Chemicals and Food

Chemicals & Food

Several years back there was a huge amount of outrage over Subway using a chemical in their bread that is also found in yoga mats. The chemical created a structure that provided extra fluff to the bread, and did the same thing when combined with the various polymers of a yoga mat. People were shocked to learn that a yoga mat component was being used in their bread and feared that it could be causing cancer or leading to a whole host of bad health outcomes.
The yoga mat bread chemical is one example of our fear of chemicals and impurities in our food. The fear of impurities and synthetics is not isolated to food, and is a major component of postmodernism that we can see in different aspects of our culture. It is something I have been thinking about a lot today as we struggle to convince people across the globe to trust vaccines. We like things that are natural, see the diets of cavemen as superior and better for our bodies than modern processed diets, and want to avoid all consumer goods that have complex origins and require lots of chemicals to produce. Some of these desires are motivated by fears of climate change, some are motivated by a distrust of authority, and some come from a general uncertainty of things we cannot pronounce and don’t understand. But often, this postmodernism stance doesn’t make any sense at all.
In the book Gulp, Mary Roach writes the following about our  postmodern chemical food fear, “A quick word about chemicals and flavors. All flavors in nature are chemicals. That’s what food is. Organic, vine-ripened, processed and unprocessed, vegetable and animal, all of it chemicals.” Roach explains that ideas of natural, organic, and chemical free don’t really make sense. Anything can sound bad and dangerous when written out and described in terms of its chemicals, but truly everything around us is made of different chemicals. When people isolate a single chemical in a food, soap, or clothing product, they are likely playing up our fear to drive some sort of action on our part. Postmodernism in this way is an abusive tactic often utilized to get us to buy something more expensive.
It is tempting to criticize people for being dumb and not knowing that water, pineapples, and cotton shirts are all made of chemicals. But the point is that across our culture many of us have the same postmodernist reaction. We might not be afraid of food chemicals, but for many of us, we probably prefer products that don’t appear to be as touched by science as those which appear to be artificial, unnatural, or man-made. We want to eat local, we want to understand how our things are made and produced, and we want to feel connected to the earth. Technology has given us things which are actually less harmful to ourselves and  the planet than some of the products we buy to protect ourselves and the planet, but science is complex and hard to understand, and our culture is having a reaction against the science. All-natural foods, anti-vaccine sentiments, and reactions against technology all represent something similar – a fear of the unknown and man-made, even if that fear isn’t warranted. We are all susceptible and should be thinking about how we make science, technology, and progress less scary for the world.
Technological Uncertainty & Fear

Technological Uncertainty & Fear

New technologies scare people. When a new technology comes along, we react to the uncertainties of what the technology will mean. We predict worst case scenarios, fear that some sort of physiological change that we cannot control may take place, and we worry that the new technology could destroy some part of social life. We can look back at many of these technological changes and laugh at the worries and concerns of people at the time, but the truth is that we see this occur over and over in response to technological change and we are guilty, or capable of being guilty, of the same fear.
Technological fear is tied to uncertainty. Thinking about putting computer chips directly into our brains to interface directly with the internet or some type of computer hardware and software is a good example of such a fear today. What will happen if our brains can be hacked? What will happen to media, information, and social connections if we all have chips in our brain. Will we still be human (whatever that means) if we merge our brains with silicon chips?
I am currently reading about the industrial revolution in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and while people were not afraid of computer chips in their brains, they were afraid of new technology and what it would do to people and society. In a previous book I read, Packing for Mars, Mary Roach explains that this same fear and uncertainty took place when people thought about space travel and zero gravity. Space travel required immense speeds and we didn’t know if the body and mind could handle such speeds. On top of that, no one knew what would happen in zero gravity to the human body. Would normal body functions still work without Earth’s gravitational pull?
Regarding our technological uncertainty and fear, specifically with ever increasing transportation speeds, Roach writes, “over the course of history, the same sort of anxiety has appeared every time a newer, faster form of transport has come along.” Scientists feared that trains would be too fast for people, that airplanes would be too foreign from any experience the body was evolved to handle, and that all kinds of other technologies and forms of transport would zoom and shake the body into jelly. When we are uncertain about a new technology fear can take over, and we worry about a range of impacts that could occur. Humans have been doing this since at least the industrial revolution, and with robots, computer chip implants, and other changes on the horizon, we are not likely to stop any time soon.
Fear of the Homeless

