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Rules for Guessing

03 January 2017 - Dr Jan Orman

As you may know, my current favourite TED Talk presenter is Swedish Professor of Global Health, Hans Rosling. In a talk I've mentioned before called 'How not to be ignorant about the world' the professor demonstrates in his inimitable way that none of us is very good at guessing the answers to questions about the world, partly because of the biases we have acquired in our life experience and from our exposure to media which is driven by readership and advertising dollars rather than facts.

The time is coming when we really have to be more careful about our sources of information – the best evidence for that being the influence that “fake news” from Facebook and other websites that seems to have had on the recent American Presidential election. (If you are interested here’s an amusing way to find out a little more about "fake news").

We know that many people with mental health problems, be they depression or anxiety, get distorted views of the world, overestimate the probability of things going wrong in their lives and underestimate their own ability to cope. Many have difficulty seeing good anywhere.

We know that many people with mental health problems, be they depression or anxiety, get distorted views of the world, overestimate the probability of things going wrong in their lives and underestimate their own ability to cope. Many have difficulty seeing good anywhere.

Prof Rosling presents us with 4 “Rules for Guessing” that use statistics as their basis rather than personal biases to answer “big” social questions.

Here are the rules:

  1. Most things improve – many good examples reveal that although lots of people, especially older people, think that the world has never been as bad as it is now, many things are actually better in the modern world. There are many fewer deaths from natural disaster now, for example, than at other times in the history of the world. If someone asks you to guess whether something is getting better or worse the most statistically likely answer is that things are getting better
  2. Most people are in the middle – on any statistical measure the hump where most people reside is in the middle not at either extreme.
  3. Social improvement always precedes accumulation of wealth – and this applies to individuals as well as countries. It pays to attend to health and education rather than focus on the economy because once the population is well educated and healthy, economic concerns tend to take care of themselves.
  4. Sharks kill few people – Fear exaggerates probability, interferes with our decision making and causes us to unnecessarily limit our behaviour.

Helping people shift their thinking to incorporate these ideas with conversation, CBT, ACT and other therapy modalities may help improve their outlook and their mental wellbeing.

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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