Scared Before You Even Know It

Scared Before You Even Know It

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how quick our minds are and how fast they react to potential dangers and threats by showing us two very simple pictures of eyes. The pictures are black squares, with a little bit of white space that our brains immediately perceive as eyes, and beyond that immediate perception of eyes, our brains also immediately perceive an emotional response within the eyes. They are similar to the simple eyes I sketched out here:

In my sketch, the eyes on the left are aggressive and threatening, and our brains will pick up on the threat they pose and we will have physiological responses before we can consciously think through the fact that those eyes are just a few lines drawn on paper. The same thing happens with the eyes on the right, which our brains recognize as anxious or worried. Our body will have a quick fear reaction, and our brain will be on guard in case there is something we need to be anxious or worried about as well.

 

Regarding a study that was conducted where subjects in a brain scanner were shown a threatening picture for less than 2/100 of a second, Kahneman writes, “Images of the brain showed an intense response of the amygdala to a threatening picture that the viewer did not recognize. The information about the threat probably traveled via a superfast neural channel that feeds directly into a part of the brain that processes emotions, bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of seeing.” The study was designed so that the subjects were not consciously aware of having seen an image of threatening eyes, but nevertheless their brain perceived it and their body reacted accordingly.

 

The takeaway from this kind of research is that our environments matter and that our brains respond to more than what we are consciously aware of. Subtle cues and factors around us can shape the way we behave and feel about where we are and what is happening. We might not know why we feel threatened, and we might not even realize that we feel threatened, but our heart rate may be elevated, we might tense up, and we might become short and defensive in certain situations. When we think back on why we behaved a certain way, why we felt the way we did, and why we had the reactions we did, our brains won’t be able to recognize these subtle cues that never rose to the level of consciousness. We won’t be able to explain the reason why we felt threatened, all we will be able to recall is the physiological response we had to the situation. We are influenced by far more than our conscious brain is aware, and we should remember that our conscious brain doesn’t provide us with a perfect picture of reality, but nevertheless our subconscious reacts to more of the world than we notice.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.

Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

Danger

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are more creative when we are in safe spaces and we are less creative when we feel stressed and threatened. He explains that our brain is constantly examining the where we are, scanning the environment, and determining whether we are in a safe space or a dangerous space. Safe spaces allow us to open up and become more detail and nuance oriented. Dangerous spaces seem to have the opposite effect on us. Regarding dangerous spaces and our reactions, Bungay Stanier writes,

 

“When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. here it moves into the familiar flight-or-fight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack.’ Things get black and white. Your assumption is that ‘they’ are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, and most likely literally, backing away.”

 

This response to danger probably served us very well as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. When we were in an environment where a dangerous animal may have been threatening us, or when we were pushing too far out onto ice in search of a hole to fish from, or when we got too close to a cliff to get some berries, our brain’s fear center would kick in and pull us back and take away any nuance from the dangerous situation. Something was bad and our brains evolved to keep away from the bad thing.

 

In the 21st century where our greatest physical danger on a typical day is the threat of spilling coffee on our pants (if you work in a typical office setting — construction workers and iron smelters may have some more serious dangers to watch out for), this danger warning system is probably a little overboard and can hinder our performance and ability.

 

What I want to write about given this phenomenon, is not how we can think more clearly and face our dangers to perform better, but to think about the spaces we create for others and how we contribute to those spaces. While we certainly can overcome our danger mode of thinking, we should also think about how we contribute to a given environment and if we make the environment feel safe or threatening for others. If we know that dangerous environments make people back away and perform worse, then we should be trying to create more inviting spaces where people can better engage their conscious brain, feel more relaxed, and produce better and more creative work. Whether we are purchasing tickets at a movie, driving down the road, talking to someone at a basketball game, or chatting in our work environment, we can think about how we are treating other people and whether we are making the space we are in feel more like a safe space or a dangerous space. If we are trying to always “win” with our presence and be the most powerful and intimidating figure in a room, then we will drive people back and suppress their conscious brains. We may feel successful, get a lot of material rewards, and even be admired by many, but at what cost to other human beings who we can assume have the full range of emotions within themselves as we have within ourselves? And now that we know the way the brain’s fear center works, is it truly reasonable for us to attack that weakness in others? I think we can all, on the margins, improve ourselves in any given situation and take steps to make the environment we are in a little safer for all those involved. This will open new avenues of thinking and perceiving the world for those we interact with, and hopefully, the rising tide of human consciousness and creativity can raise all boats and improve everyone’s well being. This is not to say that we should not still challenge ourselves and others, but we should not exploit danger for our own gain at the expense of others.