Fear of the Homeless

This last week my wife and I volunteered in a kitchen to help serve meals to homeless men and women in our community. With the rise of the Delta Variant, the kitchen we volunteered at was not serving meals inside, but instead outside in the parking lot. This was the first time that we had served outside rather than inside, and the group leader chatted with us about the new format and some things to be aware of with the different serving location. It was the first Friday of the month, and as a result he warned us that some of the homeless individuals and people who came by for dinner were more likely to be using drugs or abusing alcohol for the evening since assistance checks would have just gone out. He warned us that when the kitchen switched to serving outside, they lost some control over the individuals and their things, and that a fight had broken out a few nights earlier. He wasn’t trying to scare us, just to warn us about the realities of volunteering outside rather than inside the kitchen.
I will admit, listening about the recent fight and likely active drug use of the people we were volunteering to help was frightening. I am not immune to a fear of the homeless, even though I still want to find ways to help them. Elliot Liebow would not have been surprised by my reaction. In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am he wrote, “everyone fears the homeless, including the homeless themselves.”
Fear is a big reason we don’t do more to help  the homeless. We are afraid of unpredictable people who are (or may be) using drugs and alcohol. We are afraid of people who may have mental illnesses and could act irrationally at any moment. We are afraid of people who are messy, who smell foul, and who could carry some type of disease or pest. Fear is a driving emotion related to the homeless and drives many of our behaviors. Liebow’s quote shows how common this fear is by noting that even the homeless fear each other.  With this fear comes a lack of trust and a lack of willingness to be around homeless. Without learning about the homeless, without having a chance to meet and interact with people who are homeless and needy, we fail to truly appreciate who they are, the challenges they face, and to develop any empathy toward them. Fear prevents them from reintegrating into society, and prevents us from understanding how we can best help those in need. It keeps them from connecting with each other and joining together to advocate for their needs or even help each other out. Fear locks the homeless out.
Mental Health and Homelessness

Mental Health & Homelessness

People are afraid of the homeless in part because they fear that homeless individuals suffer from mental health disorders. This means they cannot be trusted, their behaviors cannot be predicted, and they could lash out irrationally at people passing by. This perception of mental health disorders is fueled by real observations, such as depressed homeless individuals, homeless people talking to themselves, or homeless people acting and behaving in strange ways. It is also used as an excuse to explain why people are homeless, how useless it is to try to help them, and why we don’t really need to help them (because they have mental problems and we can’t help them even if we wanted).
However, Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I Am suggests that this perception is at least partially wrong. According to Liebow, some of the homeless women he met did have real mental health issues and concerns, but those concerns and problems did not necessarily cause their homelessness. For many of the women he met, the causal arrow flowed in the opposite direction. He writes, “some women explained that their mental health problems were caused (not merely aggravated) by homelessness and shelter living, and there was nothing to do about them so long as one remained homeless. For these women, the remedy lay in housing rather than treatment.”
Homelessness and the loss of autonomy that comes from living within shelters was the cause of mental health issues for many women. The stress of homelessness, the unpredictability of shelter living, and insufficient nutrition created mental health crises for some of the women. Social isolation and the feeling of failure and worthlessness further contributed to mental health problems. Mental health problems didn’t always drive women into homelessness and poverty, but often homelessness and poverty did drive women into mental health problems.
One solution would be to try to treat the homeless with medications or therapy to solve their mental health challenges and open a pathway to a job and stable housing. Liebow suggests that this would not work for many of the homeless. Their mental health challenges in part stem from being homeless (something Matthew Desmond wrote about in Evicted) and what they need more than treatment is a stable place to live. A stable place to live can open a pathway to improved mental health, reintegration with society, and ultimately a job and all the things we want for homeless men and women. For mental health concerns, Liebow argues, housing must come first, not as a reward for getting things back on track.
Who Are the Homeless?

