Your Head vs Your Gut

We have a lot to be scared of -- or, we think we do. Terrorists and mass shooters may be currently at the top of our lists, but it’s a long list. Here's a sampling, in no particular order, of some of the things that spook us:

internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
alien invasion (the international kind)
flesh-eating diseases
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
genetically enhanced bioweapons
computer hackers
identity thieves
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
artificial intelligence robots taking over the world
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet

At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced “every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 13)
Fear, of course, has its purpose. We need fear. Fear helps us survive by gearing up energy to protect ourselves -- either by fighting of the threat or running away from it. When someone behaves "fearlessly" they probably aren't literally without fear. They're just managing their fear well. The presence of fear is what allows courage to be courage and not just foolish risk-taking.

In human evolution, we needed mechanisms that would grab our attention and steer us away from danger. Every human brain is two systems attempting to operate side-by-side. There’s Head (reason), and Gut (feelings and intuitions). If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think. Head is slow.

But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you. Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked.

Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and someone else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut just fixates on one or two lurid stories.

This dual-control system was pretty adaptive for hunter-gatherers who never traveled very far.
If there was a vivid memory of danger ready to hand, then it was probably a memory of something that actually happened in your presence and not far from where you are right now. If you’re facing a situation that looks similar, it makes sense for that fear reaction to be triggered without waiting for the slow, plodding assessment of reasoning.

Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square. That’s basically us. We inherited our protective and fearful gut reactions from our Stone Age ancestors – only, we’re trying to make our way in a very different world.

Gut was really helpful for our ancestors dealing with the world they found themselves in a million years ago. But a system that grabs our attention, gives us quick-reaction intuitive judgments, and overrides reason is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in “a report you can’t afford to miss” about “a danger that could be lurking near you.” It grabs attention. That’s what they need for their ratings.

The result is that the overall fear in our lives creeps up. We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but get less of our attention.

Let me illustrate how Head and Gut compete for control. Consider this question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The immediate impulse is to say 10 cents. It feels right. It’s wrong, and if Head has a chance to come in, it can offer a helpful corrective. In a nonthreatening scenario, dealing with math, there's a good chance you call in Head and follow Head's advice. Head will say: “Oh. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat cost $1.05.”

Suppose I ask you two questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old when he died? OK, right. He was older. Forget that. How old was he?"

Now suppose I ask you a different pair of questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old when he died? OK, right. He was younger. Forget that. How old was he?"

People who were asked the first pair of questions, guess an average age of 50. People who are asked the second pair of questions, guess an average age of 67. See, this is the Anchoring Principle. The brain starts with an anchor number, and then revises up or down to compensate for numbers that are obviously off. But our brains don’t compensate enough. The nine – or the 140 – is stuck in our brains, and even though I say “forget it,” it’s there.

How can we live with brains so irrational?

Suppose I ask you to estimate the probability of an event: What’s the chance of so-and-so winning the presidential election? What’s the chance of a major storm hitting the US in the next 6 months that does more damage than Sandy did? If I ask you to take a minute to vividly imagine the event before you guess, you’re going to estimate much higher, though vividness of imagined detail has nothing to do with probability.

One lottery’s slogan is ‘just imagine.’ They do more than invite us to daydream. They ask us to do something that elevates our intuitive sense of how likely we are to win the jackpot – which is a good way to convince us to gamble. (Gardner 52)

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This is Part 2 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Kills
Part 3: How to Let Go of Fear

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