The Finite Pool of Worry Hypothesis

“According to Weber’s psychological theory of the finite pool of worry, people avoid dealing with multiple negative events at the same time. Consistent with this theory, as people worry more about the COVID-19 pandemic, they tend to neglect the problem of climate change. Here, we examine the number and content of climate change discussions on Twitter from 2019 through 2021. We show that as COVID-19 cases and deaths increase, climate change tweets have a less negative sentiment. There is also less content associated with fear and anger, the emotions related to worry and anxiety. These results support the finite pool of worry hypothesis and imply that the pandemic redirects public attention from the important problem of climate change mitigation..”

-Oleg Smirnov and Pei-Hsun Hsie, “COVID-19, climate change, and the finite pool of worry in 2019 to 2021 Twitter discussions.” PNAS. October 17, 2022.
119 (43) e2210988119.

This is the first time I have come across the finite pool of worry hypothesis. It strikes me as a subset of the paradox of choice problem. As choices proliferate, the cognitive load of understanding the various tradeoffs in the options gets exponentially more difficult, and we have to find a way to reduce our choices and make a decision.

One way that we reduce our choice is by using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we are worried about getting our immediate needs met and for our safety, then we will not have much room left over for worrying about climate change and its impact on future generations.

As we move up the hierarchy of needs, then we need to select between things to care about. How does plastic pollution and “forever chemicals” compare to climate change as an existential risk? It’s probably a safe bet that low probability existential risk not effecting people personally will get evaluated differently than something that has the potential to directly impact someone.

For example, the risk of climate change is evaluated differently, over time, depending on whether people think there is some relationship to climate change and the current risks they face. If you think ice caps melting might impact your coastal property in the next two decades, you might think about it differently than people 50 years ago did, when the discussion was of problems in 2100 CE.

Also, anthropogenic climate change is discussed differently than say climate change that happens due to meteorite impact or a supervolcano. Presumably, anthropogenic climate change includes issues of both of culpability and the view that it is under our control. We might not feel the same about the other two, and we may put it outside our sphere of concern.

This concept provides a lot of interesting food for thought.

It is the Worry That Made the Work Good

“To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.”

—Paul Graham. “Being Popular.” May 2001.

Optimism that a solution to whatever problem you are tackling can be solved, and skepticism in whatever solution you’ve managed to find or create, thus far, is perhaps one of the great lessons of how to approach life.