A little story
Evelyn lives in Ireland. She is a college student. In her free time she volunteers at an animal shelter. Evelyn is planning a trip to the United States. However, after having listened to a radio program about venomous snakes in the US, she is afraid that during her vacation, she might encounter a venomous snake and die from a snakebite. Evelyn has never seen a venomous snake in her life, so she searches online for information about venomous snakes.
Much of what she finds, including the pictures, frighten her. Worse yet, twenty minutes into her research, she accidentally clicks on a video of a snake eating another snake!
Evelyn reasons that it is better to go to the library, and search for data on people dying from snakebites. She hopes that this information would calm her worries. But it does not. According to one study, up to 125,000 people in the world die from snakebites each year.1
Perhaps that figure is inaccurate, Evelyn wonders. But looking into it a little more, she verifies that the figure comes from a study in a public health journal by the World Health Organization; so it is probably accurate.
Evelyn decides to cancel her trip.
Did Evelyn do the right thing? What should she have done instead? More generally, how should we assess the rationality of our own fears?
Assessing the logic of our fears
To evaluate the rationality of your fears, answer the following four questions:
What is the feared object/situation? (1)
We need to be clear on what we fear. For example, if you are afraid of going to a party, ask yourself what frightens you about the party. Meeting new people? Embarrassing yourself (e.g., spilling a drink)? Meeting the person you have been avoiding? Getting into a political argument?
Evelyn’s fear of snakebites was related to her fear of death. Evelyn was not afraid of being bitten or the pain associated with a bite. She had been bitten a few times by different animals at the shelter where she volunteered. What she feared was death.
When, like Evelyn, you are certain why you fear a particular object, then move to the next step.
Is the feared situation possible? (2)
Some fears are rational, some not.
For example, some of you may recall that as a child, you feared monsters—perhaps ones you had seen in cartoons or movies, or had heard about in stories you were told. You feared that they would break into your house or jump out from under your bed at night.
As an adult, you can rely on your logical abilities and life experience, to determine if what you fear is a realistic possibility.
You need to think critically: Are your assumptions true? Are there clear connections between your thoughts? Does the conclusion logically follow?
For example, Evelyn was thinking rationally because there are venomous snakes in US, she was going to US, and venom from snakebite can kill people.
Were Evelyn afraid of being bitten by, say, a thorny devil (a kind of lizard), she would be in error: One, thorny devils live in Australia, not US; two, despite their frightening appearance, they are not really dangerous (and not venomous).
Is the feared situation probable? (3)
This is not a question of logic but statistics. Even if a situation is possible, it may not be likely. To determine the likelihood of an event, we must evaluate the relevant factors.
To illustrate, let us consider one factor: Location. If Evelyn were planning to spend her vacation in some remote village in India, she should have been worried about snakebites.
In India, over 10,000 people die from snakebites each year (in US, only 5-10 do). Why? Death from snakebites is, in a lot of ways, associated with poverty. People with a good income and access to quality health services, are more likely to receive antivenom and thus much less likely to die from snakebites.2-4
How vulnerable are you, if the feared situation occurs? (4)
Vulnerability depends on many factors. For instance, on days when the maximum UV index value is low, you are protected from the sun; when the value is higher, you need extra protection (e.g., sunglasses, sunscreen, etc). If you have a serious skin condition, even this level of protection may be insufficient.
Old age, psychological trauma, illness, and other factors can influence your level of vulnerability in a situation. Note that vulnerability does not equal fear. You may be vulnerable, objectively speaking, but not feel afraid (and vice versa).
Evelyn reasoned that despite her fears, she is not particularly vulnerable. If she encounters a snake and is bitten—assuming by a venomous one—she will have access to (and be able to afford) quality health services.
When examining a feared situation, first determine what you fear, and why. Second, examine whether the feared situation is a realistic possibility. Third, determine the probability of the feared situation. Lastly, assess how vulnerable you would be, should you encounter what you fear.
You may not find all the information you need to make an easy decision. Such is life. But you are likely to gain clarity. To know yourself better. To have greater knowledge of what you fear. And to feel more in control.
1. Chippaux J. P. (1998). Snake-bites: appraisal of the global situation. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 76, 515-524.
2. Kasturiratne, A., Wickremasinghe, A. R., de Silva, N., Gunawardena, N. K., Pathmeswaran, A., Premaratna, R., . . . de Silva, H. J. (2008). The global burden of snakebite: A literature analysis and modeling based on regional estimates of envenoming and deaths. PLOS Medicine, 5, 1591-1604.
3. Harrison R. A., Hargreaves, A., Wagstaff. S. C., Faragher, B., & Lalloo, D. G. (2009) Snake envenoming: a disease of poverty. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 3, e569.
4. Langley, R. L. (2005). Animal-related fatalities in the United States—an update. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 16, 67-74.