Who Are the Homeless

In the United States we have many housing insecure individuals. We have many people who are chronically homeless, and are unlikely to ever get off the streets. We have many people who experience homelessness only transiently, possibly during an unexpected layoff or economic downturn. And we also have many people who find themselves in and out of homelessness. For each group of housing insecure individuals, their needs and desires of people differ. However, when we think about homelessness in America, we typically only think about one version of homelessness: the visibly homeless man or woman living in the streets.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “an important fact about these dramatically visible homeless persons on the street is that, their visibility notwithstanding, they are at best a small minority, tragic caricatures of homelessness rather than representatives of it.” When we think about the homeless we think about men and women who don’t work, who are smelly and dirty, and who appear to have mental disorders or drug addictions. This means that public policy geared toward homelessness is a reaction to this visible minority, not policy geared to help the many people who may experience homelessness in a less visible way.
People do not like the visibly homeless who live on the street. They feel ashamed to see them begging, feel frustrated by their panhandling, and are often frightened of them. The visibly homeless are not a sympathetic group, and are not likely to be the targets of public policy that supports them.
The less visibly homeless, however, are a population we are less afraid of and less likely to strongly dislike. But because we don’t see them, we don’t think of them when we consider policies and programs designed to assist the homeless. Their needs, their concerns, and the things that could help them find more stable housing are forgotten or simply unknown to the general public and the policymakers they elect. We are often unaware of the individuals who are homeless but still managing to work a job. We don’t think about those who experience temporary homelessness, sleeping in a car for a couple of weeks at a time between gig work. We don’t consider those who live in shelters until a friend or family member can take them in and support them until they can find work. Without acknowledging this less visible side of poverty, we don’t take steps to improve public policy and public support for those working to maintain a place to live. We allow the most visible elements of homelessness to be all we know about homelessness, and as a result our policy and attitudes toward the homeless fail to reflect the reality that the majority of the homeless experience.
Defensive Decision-Making - Joe Abittan

Defensive Decision-Making

One of the downfalls of a negative error cultures is that people become defensive over any mistake they make. Errors and mistakes are shamed and people who commit errors do their best to hide them or deflect responsibility. Within negative error cultures you are more likely to see people taking steps to distance themselves from responsibility before a decision is made, practicing what is called defensive decision-making.

 

Gerd Gigerenzer expands on this idea is his book Risk Savvy by writing, “defensive decision making [is] practiced by individuals who waste time and money to protect themselves at the cost of others, including their companies. Fear of personal responsibility creates a market for worthless products delivered by high-paid experts.”

 

Specifically, Gigerenzer writes about companies that hire expensive outside experts and consultants to make market predictions and help improve company decision-making. The idea is that individual banks, corporations, and sales managers can’t accurately know the state of a market as well as an outside expert whose job it is to study trends, talk to market actors, and understand how the market relates to internal and external pressures. The problem, as Gigerenzer explains, is that even experts are not very good at predicting the future of a market. There is simply too much uncertainty for anyone to be able to say that market trends will continue, that a shock is coming, or that a certain product or service is about to take off. Experts make these types of predictions all the time, but evidence suggests that their predictions are not much better than just throwing dice.

 

So why do companies pay huge fees, sit through lengthy meetings, and spend time trying to understand and adapt to the predictions of experts? Gigerenzer suggests that it is because individuals within the company are practicing defensive decision-making. If you are a sales manager and you make a decision to sell to a particular market with a new approach after analyzing performance and trends of your own team, then you are responsible for the outcome of the new approach and strategy. If it works, you will look great, but if it fails, then you will be blamed for not understanding the market, for failing to see the signs that indicated your plan wasn’t going to succeed, and for misinterpreting past trends. However, if a consultant suggested a course of action, presented your team with a great visual presentation, and was certain that they understood the market, then you escape blame when the plan doesn’t work out. If even the expert couldn’t see what was going to happen, then how could you be blamed for a plan not working out?

 

Defensive decision-making is good for the individual, but bad for the larger organization that the individual is a part of. Companies would be better off if they made decisions quicker, accepted risk, and could openly evaluate success and failure without having to place too much blame on individuals. Companies could learn more about their errors and could do a better job identifying and promoting talent. Defensive decision-making is expensive, time consuming, and outsources blame, preventing companies and organizations from actually learning and improving their decision-making over the long run.
Social learning and risk aversion

Social Learning and Risk Aversion

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer looks at risk aversion in the context of social learning and presents interesting ideas and results from studies of risk aversion and fear. He writes, “In risk research people are sometimes divided into two kinds of personalities: risk seeking and risk averse. But it is misleading to generalize a person as one or the other. … Social learning is the reason why people aren’t generally risk seeking or risk averse. They tend to fear whatever their peers fear, resulting in a patchwork of risks taken and avoided.”

