Saturday, January 4, 2014

“That Was a Wake Up Call” Optimism Bias and Death




In five months I will be 61 years old.  Each year I am alive I am more likely to hear the phrase “That Was a Wake Up Call” from someone I know, either about themselves or someone they hold dear. 

I don’t know who will say it, or the exact reason, but the person who says it will be the only one surprised about the heart attack, stroke, or other near-death experience that lead to the comment.

In November of last year, I went to a business lunch at the Yale Club in New York.  The speaker was the CEO of a billion-dollar chemical company.  His topic was how he led his company to grow nearly double in size during the preceding five years, the worst recession in the last 80 years. 

This genial, affable man spoke easily about encouraging the previous management team to “seek new opportunities.”  In a near quote of Mitt Romney, he said a couple of those people thanked him when they found better work.  He closed plants, moved production to countries with “more attractive work environments” and did what managers do to succeed in a global market.

When he talked about the key moves he made on the road to success, important hires, deals closed, these events occurred during dinners at expensive restaurants.  “Get him to dinner and I’ll close the deal,” he said with a smile about one important acquisition.  He looked the part.  Five feet, nine inches tall, a tailored suit draped over a mid-section created by many dinners and missed gym workouts.

While he spoke, I looked up his bio on the web.  He is 66 years old. Toward the end of the talk he said he planned to lead the company for two or three more years to complete plans he had then retire. 

Won’t that be fun.

Let me hazard a guess that the successful CEO currently takes a dozen prescription medicines to stave off the effects of eating too much and exercising too little—or simply of being too short for your weight.  By age 69 or 70, Mr. Success will be on more medication.  He will suddenly lose the adrenaline rush of leading a successful company. 

If he survives the heart attack, stroke, or other health catastrophe he will tell his family and friends “That Was a Wake Up Call.” 

Really???  A wake up call?  So for 40 years you overate watched your toes disappear in the shower, moved to the next waist size in you suit pants every three years, and the heart attack is a wake up call?  Were you in a coma?

It turns out that most humans have a view known in psychology as Optimism Bias.  Even when we understand risk, we think it will happen to everyone but us.  In this case, the CEO, if he took a survey, would rate the likelihood that a fit person his age would have a heart attack at something less than 20%.  He would rate the likelihood for someone with his height, weight and exercise pattern as 70+ % likely to have a heart attack.  But he would rate HIS OWN likelihood of having a heart attack as roughly the same as the healthy man his age.

We all do it.  College students who drink think those who drink to excess are more likely to be robbed, assaulted, flunk courses etc.  They think non-drinking students have little danger.  If they themselves are binge drinkers, they rate their own danger as similar to non-drinkers. 

Mr. CEO will very likely have a near-death experience within a year after he retires, if not before.  “That Was a Wake Up Call” will be what he says.  He will say it because Optimism Bias has lulled the otherwise hard-nosed man who can close a factory with no regret into a sunshine and rainbows view of his own health.

Many of the soldiers I serve with are already on the path to their own Wake Up Call.  Some are in their 20s, flunking the fitness test, overweight and building up to a sad later life.  And at 60 years old, 60 pounds overweight and 60 beers a week, that heart attack will be a shock. 

I smoked a pack a day for more than 15 years.  I stopped at 33 years old and haven’t smoked since.  One thing that helped me to stop though not immediately was writing obituaries.  Back in the 80s when more than a third of adult males smoked, obituaries of men came across my desk in two groups:  non-smokers died between 75 and 85 of various diseases, smokers died between ages 57 and 63 of heart attacks and lung cancer.  After a year of obituaries, I lost my Optimism Bias.