Jared Diamond: Reject misplaced paranoia, embrace "constructive paranoia"

I just finished Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? And as I watched and read reports out of Boston yesterday, I heard and read a lot of comments to the effect of “no place is safe anymore.”

Diamond offers a lesson I think is relevant. The crux of that lesson is if you’re going to be paranoid, be paranoid where it counts. And freaking out over the next possible terrorist attack is not where it counts.

Diamond is the author of the bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. In The World Before Yesterday, he draws on the many years he spent among New Guinea’s traditional peoples, as well as research from other scientists, to point out some interesting contrasts between traditional (hunter-gatherer, tribal) societies and societies in our WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) countries.

Diamond recounts how he was once on a field expedition accompanied by a group of New Guinean assistants. One night, the group stopped to make camp. Diamond found what he thought was a nice campsite under a large tree. To his surprise, the New Guineans with him, normally not a fearful people, were all afraid of sleeping under this tree. When he asked them why, they all recounted tales of people they knew or had heard about who had been killed by falling trees or large limbs.

At first, Diamond found this ridiculously paranoid. This tree looked perfectly fine. But as he spent more and more time in New Guinea and encountered many other traditional New Guineans who exhibited the same fear, he started to understand.

Diamond noted that on any given day hiking through the forest, one might hear, though not necessarily see, a large limb or tree crashing to the ground in the forest nearby. So while it seemed to Diamond that on this particular night under this particular tree the odds were very, very low of getting killed by a falling limb, he came to realize that for the New Guineans, avoiding hanging around big trees unnecessarily was a valid survival tactic.

These people spent a lot of time around big trees. And where they live, big trees do fall over and kill and maim people. On any given instance, the odds of that happening may be exceedingly low. But over a lifetime in the forest, the odds become significant enough to make it worthwhile to avoid taking unnecessary chances. So Diamond’s companions never slept under trees if they didn’t have to. Diamond came to see this behavior as “constructive paranoia.”

And he drew parallels to our own WEIRD lives. When something unimaginably horrible happens, like the terrorist bombing in Boston, we are inundated with news about it. It’s inescapable. And naturally, we empathize with the people who were there and imagine how frightening it would have been to be in their place.

For many of us, this turns into a fear we carry into our everyday lives. We spend time worrying about disasters like terrorist attacks, crazed gunmen on shooting sprees and airplane crashes and the possibility they may happen to us. We may even alter our behaviors and limit our activities because of them.

But the odds of any of those things happening to us are vanishingly small. I know it’s hard to see it in the wake of the tragedy in Boston, but changing our behavior to avoid these exceedingly rare events is unconstructive (not to mention that in the case of terrorist acts, it gives the sick perpetrators what they want).

On the other hand, we engage in regular behaviors that, repeated thousands of times in our lives, carry significant odds of killing or maiming us. What kinds of behaviors? Well, walking up and down stairs, driving a car and taking showers, for starters. Over our lifetimes, there’s an excellent chance that any of us could be significantly harmed by one of these behaviors.

And yet, because we do them so often, we tend to see them as routine and safe. They aren’t. They are precisely where it makes sense to invest our caution and care.

Let’s do ourselves a favor and simultaneously deny terrorists what they want. Let’s be constructively paranoid about the real dangers we face regularly, and not waste time worrying about the exceedingly rare disasters that are unlikely to ever affect us.