 

I agree with Gigerenzer and I find it is normally helpful to look beyond standard dichotomies. We often categorize things into binaries as the example of risk averse or risk seeking demonstrates. The reality, I believe, is that far more things are situational and exist within spectrums. In general for most of our behaviors that we may want to categorize with a dichotomy, I would argue that we are often much more self-interested than we would like to admit and often driven by our present context to a greater extent than we normally realize. People are not good or evil, honest or dishonest, or even hardworking or lazy. People adjust to the needs of the moment, fitting what they believe is in their best interest at a given time with influence from a great deal of social determinants. Social learning and risk aversion helps us see that dichotomies often don’t stand up, and it reveals something interesting about who we are as individuals within a larger society.

 

People have a patchwork of things they fear and a patchwork of risks they are willing to accept. On the whole, we generally won’t accept a bet unless the payoff is twice the potential gamble (there is an expected value calculation we can do that I don’t want to dive into). However, we are not always rational and calculating in the risks and gambles we take. We are much more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash, yet few of have any hesitation when buckling our seat for the drive to work but likely feel some nervousness during takeoff on a short flight. We are not risk seeking if we are more willing to drive than fly (in fact it isn’t really appropriate to categorize this activity as either risk seeking or risk avoiding), we are simply responding to learned fears that have developed in our culture.

 

What this shows us is that we are creatures that respond to our environment, especially our social environments. We often think of ourselves as unique individuals, but the reality is that we are dependent on society and define ourselves based on the societies and groups we belong to. We learn from those around us, try to do what we understand to be in our best interest, and navigate a complicated course between societal expectations and our self-interest. Just as we can’t classify ourselves into imagined dichotomies, we cannot do so with others. Social learning and risk aversion give us a window into the complexity that we smooth over when we try to categorize ourselves or others into simple dichotomies.
The Social Imitation of Fear

The Social Imitation of Fear

“Why do people fear different things?” asks Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Many Americans are afraid of clowns, actor Kevin Hart is afraid of basically all bugs and animals, and as Gigerenzer writes in his book, I (like most Americans) would be afraid to go pick mushrooms in the wild to eat for dinner. The social imitation of fear, Gigerenzer explains, is often at the heart of many of our phobias. Most Americans probably haven’t had a personal bad experience with creepy clowns, few of us have ever picked the wrong mushroom for dinner and died, and most of us probably haven’t had near lethal encounters with bugs or animals. It is easy to understand why a toddler who was chased or bit by a dog might be afraid of animals, but it is simply comical that Kevin Hart is afraid of harmless butterflies and mice.

 

Much of what we fear comes from social learning, picking up on what others fear, and learning to fear that thing ourselves. Gigerenzer explains that the social imitation of fear can be a benefit and serve as protection for us, but that it isn’t without its own costs. Regarding the psychology of our fear he writes, Fear whatever your social group fears. This simple principle protects us when personal experience might be lethal. At the same time, it can also make us fear the wrong things.”

 

Fears that keep us away from the edge of dangerous cliffs or keep us away from people with dangerous weapons can save our life. We can’t afford to learn to fear something lethal from experience – if you fall from a 100 foot cliff you won’t have a chance to learn to be more careful in the future. Fearing dangerous cliffs because everyone else in your tribe fears cliffs is a safer option.

