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Canadians worry too much about violent death, not enough about cancer: poll

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Worried about a violent death? A car crash? Terrorism?

Sure, they’re scary, but you should probably spend more time worrying about heart disease.

A new global survey from Ipsos suggests that Canadians aren’t really very good at estimating what will actually kill them — overestimating the number of deaths caused by violence and accidents, and underestimating those from chronic disease.

“We’re underestimating certain diseases, particularly cancer and cardiovascular disease. And then we overestimate a disease such as HIV and AIDS,” said Jennifer McLeod Macey, vice president, Ipsos Public Affairs.

“We’re also overestimating conflict, terrorism, violence, those big things as well as transportation, injuries in car accidents and things like this.”

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For example, on average in the poll, Canadians guessed that about 13 per cent of deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease, when in reality the actual figure is closer to 29 per cent, according to data from the Global Burden of Disease study.

There’s a similar gap between how many deaths Canadians think are caused by cancer — 17 per cent — compared to the real number: 29 per cent.

Canadians also guessed that around six per cent of deaths are caused by violent acts like homicide, when in reality it’s more like 0.2 per cent, according to the poll.

Statistics Canada lists “malignant neoplasms” — or cancer — as the top cause of death for Canadians. Homicide ranks 25th, well behind cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and the flu.

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Canadians fared well compared to other countries included in the survey. Out of 32 countries surveyed, Canada came in 27th — among the “least wrong” according to Ipsos’ rankings.

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There’s a lot of research out there showing how bad people are at estimating risk, said Timothy Caulfield, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy at the University of Alberta.

Caulfield, whose upcoming book Relax, Dammit! examines how many decisions are based on misinformation, said these kinds of errors are common.

“I don’t think we are worried about the right thing. We worry about things like homicide. We worry about crime more broadly. We worry about what’s going to happen to us if we walk or ride our bikes to our destination,” he said.

“And I understand why people worry about these things, because we’re told constantly by pop culture to worry.”

The Ipsos survey found that what people see in the news likely influences their perceptions of risk. Canadians report seeing many news reports about vehicle and other accidents, though they also say they hear a lot about cancer.

“We really do live in the culture of fear,” Caulfield said, “And this does distort our perceptions of risk.”

Novel things, like accidents, make headlines, he said, while more commonplace risks don’t.

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McLeod Macey says it’s important to understand where the real risks lie.

“I do think it’s important to understand things like cancer and cardiovascular disease,” she said. “To know that they are prevalent and that they are among the leading causes of death is important so that you can arm yourself with the knowledge of risks, of symptoms, go for screening, not partake in risky behaviour.”

“Most of us are going to die of cancer and cardiovascular disease,” Caulfield said. “And the actions that we can take, the public health actions that we can take to avoid those things are very different than worrying about the particulars of toxins and things like that.”

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Caulfield calls these misplaced worries “distracting.”

“It distracts us from the big, basic things that we should do to live a healthy life. You don’t smoke, you get exercise, and there’s no magic there. You just move. You eat healthy. No magic there: lots of fruits and vegetables.”

Caulfield recommends thinking critically about what you read, and trying to distinguish between absolute and relative risks. People naturally react more strongly to negative news, he said, so being aware of that can help you interpret risk more correctly.

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“Every time someone talks about risk, it is amplified. And that’s one of the reasons the world seems so much riskier than it really is.”

The Ipsos Perils of Perception Survey 2020 surveyed 16,000 people in 32 countries between Nov. 22 and Dec. 6, 2019. In Canada, 1,000 individuals aged 16-74 were surveyed using an online system.

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