the power of fear


It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to believe things that are frightening--and how skeptical they are about things that are good.

Case in point. I really enjoy Joi Ito's weblog, but he recently posted a link to the fear-mongering "Aspartame is poison" site. This site tosses around plenty of frightening numbers associated with the risks of ingesting aspartame...but none of them are from reputable, peer-reviewed sources. So I searched on aspartame in PubMed, and found at least two articles from peer-reviewed medical journals that refute this.

So why is it that we're so much more inclined to believe the bad than the good? Self-preservation, because we're less likely to be disappointed? Odds, because we've had more bad experiences than good? Or something else? I don't see this in my kids nearly as much as I do in adults--they're generally skeptical of threats ("mom's probably wrong...that steam doesn't look hot enough to burn me"), but optimistic about positive outcomes.


Hi ell. Thanks for the links. I'm feeling a bit better now. I think the great thing about blogs is that someone like you can quickly post something to my blog that helps bring what was making its rounds on the mailing lists into perspective. I had no idea that PubMed even existed until I saw your post. Thanks! I said, "If what this page says is true," hoping that it would spark a debate... I think it is healthy to question authority at every turn, but to be able to track down the facts and make our own decisions. I don't think that the "fear-mongering" sites will go away and I think that open discussion is the best way to resolve these issues...

Anyway, I will read the PubMed articles and let you know if I stop drinking Diet Coke. ;-)

Glad it was useful. I'm a librarian by training--hard for me to resist checking sources. :-)

In general, whenever I get something "scary" from a friend, I check it on the Urban Legends site...did that with the aspartame, and it suggested pubmed (which I knew about, but hadn't thought to check).

I guess I should probably check more sources before I post. If I can make a lame excuse, I was on a tiny portable computer connecting over a wireless PHS connection and... I got lazy and decided to check the references after I got back home. ;-p I also have MT set to publish immediately instead of saving as a draft. I find that once I publish something, I edit it much more quickly. ;-)


Yeah, I've got MT set to publish immediately, as well. If I let it sit, I'll worry too much about wordsmithing.

And it wasn't you I was thinking about so much in this post as the many well-meaning friends who've sent me scare after scare (kidney thieves, Good Times et al). The diet coke post just got me thinking about how and why urban legends propagate so quickly.

In general, I agree with you. It's definitely not a great thing to be skeptical of everything around you, and afraid of things... But when it comes to food, there are things that you just know are not good for you. I tend to think that methanol and formaldehyde fall into this category. However many studies say that Nutrasweet is "ok", I'd much rather drink some juice. It's all about keeping perspective -- I don't think that's necessarily fear-mongering, unless we all panic about it.

We all have to balance risks and benefits in our lifestyle choices. As you say, perspective is key. The choice not to consume aspartame seems to me to be eminently reasonable. But the "Aspartame is death!" sites, filled with unsubstantiated claims, are the kind of fear-mongering that I find problematic.

When I was pregnant and nursing (both times) I stopped drinking Diet Coke--not because of the aspartame, but because of the caffeeine. I didn't notice any




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 27, 2002 8:43 AM.

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