Stats Made Easy

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Dreaded statistics

When you are faced with something dreadful, like a final exam in statistics class, do you just want to get it over with as quickly as possible? If so, you are acting irrationally because it makes more sense to delay something unpleasant as long as possible. However, according to a new study in Science magazine reported by Sandra Blakeslee in the New York Times, some people are extreme "dreaders" who prefer more pain if it gets things over with, sooner. The research by Dr. Gregory S. Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, was literally shocking: His team of scientists applied voltage to their subjects' feet at levels and delays of their choosing. Berns found that when it comes to dread the waiting time makes it more intense. That must be what makes a college course on statistics so dreadful -- waiting the whole semester for the final exam! It seems to me that the certainty of something scary like this is also a key. For example, at the moment, the avian flu is creating great dread because it seems likely to become an epidemic and create many deaths. However, if this likelihood abates with time and/or medical preparations advance to a more comforting level, our dread will drop off. Unfortunately, it is hard getting around a final exam!

PS. According to Schachter & McCauley, authors of "When Your Child is Afraid," an adult's most common fears, in order of magnitude, are: public speaking, making mistakes, failure, disapproval, rejection, angry people, being alone, darkness, dentists, injections, hospitals, taking tests, open wounds, blood, police, dogs, spiders, deformed people.


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