Blame Your Brain

I don’t know you. But I’m guessing I can still tell you something important about yourself: You are more freaked out about the world—especially the other people in it—than you should be.

For starters, you are reading this, which means you consume at least some news media. And the news is, lately, a scary place. Perhaps you saw some stunning graphs recently that depicted the most common actual causes of death in the United States, the causes of death most commonly searched for online and those that get the most news coverage. In reality, most people die of diseases of old age, such as heart disease and cancer. By contrast, more than half of news coverage is devoted to homicides and terrorism, which account for a minuscule fraction—less than 1 percent—of actual deaths. Perhaps as a result, about 10 percent of white-knuckled web searches for likely causes of death are for these largely unlikely outcomes.

We disproportionately buy, click on and share scary stories about people killing other people. And for this, you can blame your brain. Your brain’s most important job is to take in information about the messy, confusing world we inhabit, find patterns embedded in the noise and use them to make predictions about the future. Brains particularly like actionable intelligence—and the most useful information pertains to threats that can be avoided, thus increasing your odds of survival.

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