The Science Of Your Stupid First-World Problems
A psychological phenomenon explains why we are so terrible at seeing how good we have it
I was recently on one of my favorite radio shows of all time, NPR’s RadioWest, talking about my new book, The Comfort Crisis. The show’s host, Doug Fabrizio, started the interview by asking me to tell a story about two Harvard psychologists, David Levari and Daniel Gilbert, who a few years ago noticed something funny while standing in line for TSA. And what they noticed led them to conduct a study that can explain why so many of us are so bad at seeing how good we have it.
You can listen to me tell the story on the show here. But it basically goes like this: Levari and Gilbert are at the airport traveling to a conference. While waiting on airport security, they notice that the TSA treat a lot of clearly non-threatening people like existential risks.
We’ve all experienced the phenomenon in real life. Some well-meaning TSA agent rips apart a carryon seemingly thinking someone’s banana is a 9mm Beretta. Or a wheelchair-bound 90-year old who can’t walk or see gets the full-body pat down after forgetting she had a half-filled bottle of hairspray in her purse.
Obviously the phrase “better safe than sorry” applies here. “But we wondered,” Levari told me, “if all of the sudden people stopped bringing stuff that wasn’t allowed into the airport and the luggage scanners never went off, would TSA just relax and do nothing?” They didn’t think so. “Our intuition was that the TSA would do what most us would do,” he said. “When they ran out of stuff to find they would start looking for a wider range of stuff, even if this was not conscious or intentional, because their job is to look for threats.”
With that in mind, Levari in 2018 conducted a series of studies to find out if the human brain searches for problems even when problems become infrequent or don’t exist. One of his studies tasked people with viewing a series of 800 different human faces that ranged from very intimidating to completely harmless.
The people had to judge which of the faces seemed “threatening.” But once they’d seen the 200th mug, Levari without the participants’ knowledge began showing them fewer and fewer…