“Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.” ~ Jeff Coop
Do you spend a lot of time worrying about safety? The reason I ask is because that question has popped up a number of times since we decided to spend a month in Mexico. The location where we have landed is about 40 miles south of San Diego and a few miles south of Rosarito on the Baja coast. We have visited this area for the last 25 years on and off, have friends who live here full time, and have never once had an “incident” that would make us consider it unsafe. Yet, without a doubt, the first thing that anyone asks when we tell them where we are going is—“Is it safe?”
The funny thing is that if you saw a photo of where we are renting, you’d think you were somewhere along the California coast. From our one bedroom condo we have a lovely view of the ocean and coastline. The project itself has 24-hour security, two swimming pools, tennis courts, two gyms and even a dog park for Kloe. Our home for the month has every amenity necessary including great Wi-Fi, filtered water, and a washer and dryer. Even better, the rental rate is extremely reasonable. Any property of comparable nature would cost at least five times as much in the U.S. Why is the price so different? Probably because so many people don’t think it’s safe.
But what is safety anyway? The most common definition is “freedom from danger, risk, or loss.” Hello? I don’t know anyone who is entirely free from any of those unless they are already in their grave. That’s why I have always loved the quote by Helen Keller that says:
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
But what is it that makes any of us feel that we are safer in one place—namely the familiar—rather than some place new and/or unknown? That something is our mind—or more specifically, the way our brain functions.
In search of some answers I came across the work of a man named Bruce Schneier who is an author and internationally renowned security expert and named by The Economist as a “security guru.” While Schneier has spent his life analyzing and reporting on the “reality” of security from a technical perspective, he is also very familiar with safety as a “feeling” and how that also effects the decisions of individuals, businesses and governments.
Schneier sees the reality of security a matter of mathematics based upon probabilities and calculations. Given a correct and large amount of data on any subject, one should be able to determine the reality of safety involved and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. On the flip side, he acknowledges that feeling safe is based upon a person’s “psychological reactions to both risks and countermeasures.” Clearly, it is possible to feel safe and not be—just as easily as it is to be relatively secure, and feel scared to death. Schneier has written several books and studied this phenomenon that he calls the “Psychology of Security” a great deal. While I don’t have the space or the time to recap everything he covers, I will share a couple of the most interesting ideas he explores.
Ultimately, Schneier believes that safety is about trade offs. (That’s right—there’s the idea of trade-offs again that I’ve written about before.) In fact, Schneier believes that there is “no such thing as absolute security, and any gain in security always involves some sort of trade-off.” The most common tradeoffs are money, time, convenience, capabilities, liberties etc. According to Schneier we make security trade-offs all the time, every single day and do it mostly without awareness. When we lock the doors to our house or cars, the route we drive our car to any location, and whether we pay by cash, credit card or check all represent unconscious choices we intuitively make to keep ourselves safe.
In terms of our stay in Mexico, we believe that the opportunity to #1 stay in a beautiful place; #2 that has dozens of amentias; #3 is cool and comfortable (remember we live in the desert where it is a good 30-40 degrees hotter right now) and #4 reasonably priced, are all good trade-offs for the minor risk of doing something out of the ordinary. Others however feel that staying where they feel comfortable and familiar is a higher security tradeoff.
The big problem with unconscious trade-offs is that although they have kept us alive for thousands of years by allowing us to make fast, intuitive decisions to stay safe—we humans don’t live in that world anymore. The parts of our brains that used to tell us instantly that there was a saber tooth tiger about to chomp us—is a much different need than when we have to decide if we want to go to Mexico or not. But unless we stop, think about it, and use our higher more-developed neocortex to come up with the calculations of worthy trade-offs, we usually just go for the fast and easy “feeling.” According to Schneier, there are a number of these fast choices that routinely create fears without conscious thought. They are:
* We downplay common risks and exaggerate spectacular and unique ones—i.e. millions of people die in car accidents in our country but far more people are afraid to fly in an airplane although the risk trade-off is similar to winning the Mega-lotto.
* We underestimate risks that we willingly take and overestimate those that we have no control over—i.e. people continue to smoke although that is something they personally control, but blow out of proportion the risks imposed upon us by others or the government like gun control.
* People are less afraid of risks that are natural as opposed to those that are human made—i.e. we fear radiation from cell phones and nuclear waste much more than radiation from the sun, which poses a far greater risk.
* People worry more about being killed in dramatic and unusual ways rather than in common ways that actually kill most people—i.e. being beheaded by the drug cartel in Mexico vs. dying of heart disease.
* People are more afraid of risks they know a lot about, and less afraid of those they know nothing about—i.e. the negative press along the Mexican/American border has created a lot of fear among those contemplating a trip south, but shootings in southern California cities and others around the country routinely go unnoticed.
* People are less afraid of danger that they have grown accustomed to, than they are of anything new and different—i.e. West Nile Virus has become common place but a current outbreak of a new virus in our community can cause panic.
* When people feel they are in control they are less afraid than when they feel someone else is in control—i.e. when in a car or other vehicle a person feels safer as the driver rather than as a passenger.
* People are less afraid of a risk they personally made for themselves rather than when someone else made it for them—many people drive after drinking but believe others are more dangerous under the same conditions.
* Adults are more afraid for their children than they are for themselves—i.e. adults worry more about children breathing asbestos at school than they do about themselves breathing it at work every day for years.
* Dangers that happen suddenly get much more attention and seem more fearful than those that occur slowly—i.e. the tornadoes in the Midwest of our country are raising far more fear than global climate change even though the potential for harm over the long run is much greater.
* People are more worried about dangers to themselves and those they care about than risks to others—i.e. up until 9/11 most Americans never worried about terrorist acts because they always happened over seas. After 9/11 worry about terrorists has skyrocketed although the statistical risk is still very low.
Like I said above, all of these ways of arriving at a “safety decision” usually happen unconsciously. If we don’t practice awareness on a regular basis and make every effort to stay conscious, then most of our choices for safety will happen automatically rather than as a true trade-off. And let’s not forget that we also routinely struggle with our “confirmation bias.” In case you’ve forgotten, that is where we unconsciously but selectively find and remember evidence that supports anything we’ve previously believed to be true regardless of whether it is correct or not. In other words, if you’ve convinced yourself that something isn’t safe, your confirmation bias will find every little bit of information that supports that conclusion, and completely overlook anything that might prove it wrong.
I’m not sure if my living happily and safely in Baja for a month will convince anyone that this is a safe place to spend time. But it doesn’t really matter what I think or where you are for that matter, the question remains, do you feel safe? Schneier is sure that providing more information is not the answer. Instead he feels the best solution is to let people know how our brain patterns and our biases work, and then hopefully we’ll be able to override our natural tendencies and make better security trade-offs in the future. All I know is for myself, I will I continue to live as Abraham Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.” What about you?