Why Don't New Facts Cure Old Fears?
The mental mechanics of how emotions and logic relate aren't widely understood. Our minds are built to mostly be "indirectly rational."
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
How do our fears work? Can we trust new facts to cure old fears? Our minds aren’t built that way.
1. Fear can be useful (“the mother of safety”) or delusional = ideal for examining the often misunderstood mental mechanics of emotions and logic.
3. Bone-deep fear fuels Ta-nehisi Coates’ latest book. His childhood streets were an “array of lethal puzzles.” He feared “those who loved him most.” His father felt “either I can beat him or the police.” All that fear bred violence. It still shapes Coates’ worldview.
5. Our “indirect rationality” means facts usually can’t cure false fears directly or quickly.
6. Feeling IS fast thinking. Per Daniel Kahneman’s two-mind framework, “System 1” generates feelings = rapid, reflex reactions; “System 2” deliberates, consciously, slowly.
7. System 1 does its thing first. Then System 2 kicks in, usually using System 1’s output. Whatever explicit facts System 2 gets, they’re framed by System 1’s separate (“hidden brain”) learning system, which constantly, unconsciously, collects the patterns of your anecdotal unstatistical environment (making toddlers and liberal pundits react like racists).
8. “Rational choice” thinkers typically believe emotions cause irrationality. Reason must overrule emotion’s errors, and better facts ensure better actions (hence nutrition labels, largely ineffective).
10. Feelings process sensory inputs by a logic — your culture’s emotional grammar, your childhood’s patterns, your subsequent psychology. Coates’ book lays out his fearful logic.
11. Conscious thinking usually has emotional goals (to feel good/right). And thoughts can be incoherent (e.g., Robinson questions “a well-regulated militia” meaning guns for all). Plus what’s called rational can be unrealistic or ridiculously self-destructive.
12. David Hume’s "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” gets the mechanics right, but needs modification. System 2 reason starts from our feelings, preferences, biases, assumptions ... but System 2 can retrain System 1 reactions = reason reshaping passions.
13. Surely better models of our nature should be habit driven (like us). We evolved to often act without consciously deciding, using System 1 habits. We can be rational (actions matching aims) indirectly, when acquiring System 1 patterns. They’ll then be automatically triggered, mindlessly repeated, often. Altering (second-nature) habits requires slow, hard retraining.
14. Trust can mitigate or multiply fears. We often don’t or can’t think for ourselves, instead relying on trusted others. If leaders say “quantitative easing” or immigration harms the economy, who has the time or expertise to verify?
15. Harmful trust/fear patterns have hardened into cultural/institutional habits. Why let politicians routinely lie, when lies to sell products are illegal? Is the integrity of donuts or democracy more important?
Fears arise first and fast. They change slowly. How we organize fear shapes us (politically + privately).
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
The best-selling author tells us his methods.
- James Patterson has sold 300 million copies of his 130 books, making him one of the most successful authors alive today.
- He talks about how some writers can overdo it by adding too much research, or worse, straying from their outline for too long.
- James' latest book, The President is Missing, co-written with former President Bill Clinton, is out now.
Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.
- Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
- Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
- Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
It's the first time the association hasn't hired a comedian in 16 years.
- The 2018 WHCA ended in controversy after comedian Michelle Wolf made jokes some considered to be offensive.
- The WHCA apologized for Wolf's jokes, though some journalists and many comedians backed the comedian and decried arguments in favor of limiting the types of speech permitted at the event.
- Ron Chernow, who penned a bestselling biography of Alexander Hamilton, will speak at next year's dinner.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.