 

However, this does lead us to fears that are unreasonable. It is very unlikely that any of us will be murdered by a creepy clown in the dead of night. However, a few years back pranksters started standing on street corners dressed as creepy clowns, and they scared lots of people across the country. I know people who had nightmares and were very frightened by the thought of these clowns, and were terrified of even the prospect of seeing a creepy clown on the street corner. Horror movies and common discussions of clown fears prime us to be afraid when there is no threat to us, and no real reason to be afraid. The social imitation of fear which helped our ancestors learn and survive together from the experiences of others, has been hijacked by horror movies and pranksters to create fear and anxiety for no meaningful reason.
Dread Risks - Joe Abittan

Dread Risks

Over the course of 2020 we watched COVID-19 shift from a dread risk to a less alarming risk. To some extent, COVID-19 became a mundane risk that we adjusted to and learned to live with. Our initial reactions to COVID-19, and our later discontent but general acceptance reveal interesting ways in which the mind works. Sudden and unexplained deaths and risks are terrifying, while continual risk is to some extent ignored, even if we face greater risk from dangers we ignore.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes dread risks and our psychological reactions by writing, “low-probability events in which many people are suddenly killed trigger an unconscious psychological principle: If many people die at one point in time, react with fear and avoid that situation.” Dread risks are instances like terrorist attacks, sudden bridge collapses, and commercial food contamination events. A risk that we did not consider is thrust into our minds, and we react strongly by avoiding something we previously thought to be safe.

 

An unfortunate reality of dread risks is that they distract us and pull our energy and attention away from ongoing and more mundane risks. This has been a challenge as we try to keep people focused on limiting COVID-19 and not simply accepting deaths from the disease the way we accept deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and second hand smoke exposure. Gigerenzer continues, “But when as many or more die distributed over time, such as in car and motorbike accidents, we are less likely to be afraid.” Dread risks trigger fears and responses that distributed risks don’t.

 

This psychological bias drove the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s and we are still paying the prices for those wars. The shift of COVID-19 in our collective consciousnesses from a dread risk to a distributed risk lead to mass political rallies, unwise indoor gatherings, and other social and economic events where people contracted the disease and died even though they should have known to be more cautious. Reacting appropriately to a dread risk is difficult, and giving distributed risks the attention and resources they deserve is also difficult. The end result is poor public policy, poor individual decision-making, and potentially the loss of life as we fail to use resources in a way that saves the most lives.
The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

We are social creatures that crave connections with and acceptance from other people. We want to have many allies as we move through life and want to be seen as a valuable ally to others. In our minds, we magnify our actions, words, and behaviors, examining what we do and how we present ourselves to others to make sure we are winning as many allies as possible. However, this constant focus on ourselves and how we might appear to others creates an illusion known as the spotlight effect. We are so focused on how we are presented to others that we begin to feel as though everyone else really is watching us and really is paying attention to how we present ourselves.

 

The reality, for most of us, is that very few people really notice much about us. Our spouse and other members of our household probably notice the little details about us, whether we haven’t shaved for three days, whether we have worn the same shirt two days in a row, and whether something is really bothering us, but most other people probably don’t notice that much. The reality is that most of them are focused on themselves, falling into their own spotlight effect and not actually paying much attention to what we are doing.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about the spotlight effect in their book Nudge. They write, “One reason why people expend so much effort conforming to social norms and fashions is that they think that others are closely paying attention to what they are doing. … here’s a possibly comforting thought: they aren’t really paying as much attention to you as you think.”

 

People follow traditions, like wearing ties, that they dislike because they think everyone expects them to wear a tie and will be disappointed in them if they fail to wear one. This example of conformity bias mixed with the spotlight effect is relatively harmless, but the spotlight effect can have more severe consequences. People may believe their phones and social media posts are being watched by the police, they may worry that their colleagues will think of them as a cheapskate if their Secret Santa gift isn’t expensive and cool enough, and they may worry that other people on social media won’t find them authentic if they don’t angrily denounce the outrage of the day. These examples show how the spotlight effect can play into conspiratorial thinking, spending more money than one can really afford to spend, and engaging in signaling behaviors that might be beyond reasonable.

 

This is why Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can be helpful and possibly comforting. It is useful to recognize that we overanalyze ourselves and focus too highly on everything we do and how we present ourselves. Understanding this can help us see that everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t have a lot of mental capacity left for scrutinizing everyone else. Once we realize that others are not paying as much attention to us as we thought, we can scale back negative aspects of conformity and self scrutiny. We can dial back the spotlight effect, and hopefully make decisions and choices that better fit the person we are, not the person we try to convince everyone else that we are. There are positive aspects to the spotlight effect, but for many of us, we probably over stress ourselves worrying about what others think, and would benefit from recognizing that others don’t pay so much attention to us.