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If we don't succeed, we run
the risk of failure."George W. Bush

Continued from yesterday.

What! . . . me, worry? (ll)

There are two systems for analyzing risk: an automatic, intuitive system and a more thoughtful analysis. Our perception of risk lives largely in our feelings, so most of the time we're operating on system No. 1.

There's clearly an evolutionary advantage to this natural timorousness. If we're mindful of real dangers and flee when they arise, we're more likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. But evolutionary rewards also come to those who stand and fight, those willing to take risks--and even suffer injury--in pursuit of prey or a mate. Our ancestors hunted mastodons and stampeded buffalo, risking getting trampled for the possible payoff of meat and pelt. Males advertised their reproductive fitness by fighting other males, willingly engaging in a contest that could mean death for one and offspring for the other.

These two impulses--to engage danger or run from it--are constantly at war and have left us with a well-tuned ability to evaluate the costs and payoffs of short-term risk. That, however, is not the kind we tend to face in contemporary society, where threats don't necessarily spring from behind a bush. They're much more likely to come to us in the form of rumors or news broadcasts or an escalation of the federal terrorism-threat level from orange to red. It's when the risk and the consequences of our response unfold more slowly that our analytic system kicks in. This gives us plenty of opportunity to overthink--or underthink--the problem, and this is where we start to bollix things up.

Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you're eaten by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over. That's not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash. That's the dread factor. In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening. It's called probability neglect.

The same is true for, say, AIDS, which takes you slowly, compared with a heart attack, which can kill you in seconds, despite the fact that heart disease claims nearly 50 times as many people than AIDS, each year. We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way. Terrorism lends itself to excessive reactions because it's vivid and there's an available incident. Compare that to climate change, which is gradual and abstract.

Unfamiliar threats are similarly scarier than familiar ones. The next E. coli outbreak is unlikely to shake you up as much as the previous one, and any that follow will trouble you even less. In some respects, this is a good thing, particularly if the initial reaction was excessive. But it's also unavoidable given our tendency to habituate to any unpleasant stimulus, from pain and sorrow to a persistent car alarm.

The problem with habituation is that it can also lead us to go to the other extreme, worrying not too much but too little. Violence and natural disasters bring calls to build impregnable walls against such tragedies ever occurring again. People call these crises wake-up calls, but they're more like snooze alarms. We get agitated for a while, and then we don't follow through.

Why have I been writing so much about something you are, in most case, very faliliar? . . . Because, yogis know that fear, anxiety, worry, habituation are not problems. They are tools, which can be used both positively and negatively.

I will continue from a slightly different perspective, tomorrow. . . . And, why am I serving this over several days? Because, if I don't, my server logs will show that you never read the entire thing.


Any questions??