Denial and the Risky Business of the Unknown
Denial Can Hurt, but It Can Also Help Us Live as We Face the Future.
(Posted on November 11, 2016)
Have you ever travelled by car or plane to a distant, unfamiliar place, trusting you’d reach your
destination and, though nervous, feeling ready for a new adventure? Or felt both excited and
apprehensive when starting a new job? Or even leaving a home you know and establishing a life
far from where you started?
Perhaps you had those dizzying butterflies. Maybe you felt as though you were standing on the
edge of your own personal cliff, unsteady on your feet and unsure where your next step would
take your life, but ready to take the leap. If you’ve ever experienced moments like these, you’re
far from alone. Yet we sure feel alone at these times, don’t we?
As we encounter the complexities and beauty of life, we face decisions that are both unfamiliar
and commonplace, and impact our lives for the short term and over the long haul. What’s
especially thorny is that we can’t see into the future, so we’re ceaselessly stepping into the
dimness of the coming hour, the twilight of tomorrow, and the obscurity of next year. We’re
always living and choosing with a measure of ignorance. What’s more, there’s an interaction
between what we can and cannot control, the two weaving together and draping a unique
fabric over our situation. On top of all that, risk and danger are sewn into the fabric as well. At
times, we turn a blind eye to this risk, which has its own ramifications.
How do we make our way in the world, especially with such uncertainty and when there’s so
much beyond our control? How do we reach for our goals and navigate obstacles amid risk and
danger, all the while keeping our wits about us rather than cowering in our bed in a state
As we go about living, we carry along a set of beliefs that lead us to downplay our sense of risk
and vulnerability to harm. They include notions such as the following:
- People are basically decent.
- Bad things probably aren’t going to happen to us.
- Life is generally fair, as long as we’re decent and try to do the right thing, we’ll be fine.
- If we make prudent choices, we can control what happens to us and safeguard ourselves against harm.
Of course, not all of us hold these beliefs, particularly if we’ve encountered serious harm or
damage that defies these ideas. But for many of us, we go about our lives with basic
assumptions of mitigated risk, and this sense of being almost risk-proof provides benefits to us
as we navigate life. But, it can also cost us. Let’s start with the price we pay in a few areas.
It's Risky to Turn Down the Dial on Risk
We’re actually just as likely to die driving a measly twelve miles by car as we are on a cross-
country flight between Los Angeles and Boston. Yet many of us fearlessly drive every day, and
the consequences can be tragic. Study findings reveal that in the year following the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of people who drive bumped up
sharply. Presumably, this reflected people’s decision to drive rather than fly in an attempt to
avoid facing the same doom as the 256 passengers who lost their lives on the four planes that
horrific day. Terribly, it backfired, and approximately 1,500 additional people died on the roads
during that year in the mistaken belief that they were in control and making themselves safer.
Although anyone can struggle with their drinking, some are more at risk than others. For
instance, there’s ample scientific evidence that people with a family history of
alcohol addiction are especially at risk of developing a drinking problem, but not everyone with
a family history acknowledges their risk. This is unfortunate, because an awareness of their risk
predicts lowered alcohol use. But regardless of family history, it’s unsafe to minimize the risk
around alcohol. For example, people who make light of their likelihood of having difficulties
linked to drinking in college, such as conflicts over alcohol use, are actually at greater odds of
experiencing these types of problems.
We’re also experts at playing down health risks. Unfortunately, this can also lessen our odds of
taking preventative measures or inflate the chances that we’ll miss the full scope of our risk. For
instance, a 2014 study reveals that people who are obese believe they’re more likely to have a
stroke or a heart attack than they really are, yet they downplay their odds of battling hypertension and rheumatism. Among women with higher odds of developing breast cancer, a
whopping 89 percent of them underplay their risk. And people who tend to believe that bad
stuff probably won’t happen to them are more likely to minimize their risk for cardiovascular
disease and are less inclined to take preventive measures.
Then Again, It's Risky Not to Turn Down the Dial on Risk
Despite the disadvantages of turning down the dial on risk, denial of risk is also a potent
helpmate. For instance, people who make light of the odds of bad things befalling them, even
after a cardiac health scare, are actually less likely to experience another scare again in
the coming year. And even among people who think aging means having less health and
vitality—a mind-set that itself is a risk factor for health problems over time—an
upbeat, confident vision of the future can help safeguard people’s mental and physical health
over time as they age.
What’s more, our ability to turn down the dial on risk arguably helps sustain us as we travel the
road of life and reach for our goals, which is a journey filled with uncertainty. If we’re going to
embrace that journey, we probably need to be willing to take chances and downplay the risks.
When we turn down the dial on risk, it’s like giving ourselves a mental safety net. It bolsters us
to live our lives, to get out of bed and function throughout our day, rather than cower under
the covers in terror at all of the potential hazards awaiting us. It allows us to be healthy,
engaged human beings in the world and to go after the gems that life has to offer. We might
just want to remind ourselves that we’re not invincible either, and to be grateful for what we
have in life for as long as we have it.