Saturday, August 14, 2010

I've Got Your Back

     Last entry we spoke about getting lost and map bending. Let’s backtrack and take a look at how that gets started, because it is such an insidious process. It’s so subtle that it goes unnoticed until we wake up one day in disbelief and don’t recognize where we are. This can take a million forms, a doctor saying “well now you have officially entered the obese weight range“, or “I‘m afraid your liver can no longer manage the alcohol“ or “that pain in your chest isn’t heart burn, it’s a heart attack”, or a news story revealing that a preservative in your favorite snack has been shown to cause cancer.

     As animals we are highly attuned to danger. Our nervous system has been fine tuned over the last million years to allow us to notice differences from what we anticipated and respond immediately with an elaborate reaction involving heightened alertness, increased heart rate, shunting blood where it will be needed, and adrenaline surges giving us maximum quickness and strength. In fact these things happen before the brain takes the time to send a message to our cortex letting us know what we’ve noticed, i.e. making it conscious. We’re talking milliseconds. That bought us survival. We are also very quick learners. When something seemed dangerous and didn’t cause a problem, we conclude either that it actually isn’t dangerous, or more often, that we have the skill/knowledge/immunity to manage it, and therefore it is not dangerous. The longer we do something unscathed the more convinced we become. Such learning is obviously essential to normal life. We don’t run for safety every thunder storm, or hit the deck every time a car backfires.

     The folks who study this aspect of human behavior call it “risk homeostasis” The premise is simple. We accept a certain amount of risk. This amount is obviously different from individual to individual. If we perceive a situation to have low risk we’re comfortable taking on more risk and vice versa, if it seems more dangerous, we take on less. Seems dead obvious. But the consequences of such thinking lead to some unanticipated consequences. When anti-lock brakes were introduced drivers felt safer and therefore took more risk. Motor vehicle accidents increased with the advent of a powerful safety feature. This is exactly what has happened in modern society generally. We think we are safe. If it’s packaged and on the shelf, it must be ok. We have become phenomenal risk takers because we assume someone’s got our back; the government, the FDA, our affluence, our good behavior, you name it. Obviously, on some level we know this is not true. But no matter how many stories we read or people we know whose luck runs out, we cling to this false belief, we bend the map of our world to make us comfortable. Knowledge, it turns out, is a weak motivator. Look at cigarette smoking. Demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer did not significantly reduce the number of smokers. The two things that most dramatically effected this behavior had nothing to do with health; making it illegal to smoke indoors and taxing the hell out of cigarettes so they were expensive.

     What seems to have real impact on behavior is experience, our own experience, not other unlucky people. That’s why history is destined to repeat itself. To use our own experience as the primary reference obviously is to use an impoverished data set. And as we all know, things that have never happened to us before, happen all the time. The only answer to this dilemma ironically is to regress. We must return to that stage of development where every statement we heard, every explanation, was meet with “Why”. Our curiosity must overpower the constant stream of “accepted truths” that tell us, everything is fine just the way it is.

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