The Nuclear Power Effect:Why We Amplify The Bad In Everything

A few weeks back I received my weekly newsletter from Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck which is definitely one of the top 5 favorites books of this decade. In the newsletter—called Motherf*ckin Monday in typical Mark fashion—he talked about the nuclear power effect which he basically described as the tendency of people to overlook the possible advantages of something and instead choose to focus on and overstate its often few and rare shortcomings or disadvantages.

The term "Nuclear Power Effect"—according to Mark—came from the fact that although nuclear energy is one of the most environmentally friendly and sustainable sources of energy because of its low carbon emissions and efficiency, because of previous few and rare but severely catastrophic cases of accidents involving nuclear power stations like Chernobyl and Fukushima, most people  instantly associate nuclear power with disaster instead of as a preferable energy source.

He went on to give another example of the "Nuclear Power Effect" which is the fact some people prefer driving over flying because of the catastrophic nature of the few airplane crashes that happen in a year in spite of the fact that flying remains the safest mode of travel in the world—much safer than driving. In short, the premise of the Nuclear Power Effect is that "the solution to something that is scary causes more damage than the problem itself".Fossil fuels cause more damage than nuclear power energy, cars kill more people than planes etc.

There are many more cases of the Nuclear Power Effect (remember the hoodie Kermit memes?) which include our fear of Artificial Intelligence (autonomous cars are less prone to accidents than human-driven ones), people opposed to the legalization of weed (which has more benefits than potential risks), people who are opposed to vaccination of their kids (vaccination has saved more lives than it has "taken") etc.

Another way to think of the nuclear power effect would be to use the classic scene from the Dark Knight where Joker tells Harvey Dent that nobody panics when things go according to plan but when something unexpected happens, everyone loses their minds! Because of the fear evoked by the unexpected event, we end up adopting conservative and often irrational mindsets which we think will prevent that unexpected and catastrophic event from ever happening again.

If there had never been a Fukushima or Chernobyl, the world would probably be more welcoming of nuclear energy and if they had never been a plane crash in the history of aviation, most people would prefer air travel it as a mode of travel. The same logic can be applied to the aforementioned instances of the nuclear power effect. The question now becomes, what causes the nuclear power effect? What causes us to hold on so tightly to these negative perceptions about things which in reality cause more good than bad?

To try answer that question, last year I wrote this blog post lazily titled "Negativity" where I argued that the reason humans amplify the bad aspects of most things and downplay the positive aspects is that it is some sort of survival mechanism. I gave various examples including how a toddler's perception of fire as a terrible and dangerous thing instead of an aesthetically pleasing flame of light can prevent cases of them being burnt by fire in the future.

Although I stated on that blog post that it is my belief is that the hyperbolizing of the negativity of things like in the case of the Nuclear Power Effect is an evolutionary survival mechanism that is probably going to take generations to remove from the human psyche, I believe that education can go a long way in curbing the limiting effects of the Nuclear Power Effect.

If people have knowledge about the benefits of weed over the supposed disadvantages, they will be more receptive to policies that support its legalization. If people have knowledge about the benefits of artificial intelligence instead of the dystopian vision of it that most people have (thanks a lot, Terminator movies), they will be more receptive to its adoption etc. So in my opinion, only through education can people be able to go against this default human trait of seeing the worst in everything even where the good aspects trump over the bad.