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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

The art of "constructive paranoia"--it's the little things that kill you

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We spend a lot of time being afraid.

We fear strangers, unfamiliar neighborhoods, random violence.   We buy locks and security systems and even weaponry.   We wire our houses with cameras and mikes to monitor our environs.

What we really need to be cautious about is our daily shower.

So says UCLA professor Jared Diamond in Tuesday's New York Times.   The philosophy he lays out in his book "The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies" sounds like a ponderous graduate-level college course but instead is a brilliantly simple lesson in common sense.   Diamond says it's the little things which pack tiny risk but that we do repeatedly--like the aforementioned shower--that  should be top of mind when it comes to our self-preservation.   Odds of being blown in half by a crack-crazed gang banger?   Sure, it could happen, but what how many crack-crazed gang bangers do you encounter on the average day?   That shower is another story: with each new turn of the faucet comes the same risk of a potentially fatal fall or mishap.   Tiny though the chance is, by repetition it makes itself a continued threat.   Toss in a certain casual attitude we adapt--"that could NEVER happen to ME"--and you see where the good professor is going.

Diamond says he developed what he calls "constructive paranoia" during a trip to New Guinea--a locale he spent some 50 years getting to know.   During a camping trip with locals, he decided to pitch his tent one night under what he thought was the safety of a dead but sturdy dead tree.   Don't do that, the locals said--that tree could topple over while you're sleeping.   The professor assured them that, though dead, the tree wasn't going anywhere.   

The locals slept out in the open.

Diamond observed during many future occasions when sleeping out in the forests of New Guinea that, virtually every night, he heard a tree falling in the woods, thus driving home a huge lesson: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.

Americans' thinking about dangers is confused, the professor writes in The Times.  We obsess about the wrong things and we fail to watch for the real dangers.  We exaggerate the risk of being killed in a spectacular way--plane crashes, terror strikes, and the like--but underestimate the very real risk of events that we can control or those that kill just one person in a mundane way.

Diamond's "constructive paranoia" doesn't paralyze him or limit his life--he does risky thinks like drive and fly (to go back to New Guinea) while being extra aware about things like step ladders, staircases, uneven sidewalks and yes, showers.   He stays vigilant about his own possible mistakes, as well as things others might do.

My former radio partner Bob Reitman had a saying: total paranoia is total awareness.  I think he and Professor Diamond would get along famously.

And, who knew Reitman was from New Guinea?




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