Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Fear: the disastrous long term strategy.

The brain has a shortcut between emotion and reaction that is a very useful process. Probably the simplest and most universal expression of this process is the way we get sick from ingesting a certain substance and never want to ingest it again.

It operates below the level of conscious thought, and thus is impervious to rational appeals unless we make a special effort. In the Famous Harlow Experiment, Harlow (1971) illustrated what occurred in infant monkeys who got choices between soft terry cloth surrogate mothers, without food, and wire-mesh surrogates who offered food. The infant monkeys preferred the cloth mother. Harlow used this experiment to demonstrate attachment processes.

But it shows something else. Probably we, like the monkeys, also find security to be even more compelling than food.

Feal overrides all other emotions because, short-term, that is the most effective use of this emotion. When fleeing from a tiger, this is not the time to notice a new stand of tasty fruit or fuss over the way our hair looks. But once the crisis is over, fear becomes a terrible long term strategy. If we don't get over the grip of fear, we still don't notice a new stand of tasty fruit or fuss over the way our hair looks. Then we wind up starving to death, and our hair looks terrible.

Fear is so compelling people can become enamored of its grip. It lets all other concerns fall away, and there's some relief in that. I think that's the powerful pull of becoming a professional paranoiac, discovering enemies everywhere. Even failure then becomes something that isn't our fault. It can become a long term strategy.

But it isn't designed for that. And like any tool that isn't used properly, it can break, and break us as well.

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