For many people the beach is for casually swimming, relaxing, sunbathing and staring out towards the clear blue ocean.
That person is never me. Because I have young children who need to be watched at all times. Particularly one of them, who sees a visit to the beach as an opportunity to boogie board towards the horizon. She has no fear when it comes to the ocean. I have tried everything to warn her of the dangers of going out too deep, but in the moment, the beach is awesome, I can swim and well, who cares. So, I am one of those parents yelling from the beach to not go too far out, about 55 times.
It crossed my mind that perhaps for the next family movie night I play the two Jaws movies that are still etched in my mind from my own childhood. I think a night watching those movies will do the trick. My daughter will from then on know that there is a real possibility of large sharks, and therefore not swim out far anymore. Just like us adults who watched those films as kids.
What do you think you would be like at the beach if you had never seen Jaws? Maybe a little more care free. Maybe you would you even go out a little further (even into that scary dark bit). So how do us adults get so fearful, when if we had more information available the world, we needn’t be?
We have a brain that is really good at protecting us and it goes to all sorts of lengths to make sure we don’t do anything stupid that wrecks our chance of survival. So whenever it learns something important, it stores it away in our memory for retrieval in the future. But the brain can only store what it knows from the information it gets presented with. It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. So a mental shortcut, known as an availability heuristic, may come into play when we need to make a quick decision. This quick shortcut then determines our initial behaviour (which will often be the more safer option for you). It then works out for you, so that backs up your original thought.
For example, after watching the news (and Spielberg movies) over the years, we might likely conclude that sharks kill humans when they’re swimming. Our brain wants us to think of this first and foremost so that we err on the side of caution. So we avoid going out deep. For some people, they won’t go in the ocean at all. It’s easier for us to keep thinking this way rather than spend the hours researching the statistics.
However, if we did do the math, it would show that swimmers are statistically more likely to not ever, ever get eaten by a shark. It might even let us know that statistically we are more likely to die falling off a horse or our chair. But no one writes news reports or movies about that.
So, statistically we are pretty safe when heading to the beach, but our brain still warns us otherwise.
The availability heuristic can be useful at times. However, making short cuts can lead to problems and mistakes. In fact, limited thinking might make you more protected but limit your life, all at the same time. When we are presented with information on shark attacks, plane crashes, and serial killers, it leads people to believe that such events are more common than they truly are. No one reports on the millions of beach dwellers that don’t get eaten by sharks, the planes that arrived at their destinations safely or all the people that don’t get killed.
Closer to home, just because your friends husband had an affair doesn’t mean yours will. Just because your workmate had a car accident doesn’t mean you are going to. Just because your mate lost his job, doesn’t mean you are. This is just the information you have available right now. So your brain makes you more wary.
Just because it comes to your mind more, doesn’t mean it is more common.
And it doesn’t mean it is right.
So perhaps we need to think a bit more about the world and not just look at what we are presented with. Lets think outside of it, and try to learn more about what we don’t know.
We might find that we are missing out on a more abundant life because of our own availability heuristics. They have kept us safe, but limit us significantly. Many of us miss out on travels to wild places, trying new experiences and beautiful friendships with people we have stereotyped whole life.
In my 9 years olds case, because of my availability heuristic, she is missing out on boogie boarding to Africa. But I think I will stick with that one for now.
She can do it when she is older.