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Home > Research Articles > What, Me Worry?

The New York Times

Sunday, July 28, 2002

What, Me Worry? By ALEX KUCZYNSKI AST Tuesday, Jeffrey K. Dorner, a medical secretary in Manhattan, thwacked a stack of envelopes marked Templeton Financial, Fidelity and American Express onto his desk and gazed at them as if they were a bad hand in a big-stakes poker game.

"I won't open any of them," Mr. Dorner said, his arms folded. "Why deal with the bad news?"

Bad news is epidemic right now. If seasons were ailments, the summer of 2002 has turned out to be one big kidney stone that just won't pass.

In nine weeks, starting before Memorial Day, the stock market averages dropped more than 20 percent in value, one of the swiftest descents in Wall Street history.

A study supported by the National Institutes of Health reported that hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, long touted as beneficial, puts women at risk for cancer.

Global warming will choke water supplies, destroy coastal marshlands and cause scorching heat waves in coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency warned in a report issued last month. And depending on the day of the week and which famous person has lost weight on the Atkins diet, bacon will either make you skinny and healthy, or it will make you fat and dead.

Recession, terrorist threat, clogged arteries, a hole in the ozone the size of France? Fuhgeddaboutit! While lots of conscientious Americans are frantically juggling their finances and questioning their doctors, many are responding by simply not responding.

Perhaps it is because the sea of potential troubles is too overwhelming, some experts on denial say. Or perhaps a little I-know-nothing-I-see-nothing is the typical mind-set of summer, that reverent time when Americans let things slide off their suntan-greasy backs as they lumber toward September, a month far more suitable to the twin straitjackets of anxiety and responsibility.

Sociologists and psychiatrists have long considered denial to be an essential component of the human survival instinct.

Katie Long, the director of publicity for Hyperion Books, said last week that her survival instinct, like that of most of her friends, was focused on financial concerns.

"I made a vow at lunch not to look at my 401(k) statement for two years," she said. "No way."

Even though the markets perked up on Wednesday, the effects may only be temporary.

Lewis Canfield, an art consultant, said that of course he was in denial, but he was not sure about the subject of his denial.

"I am absolutely positive that there is something to be in denial about, but if I'm in denial about it, well, how would I know?" Mr. Canfield said as he traveled through Manhattan in a chauffeured sedan from appointment to appointment. "Wouldn't I be denying it? Isn't that why it's called `in denial' ?"

Mr. Dorner, for one, said he would not think about opening his financial statement until the fall. And then, he said, "it will be only out of morbid curiosity."

As the psychiatric darling of the last quarter century, denial is the symbol of an era bounded by Woody Allen's neuroses and Oprah Winfrey's gentle probings, a pop plaint that even generated a T-shirt slogan that is now exhausted about how denial isn't just a river in "yawn" Egypt.

The late psychologist Ernest Becker, in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 book "The Denial of Death," wrote that without denial, human beings might become paralyzed by fear on their way to work, frozen on a corner awaiting "the suction of the infinite", and then never even make it to Dunkin' Donuts.

Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas who studies stress, said there was a thin line between denial and "overlooking."

"If there is nothing you can do about the situation, if it is beyond your control, you have the option to either obsess about it or move on," he said. "A lot of these people worried about the stock market may just be moving on in their own quiet way."

For the six million American women of menopausal age on hormone replacement therapy, it is still hard to tell if they are in denial or just confused. Earlier this month, a large federal study of the therapy was halted because the drugs, a combination of estrogen and progestin, caused slight but significant increases in the risk of breast cancer.

Adrienne Burros, an artist in New York, said last week that she has been taking hormone replacement medication for six years and, despite the recent news, has no immediate plans to stop.

"I have read everything and still can't figure out what to do, so I have sort of given up on making any decisions at all," she said. "My friends are all in the same boat."

Ms. Burros said that her ability to deny that the therapy might be bad for her had only been helped by the fact that her doctor is, well, also in denial.

"Even he doesn't know what to do," she said. "So as long as he is in denial, I can be too."

Robert Strang, executive vice president of Decision Strategies Fairfax International, a security and investigative concern, said that denial was the only way a lot of people, especially those in law enforcement, could get out of bed.

"Nuclear attack, breaches in mainstream security, fear of water contamination," Mr. Strang said last week as he counted threats to domestic well-being on his fingers. "If you take any of those seriously, as seriously as they could be taken, well, you won't get out of the door in the morning. A healthy level of denial keeps the collective blood pressure down."

Some forms of denial actually keep blood pressure up. Eric Schlosser, the author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" (Houghton Mifflin), said that the popularity of fast food was an ideal demonstration of the human power of denial.

It is, after all, the logical conceit behind the popularity of fast food. How else could Americans, who get fatter every year, simultaneously increase their intake of fast food, a source of hydrogenated fats not even approved by the Atkins diet?

"Fast food is a very immediate source of gratification," Mr. Schlosser said. "While you are eating it, you don't think about where it came from, how it was made, what will happen if you eat too much."

His theory was underscored by a lawsuit filed in the Bronx last week against four fast-food chains by a 275-pound man, who said that until he had two heart attacks it never occurred to him that a steady diet of take-out fried chicken and greasy burgers was a problem.

Mr. Schlosser said there was a correlation behind the type of person who would worry extravagantly about terrorism and the kind of person who would order fast food. And then go into quick denial of both.

"If you're worried about Al Qaeda," he said, "you'd also probably say: `The heck with it. Supersize that, and make those fries a large.' "

But denial also has its down side. People who avoid confronting bad news suffer in the long term, said Dr. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

"Avoidance backfires in so many ways," Dr. Loewenstein said. "If you do not expose yourself to the bad news, you are unable to adapt to it, and it causes more distress."

In fact, Dr. Loewenstein said, many people's emotional reactions to bad news, in the form of denial or avoidance, can register disproportionately to the severity of the crisis and cause long-term damage. The economic markets are shaky, yes, and Americans consider the perils of terrorism when they fly on an airplane, but neither the economy nor terrorism is as serious a problem as the long-term damage to the environment that the E.P.A. study raised, he said.

"This will make me very unpopular in New York," he added, "but to me the issue of global warming is a problem of potentially catastrophic proportions larger than that of terrorism and the other issues around Sept. 11. To me that is an example of people's emotional reactions, their denial of what the real problems are, driving individual and policy responses that are not proportionate to our gravest problems."

Scott Prendergast would not disagree, but he finds there are so many varieties of unfortunate news these days, personal and global, that he cannot keep track.

"I am in denial about the fact that I only have enough money to live on until Dec. 1," said Mr. Prendergast, an actor who is directing a film. (He is the driver in the Volkswagen commercials who asks his co-pilot for a french fry.) "I am spending the money I should be living on making the movie. It is boiling in Alaska, Alaska is melting, but I can't think about it. I can't think about it because what am I going to do? Go there and hold up the sky?"