I’ve become increasingly aware of a couple symptoms of our society that exist in every person I come across. I certainly have these symptoms, although mine seem to be a bit more dormant with my “don’t care” attitude—but this post isn’t about that.The point is, some people have these symptoms more than others and more often than not, one of the two symptoms prevails. As far as I can find, no one else has really connected these two symptoms to say that they are opposites of each other as I believe them to be but perhaps that’s because a person can have both. What the heck am I talking about, right?
The first is Optimistic Bias. This is a term coined for the idea of “that could never happen to me.” It’s the idea that although you hear about these bad things happening elsewhere, you honestly believe that it will never happen to you. These could be simple things, like not getting a part in a play when you’ve been acting your whole life or more extreme things like cancer or car accidents. I’m sure you can think of something that shows you have optimistic bias. What are you sure will never happen to you? For me, it’s getting salmonella. I once again, have that don’t care attitude and thus eat raw cookie dough and stuff, thinking that it will never happen to me because it hasn’t yet to me or anyone I know.
The second is Moral Panic. This is the idea that everyone is afraid of something because the media has hyped it up. I see this on a much smaller scale, simply looking at each person within the whole that has those fears. These fears may be due to a real threat but more often than not it’s simply something that has gotten out of hand and will never touch us. This is things like Ebola and Shark attacks. It could legitimately happen and we hear about it happening but the odds of it happening to us are VERY small yet we have fear that can’t quite be discarded.
It’s really interesting to me as an aspiring sociologist to sit back and watch one or both of these symptoms overcome the people in my life. A lot of times, their lives are run by these. Either they believe that nothing uniquely awful will happen to them or they live in fear of something that will likely never happen, happening. How do we balance these two things? I have no idea.
I see moral panic—and feel it in myself—often after something big happens. An event like a mass shooting or bombing, an onset of natural disasters, anything like that usually sets off moral panic. The media starts unleashing story after story of the awful things happening and suddenly everyone’s afraid. I think this moral panic sometimes makes it harder for events caused by man to reoccur in another location because everyone is so afraid that security and awareness is amped up. However the mix of optimistic bias in the situation makes it easier for those things to happen. For example, say a mass shooting occurs in a small city in a state across the country from you. Something unique sets this shooting apart from others and it’s the first you’ve heard about in awhile. Moral panic tells you to be more aware in public or to avoid similar situations at all. You watch the news consistently and give extra warnings of safety to your loved ones. You remember too, to tell them more often that you love them. Optimistic Bias tells you that your situation is too different from the one where the shooting occurred. You live in a small town where nothing ever happens and the crime rate is low. Nothing like that will ever happen to you, until one day it does. Moral panic then sets in to the rest of the population and the cycle starts over.
Authority figures seem to try to ensue moral panic, often even believing it themselves to gain support. A candidate who wants you to vote for them may tell you that a threat exists when it doesn’t really and then how they will fix it to make you fear the threat and desire of someone to fix it. They give you a problem and a solution all in one. Optimistic Bias on the other hand seems to be something we ensue naturally in ourselves. This is why when something bad does happen to us, it’s often such a shock we can hardly believe it. Media doesn’t play into this as much, except for in movies. A likable character is created and we adore them; then something awful happens to them even though they didn’t believe it would. We watch this Optimistic Bias take place right in front of us, yet we are significantly blind to it.
At the risk of being Optimistically Biased, here’s some of the thing people in my life and that the media shows moral panic about: school shootings (probably top), abduction/kidnapping, rape, drugs, car accidents, plane crashes, eaten by sharks, burglary/theft, natural disasters, and so many more. Basically every bad thing that could happen has some connotation of moral panic with it. Have a friend with different colored skin? I’d bet you the things they have moral panic about are different than yours. Remember the kid that was eaten by the alligator? How many parents do you think had moral panic about it? And yet I’ll be there were some who had optimistic bias and let their kids risk getting hurt anyways. If I were to make a list of the things that people were Optimistically Biased about, it would probably be the same list, with Death (in general) at the top of it.
I wish I knew what a happy balance between these things would look like. Is it possible to have one? What would that look like? Or does the cycle just continue endlessly? Are these things good for our society to have?
I don’t know those answers. I do know that these symptoms plague everyone in our society (much thanks to the media) and that we should at least be aware of them. Sometimes it’s good to be afraid and alert and not ignorant to what could happen. But it’s not good to be so paralyzed be fear about something that you don’t let your children do anything. So do we panic or not? Of course, it’ll never happen to us right?
Chow Chow, Brown Cow!