Avoiding Death, at Least in Our Minds

Human beings are far from rational and perhaps particularly so when we think about things that scare us. Two conversations this week:

(1) A colleague tells of a couple he knew who fled a firestorm that ravaged a large section of the city. The husband and wife drove their own individual cars and got separated in the smoky night. One got lost and burned to death, the other made it out. My colleague said “If only they’d gone together, they would both have lived”. Well, maybe, unless they’d both gotten into the car that didn’t make it out of the blaze.

(2) Overheard on the plane: An older women tells a fellow passenger that her cousin once had a very powerful urge not to board a particular flight. She switched planes and her original flight crashed, killing everyone on board. Isn’t it wonderful how we can sense disaster and avoid it? Well, maybe, unless someone else had a similar urge and switched onto the flight that crashed; we will never know.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Avoiding Death, at Least in Our Minds”

  1. I think almost every time I talked with Tom Schelling I got a new way to think about things. Once he said, to a group of which I was a part, that he thought the idea that whole families getting wiped out was a particular tragedy was wrong – if everyone is killed, there is no one whose later life is full of mourning and regret, but if half of each of two families is killed, there are many left behind to regret. So I guess that’s vote for going in the same car, whichever way it turns out.

    1. One could speculate a great deal about which is worse, or what the unfortunate couple felt was worse. That however is a separate issue from the reasoning of my colleague which was that if they had gone in one car they would have inevitably both survived.

      I will make a slight edit in the post in the hopes of making this clearer.

  2. On the first point, your colleague is likely correct. Assuming that the person who got out alive either knew his way out of the city or kept his cool better than the other, he/she could have helped the spouse who did not had they been in the same car. You only need one person in a car who knows the way. It is not necessary that both do, unless they drive separately.

    Your skepticism assumes that their fates were random.

    1. Nope, could be random, non-random, doesn’t matter to the inference — see comment to Dave above, the inference is about my colleague’s assumption that if they had stayed together they both would certainly have lived.

  3. If I am not mistaken, Barbara Olson, wife of then solicitor general Ted Olson, switched her flight at the last minute to be present for her husband’s birthday, and then boarded the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9-11.
    So it does indeed work the other way.

    1. I think that is indeed often the underlying motivation, avoiding the terrifying recognition of our own helplessness

  4. This road-not-taken scenario reminds me of the current debate over PSA screening. You get a lot of “The PSA, along with the subsequent biopsy and surgery, saved my life.” The men who didn’t get tested or who ignored a high number and are still living don’t get much press. Nor, for many of those who did have surgery, do we know how they would have fared without it. (Nor do we hear much about those who had the PSA-driven biopsy and suffered because of it, but that’s not quite on the same topic.)

      1. Rev. Bayes is a consultant to the US Preventive Services Task Force for most of their screening test recommendations. When the USPSTF made its controversial recommendations about screening mammography for women in the various age groups, they were basing much of their reasoning on prior probabilities in order to calculate numbers needed to screen, etc.

        I did see one news story about a man who had the PSA test and had a biopsy as part of the follow-up, and landed in the intensive care unit with septic shock. If these anecdotes had equal weight with the cases that Jay mentions, then perhaps the advocates of unrestricted screening could be asked why they have joined death panels. But, as Jay points out, we hear less from them than from the “PSA saved my life” patients.

  5. For those who haven’t perused wikipedia’s extensive list of cognitive biases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_biases. I’m not sure where this one lies.

    I’m reading Richard Feynman’s wonderfully quirky autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. He mentions a brief epiphany he had once when he experienced an intense feeling that his grandmother had just died. He picked up the phone and found she was perfectly healthy. He realized that this contrasts the stories you sometimes hear of people getting premonitions, which they are biased to confirm when by coincidence they happen to be correct. Yet we tend to not remember the ones that aren’t. He told himself it was a good reminder of this bias.

    1. This. I went for a run last night in my not-so-great part of Oakland from 9:15-10:15 last night. I’m conspicuously not the majority race in this neighborhood. Just because I don’t let fear run my life doesn’t mean I don’t have fear. On three separate occasions I had the strong feeling somebody was coming up on me from behind. I looked, saw no one there, felt better, and forgot about it. Just a case in point.

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