Your Caveman Brain

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Your Caveman Brain

Why are you so afraid of one-in-a-million events like shark attacks, child abduction or dying in a plane crash? Why are you so willing to believe elaborate scenarios about possible future climatic events from the same people who can’t even accurately predict tomorrow’s weather? Have you ever stopped to realize that so many of the almost hysterical “Pop” fears you too were once alarmed by – fears such as BSE, acid rain, dangerous silicon breast implants, road rage, SARS or avian flu – miraculously disappeared point only to be replaced by others who sooner or later disappear in the same mysterious way? Why are you so scared? In a nutshell, it’s because of your hollow-man brain.

Consider this: Psychological tests have proven that you have a brain that somehow believes that a piece of fudge shaped like dog poop is really dog ​​poop. You have a brain that will use the first available number to make a guess about something that has absolutely nothing to do with that number. You have a brain that concludes that elaborate predictions about the future are more likely to come true than simple ones. You have a brain that concludes that things that are easier to remember are more likely to happen again. And, most importantly, you have a brain that is constantly being subjected to the machinations of self-interested parties and fearmongers who have a vested interest in keeping you afraid.

As Daniel Gardner explains in his book The Science of Fear, when it comes to evolutionary psychology, try to picture the development of the human brain by comparing the past 2,000,000 years of human development to a 201-page book. Two hundred pages would cover the entire time our species spent as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Old Stone Age. The last page would cover our time in agricultural society, a period that began only 12,000 years ago (the first settlement appeared only about 4,600 years ago). The last paragraphs of that last page would cover the last two centuries of the world in which we now live. We are cave dwellers.

Now look around you. How could a cavewoman, at a lower but still decisive level of her brain, not be horrified by everything she sees in this strange and complex world of ours? Her head was designed for roaming the savannah, not for dealing with most of what bombards her here. Therefore, their gut remains the dominant decision-making force. And that is the force that skews our perception of the world around us. The gut reacts instinctively and lightning fast and living in the lightning fast time we do, the head just can’t keep up, or it can’t keep up. That is why we now live in a nation of worries, in a society obsessed with risk. It doesn’t matter that our head is trying to tell us that we live in a much safer and healthier time than previous generations have ever enjoyed, our gut blocks this out and only fixates on what the opposite looks like on the evening news. It lies waiting in anxious anticipation for the next fear to take hold, real or imagined. Needless to say, Gut never has to wait very long.

There are many complex psychological mechanisms at play in this ongoing conflict between Gut and Head. Three that can be singled out here are:

The availability heuristic. As examples of what can be easily invoked, Gut tells us that it should be common. If there is a brutal murder in City X, Gut convinces you that you are also a high risk because you can easily remember this. After all, you “saw” it on TV. It makes no difference that Head is trying to tell you how small the chance is that you are in danger. And memory is biased; the more recent, emotional and vivid events are, the more likely they are to be remembered and therefore, according to Gut, more likely to happen.

Confirmation bias. Once a fear is in place, we screen what we see and hear in a biased way that ensures our fears are “proven” justified. Gut does not want to be confused by reasonable arguments or reassuring statistics to the contrary. Gut is bad with numbers. It seems like a good story.

Group polarization. When people who share fears get together in groups, they become more convinced that their fears are similar and they become even more extreme in their views. Once a fear goes mainstream, so to speak, the distortion about what should be scary and what isn’t becomes insurmountable. We are social animals and what others think is important to us. Therefore, we do not need reasons to believe in risks and problems that “everyone knows” to be true. We don’t want them.

Seen in this context, we delude ourselves if we think we evaluate evidence and make decisions about risks by calculating rationally. Experts are wrong to think that they can reduce fears about a risk by simply getting the facts out. Gut does not listen to reason. And experts, as we will see, cannot be trusted.

We overestimate the likelihood of them being killed by the things that make the evening news and underestimate the ones that don’t. It does not matter that disease related to smoking or obesity kills much higher numbers than catastrophic events, accidents, terrorism and murder. Gut sees this again and again on TV (or in other media), becomes obsessed with stories related to it and thus indirectly contributes to what then turns into a feedback loop of fear. Our skewed perception is easily explained once we understand that Gut is in control while Head is asleep at the wheel. Head can not erase intuition. It can’t change how we feel. And how we feel is the essential part of the calculation here: fear sells. Good feeling buys.

Is there something sinister or conspiratorial about selling fear? Not really. After all, self-interest is the natural state of man. The news industry and new media make no secret of their desire to make money, nor do they need to. And it doesn’t stop here. Fear is also a fantastic marketing tool for companies, consultants, politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, activists and NGOs, all in competition with each other, fighting for influence and sales with fear. For example, it is standard practice for companies that sell cleaning products or alarm systems to raise your awareness of the risks you take by not using their products. What politician has not jumped at the chance to overplay a real or imagined danger regarding an issue that his political opponent has not addressed? Law enforcement and security officials are naturally averse to risking their funding by playing security risks for you. Scientists also need funding and well, no problem, no funding. NGOs and other groups have political agendas to promote. Would they hesitate to spread fear if this helped them achieve their goals?

What can Head do to help alleviate this skewed perception problem of ours? Not much, really. Many of the problems facing us today are so complex that we as individuals are not in a position to properly understand them. Since we simply don’t have enough time or energy to research them ourselves, we have to rely on experts to do this for us. And these experts are generally biased, most likely belonging to one of the various groups mentioned above. And we are often just as biased as the experts. Strangely enough, showing fear for certain issues has become a form of expressing cultural identity or making a political statement. I find it funny that looking into the future and imagining what could go wrong has become a parlor game for intellectuals, for example. And unfortunately, another problem is that asking questions about things that “everyone knows to be true” requires a lot of effort and stamina that many of us simply don’t have.

So why are you so afraid? Your caveman brain wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just too bad that too many of your inner caveman’s risk perception buttons are pushed by someone else.

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