The Risks of Hunger. It Makes You Take More Risks.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
You know those nature documentaries, the ones where hungry polar bears risk their lives attacking dangerous walruses, or starving lions put their lives on the line attacking fierce horned cape buffalo? Well, that’s you too, when the animal in you signals that your energy tank is running low and it’s time to fill up. Hunger, it turns out, makes us more than just cranky. It makes us risk takers.
And not just for food. A 2010 study titled Metabolic State Alters Economic Decision Making in Humans Under Risk found that the hungrier we are, the more risk we are willing to take with money. Men in the study who were purposefully starved made riskier choices about a financial gamble. Well-fed subjects made much less riskier choices.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure out why this makes sense. We need energy to survive. The lack of food - energy – triggers biochemical changes that tell us, or the polar bear, or the lion…time to lay it all on the line, because if you don’t eat soon, it could be the end of the line.
What’s intriguing about the study above, and other studies that find the same thing in animals, including a new one of fruit flies from the Max Planck Institute (yup, fruit flies take more risks when they are hungry too), is what they suggest about cognition and free will. As with so many findings in research on human decision making, the biological processes of the human animal that subconsciously trigger many of our behaviors appear to be largely running the show. Our conscious purposeful analytical thinking is not nearly as in charge as we think it is. The implication of this is that our faith in reason and rationality is foolish, and when it comes to risk, it can be dangerously foolish.
The study about how hunger affected financial gambles tracked the blood hormone levels in the subjects. Levels of ghrelin, which triggers hunger, and leptin, which sends signals about the body’s energy reserves (fat storage in cells), varied notably between starved and well-fed subjects. These hormonal signals go to lots of places, including parts of the brain associated with decision making. Those signals set off a cascade of responses in networks of brain cells that in turn trigger other hormonal responses which help trigger how we behave.
In fact, the study of fruit flies dug deep inside this neurophysical chain reaction and even identified a single neuron that helps the fruit flies overlook danger (essentially by ignoring the signal about elevated carbon dioxide levels, a sign that some air-breathing predator may be around) when they’re hungry. We’re not fruit flies, of course, but there are certainly cells and pathways and chemicals in us that do the same sorts of things. The way hunger affects our decision making also occurs at this subconscious primary cellular level, far below the level of conscious purposeful reasoning.
It’s not as though reason and ‘thinking’ and conscious purposeful rational decision making play no role. Of course they do. We’re not fruit flies. But hunger, and risk, are just two examples that prove the wisdom of what Ambrose Bierce suggested in the Devil’s Dictionary; the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. Many of our judgments and behaviors are not a matter of conscious choice. There are more serious limits on our free will than many of us realize, and that has profound implications across many facets of society; law, economics, democracy. (Think about what this says about our abilities to make thoughtful choices about our laws, and leaders!) It certainly bears dramatically on our health and safety.
Hunger is just one sort of threat signal. Terrorism, crime, climate change, industrial chemicals that freak us out…they all trigger similar subconscious instinctive hormonal and cellular responses that shape our perceptions of risk and our choices and behaviors about how to protect ourselves…hormonal and cellular responses that are so powerful and innate that conscious reason can not entirely overcome them - when it plays a role in decision making at all. At the most basic level, this is why we sometimes fear some things too much, and some things too little, and why our perceptions of risk may feel right but may not match the facts, mistakes that can produce dangerous individual and societal choices, creating new and significant risks.
That’s the Risk Perception Gap I write about so much, the danger of getting risk wrong and doing risky things as a result. It’s a danger we need to recognize, that we have to accept is an inherent part of the human condition, and a danger that produces risks that need to be studied and managed every bit as much as the dangers of climate change or industrial chemicals or crime themselves.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll go have some chocolate ice cream and a bowl of Cheetohs. Yeah, I know I’m overweight, but hey…I’m hungry.
(photo credit: mytrektravel.blogspot.com/)
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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