So is much of today’s media. The danger in this is that many of us are led to believe that unlikely events are far more likely than they are, simply through the suggestion of a scary image or scenario. While shark attacks still loom larger with beach goers than they statistically should, what other fears do Internet bloggers and some media outlets prey upon? World domination by China. Collapse of the dollar and widespread mayhem. Hyperinflation.

Remember the markets in 2008? Many retirees sold their portfolios in a panic, believing the financial world had truly ended. Media didn’t give them much else to consider. Herd mentality – how could the rational thinkers have had their voices heard? It was nearly impossible. Some days, it still is.

How do we check our fears at the door and strive for wise, rational decisions? One way is to gain experience. The best experience is the kind that repeats similar sequences of actions and provides immediate feedback on outcomes. Think of firefighters and emergency physicians. They get repeated exposure to similar events, with constant feedback on their progress. After a while, they know too much to be scared.

What are you scared of? Can you jump in the water and gain enough experience to learn about it?

Another way to reduce fear is to tune down the mainstream media. Check their sources. Choose your channels mindfully. Do your own research. As a nine year old bookworm, when I got home, I looked up “Sharks” in my Encyclopedia Junior Brittanica. I also read “Jaws.” Great whites are rare in the Gulf of Mexico. There was extremely little chance that one would darken our warm, shallow swimming zone. But on my first beach day the next summer, toes inching from the sand to the surf, I still thought about it.

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