Trouble With Risk: Ebola and Human Psychology
Many are aware of F.D.R’s oft quoted remark that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Out of context and on the face of it, this is ridiculous. Fear is a tool of assessment, like all emotions are, a means of ascertaining what it is we hold of value. The full quote is as follows: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In its fullness, it is clear F.D.R. had quite the grasp of human nature. Indeed, as a rule for understanding the irrational creep of emotionalism, simply replace “fear” with any other, be it “love” or “lust” or “anger.” The mark of a healthy level of emotion is whether it pushes us to act to gain a better understanding of and acknowledge the collective responsibility concerning whatever has inspired the reaction.
In the wake of the American Ebola crisis, for it is certainly not an epidemic here and even calling it an outbreak sounds almost hyperbolic, there is a concern about human psychology in American society. We as a people are not inevitably rational creatures. This may sound obvious, but the way in which it works is not. How our relational lives emerge in connection to our personal narratives and other people is a foundational link to the communal creation that is community. To better understand our irrationality, we can turn to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
In their book Thinking: Fast and Slow, Kahneman details the social and personal implications of the research he and Tversky have done. The sheer magnitude of their findings is a death-knell for the simplistic and naive notion of humanity as “rational animal.” However, neither does the information require delving into cynical apathy concerning human decision-making. Through a better understanding of how our minds organize our experiences and make decisions, we can begin to curb the emotional excesses that lead to irrational anxiety and diminish our judgment of those too quickly mocked as being stupid.
First, let’s look at how the mind is organized. Kahneman defines two modes of thinking, calling them Sysem 1 and System 2. “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” (Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 20-21). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)
Importantly there are two things that must be understand about this systems approach. One, these two systems are not completely separate and while 2 can help mitigate the effects of 1, it can never remove those effects entirely. We simply cannot live our lives, as the human beings we are, by focusing exclusively on one system or the other. Our lives are made experientially seamless by the ebb and flow of the entirety of mental life. Using the metaphor of System 1 and System 2 simply helps us in figuring out how that happens. Two, classifying one as emotional or irrational and the other as rational is too simplistic and falsely encourages a division in the understanding of ourselves that is unhelpful.
All that being said, for the sake of simplicity, almost to the point of definitional inadequacy, System 1 is lazy and System 2 effortful. That System 1 is associated with perception and memory tells us a lot about how we construct our lives, but the focus here is on fear and decision-making. With that in mind and to help in understanding why someone who merely threw up on an airplane is locked away in the lavatory or a teacher is sent home for merely visiting Texas for an education conference, we turn to one of the conclusions Kahneman explains.
“How do people make the judgments and how do they assign decision weights? We start from two simple answers, then qualify them. Here are the oversimplified answers:
– People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events.
– People overweight unlikely events in their decisions.
Although overestimation and overweighting are distinct phenomena, the same psychological mechanisms are involved in both: focused attention, confirmation bias, and cognitive ease.” (p. 324).
The ramifications of these two answers are numerous, but in the case of fearing events, they explain a great deal of our behavior. By overestimating unlikely events, as is the case for coming into contact with and further actually then catching ebola, we lose sight of and cease calmly considering how to go about our lives. By overweighting (essentially placing more emotional baggage upon) unlikely events, our activities are grossly constrained by the improbable rather than the likely. The effect is a race from one anxiety-producing story to the next, with a great loss for considering the many supposed non-events that are happening all the time in our lives, non-events that can provide more depth and emotional positivity.
Turning off these aspects of our minds is about as easy as turning off the immediate answer of 2+2=?, but thankfully we can improve our lives by simply being aware of and actively working to mitigate the effects. Looking at the mechanisms listed by Kahneman, we can come up with three workable mental activities.
1) Broaden Perspective: actively explore more than one event currently occurring in your life.
2) Other Opinions Matter: we like to feel ourselves to be right, so respectfully seek to understand a contrary opinion, even if, or especially if, it sounds ridiculous.
3) Beware of the Easy: if an opinion or reaction seems automatic and you find it difficult to quickly come up with criticisms, you’re likely missing something.
We can and must actively, intentionally, engage with the world in which we live and find meaning. The history of our species will have no future and our personal lives will have a great deal more anxiety, if we ignore the way we construct our stories. Ebola is a monstrous event, but letting it overshadow the rest of our lives is even more so.
© David Teachout