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Trending Science: Don’t worry, be happy! New book scientifically examines worries

Scientist duo explores some of life’s common worries in an entertaining book backed by scientific evidence.

Fundamental Research

Worry too much? Experts and self-help gurus alike tell us not to sweat the small stuff (classic self-help book from the 90s). Life is too short and 99.9 % of the things that we worry about and cause us intense anxiety never happen. Tell that to a worry wart. Biomedical engineer and science writer Lise Johnson and neuroscientist Eric Chudler joined forces to write ‘Worried?’ (W.W. Norton & Company, 312 pp). A total of 58 chapters present 58 things we might potentially worry about. The American authors scientifically assess exactly how dangerous these things are and how much they’re actually worth worrying about. The 58 chapters are divided into several broad sections, namely ‘Food’ (e.g. gluten, pasteurised milk, Teflon), ‘Medicine’ (e.g. brain-eating amoeba, flesh-eating infection, acetaminophen), ‘Environment’ (e.g. mobile phones, asbestos, microwave ovens), ‘Chemicals’ (e.g. aluminium, flame retardants, fluoride), ‘Animals’ (e.g. shark attack, ticks, mosquitoes) and ‘Travel’ (e.g. airport body scanners, bedbugs, cruise ships). There’s also a section called ‘Miscellaneous’ that covers pirates, toys made in China and an asteroid strike. Taking scientific approach to worrying in fun, accessible way The worry items are accompanied by peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous research, not anecdotal evidence. Each worry topic is assigned what the authors call a “worry index” in the form of a user-friendly graph for readers “to quickly understand the relative risk posed by each issue.” The scores are subjective, they explain. The graph includes three components: preventability, likelihood and consequence. Preventability “refers to your ability to avoid or mitigate a specific outcome. If there is something you can do, then you have some control. The more you can do to prepare, the higher the preventability score.” Likelihood “refers to the chance of a negative outcome should you be exposed to a particular element of risk. The greater the odds of an adverse result, the higher the likelihood score.” Consequence “refers to the potential magnitude of harm. The more dire the consequence, the higher the consequence score.” Each worry item is displayed as a circle or marker on the graph. Along the horizontal axis, the authors measure the likelihood of each threat. Preventability is plotted on the vertical axis. The circle’s size indicates the issue’s consequence or severity. For example, caffeine received a score of 100 for preventability, likelihood (15) and consequence (3) because the threat is mild and it’s easy to avoid. For readers who can’t find what they’re looking for among the 58, there’s an appendix that encourages them to figure out worry factors on their own. The two scientists conclude by saying that the only things worth worrying about are those that “have the potential to do great harm”, are “likely to happen” and are preventable “through personal action.”

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