The science behind why we worry about events that’ll never happen

The human condition is conducive to worrying. Our brains are always on, and within that everflowing stream of thoughts, there’s almost always a few worries thrown in there. 

While some of these worries are practical and justified, many others are nonsensical when viewed in the cold light of day. A person who is staunchly against cigarette smoking may worry about developing cancer after walking past a group of smokers on the sidewalk, or an individual who doesn’t travel often may worry about their safety while on board an airplane.

In reality, there’s virtually no chance that a few seconds of secondhand smoke will lead to any long-term health complications, and flying has been proven safer than driving time and time again.

Still, we all can’t help but worry about hypothetical situations, accidents, or occurrences that while technically possible, are incredibly unlikely. This universal human misperception of probabilities has puzzled scientists and researchers for decades. Now, a new set of research from New York University is offering up an explanation.

In collaboration with scientists from Peking University in China, the team at NYU conclude that our own cognitive limitations are to blame for this phenomenon.

The human mind just isn’t capable of simultaneously and equally focusing on and processing the full spectrum of possibilities and probabilities for a given event. So, the brain instead tries to compensate for this deficiency by distorting probability and activating defensive behavior toward events unlikely to ever occur.

In the end, most of these irrational worries and fears end up costing us in the long run. Our minds, though, are essential of the opinion that it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”

“Probability distortion limits human performance in many tasks, and we conjectured that the observed changes in probability distortion with task was a kind of partial compensation for human limitations,” explains Laurence Maloney, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, in a release. “A marathon runner with a sprained ankle will not run as well as she might have with her ankle intact, but the awkward, limping gait we observe could in fact be an optimal compensation for injury.”

To illustrate their point, the study’s authors likened the human mind to a microscope. Our brains can either consider a wide variety of possibilities on a broad level or focus more thoroughly on a narrow range of outcomes. It can’t do both at the same time. So, just how much one worries about an unlikely outcome depends on the number of possibilities they’re considering in the first place.

“Much like a variable magnification microscope, the brain can represent a wide range of probabilities, but not very accurately, or a narrow range at high precision,” professor Maloney comments. “If, for example, a task involves reasoning about the probability of various causes of death, for example, then the probabilities are all very small (thankfully) and small differences are important. We can set the microscope to give us high resolution over a limited window of very small probabilities. In another task, we might accept less precision in return for the ability to represent a much wider range of probabilities.”

Essentially what professor Maloney is saying here is that when an individual considers all of the possible outcomes of boarding an airplane, at that moment, the chances of a plane crash may seem much higher than they really are. Once that person takes a moment and focuses their attention on evaluating the likelihood of a plane crash, it becomes much clearer that it’s just not a situation worth worrying about.

The full study can be found here, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.