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The Fear of Finding Out

Industry Trends and Research

I hadn’t been to the dentist in a long time. A VERY long time.

Two weeks ago, and at the encouragement of my wife, I finally went back to the dentist. I hadn’t been since COVID, and that period provided a very good excuse for avoiding that visit. Turns out, I hadn’t been for quite a while before COVID—not so much intentionally, just life getting in the way.

That’s not completely accurate, of course. On the best of visits, trips to the dentist had never been exactly “pleasant,” though I’ve been fortunate to be in the hands of friendly, patient and—gentle—staff over the years. That said, my last visit had involved what wound up being a unexpected and relatively involved procedure that, while it remedied a painful (and potentially dangerous) situation, left me with a certain, shall we say, “fear of finding out”…

Now, avoiding the dentist didn’t prevent problems, of course. And many’s the day over the past several (gulp!) … years when I would tell myself that it would be better to catch—and fix—a problem early. But, concerned about what such a visit would find … well, I kept on finding reasons not to … find out.

I wrote recently about the 33rd Annual Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald Research, which found both workers’ and retirees’ confidence in having enough money to live comfortably throughout retirement dropped—and while it was the sharpest decline in confidence since the so-called Great Recession—it wasn’t as sharp as one might have expected under the circumstances (high inflation, volatile markets, uncertain job environment).

But below that headline (and, let’s face it, “confidence” can be a fluid sentiment), that same survey found that (only) about half of workers have “tried to figure out how much money” they would need to have saved by the time they retire so that they could live comfortably in retirement. Which calls to mind the question; is their confidence (or lack thereof) a function of them having made that assessment[i]—or is it more a case of “ignorance is bliss?” Or are they simply afraid to find out?

Well, as Greenwald Associates CEO Lisa Greenwald recently reminded me, not only are those already in retirement more confident about their prospects, retirement confidence also tends to be higher among those who have actually made the assessment—even when, based on the limited objective information available (including the aforementioned “guessing”)—there might not be a “rational reason” underpinning that sentiment at the moment. 

As it turned out, my trepidations about my return to the dentist weren’t unfounded; there was some work that needed to be done that wasn’t pleasant, and yes, it might have been less unpleasant if I had made that visit earlier. On the other hand, now that I’ve been, I have a sense of how things stand, and I no longer have to worry about how bad it MIGHT be. Yes, I have already made my next six-month checkup—and yes, I’m not nearly as concerned about that visit as I was this past one.

Yes, despite the “fear of finding out”—be it a trip to the dentist, the doctor, or a retirement needs assessment—there is something to be said for having a professional assessment, of having a sense of what has to be dealt with—so that you can. 


[i] On the other hand, in previous years when that question was asked (and the number having made an effort to determine need nearly identical) the RCS found that the most common method of ascertainment was—guessing (45%).