Our Own Worst Enemy
How evolutionary hardwiring undermines us as individuals and as a society
We humans have a pronounced aversion to loss. Countless studies have shown that we’ll readily forgo the chance of gain in order to diminish the chance of loss. And this makes perfect sense, because for most of our evolutionary history our gains were very limited but our losses could easily result in death.
To see why this was so, let’s imagine we’re wandering around 50,000 years ago. There’s no utility in gathering more fruit than we can eat and there’s no utility in killing for more meat than we can consume. Without any ability to preserve food, any surplus was simply pointless waste. There’s no point fighting for territory larger than we can patrol. On the other side of the equation, however, things are very different. Loss of food can mean starvation. Loss of territory can mean loss of food and access to essential water.
Our fear of loss is therefore highly adaptive in terms of the world we used to live in. But since the development of an agrarian lifestyle some 11,000 years ago and especially since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve altered our environment out of all recognition. Consequently, our hardwired instincts and behaviors are very often now quite maladaptive. Worse still, these instincts and behaviors leave us vulnerable to exploitation that creates terrible outcomes.
There’s an old adage in the news industry: If It Bleeds, It Leads.
What this means is that anything that induces fear in us will grab our attention far more effectively than content that is fear-free. When we read of someone else’s loss we readily imagine the same thing afflicting us, and we react emotionally. This is why people gather round the scene of a disaster to gawp and stare instead of trying to assist those in need. It’s why we consume far more violent content in our so-called entertainments than we consume non-violent content. Anything that suggests the possibility of loss has an almost hypnotic appeal for our tiny ape-brains, because seeing someone else’s loss and trying to think of ways we can personally avoid it used to be highly adaptive.
Today, of course, it’s highly destructive. There is no individual nor social value obtained from playing horrifically violent videogames or watching gratuitously violent movies. At best it will leave us emotionally numb; at worst it may lead some of us to embrace violence in the real world. And it makes most people believe their environment is more dangerous than it actually is.
The news media preys on our inability to distinguish story from fact. Famously, news is always context-free. When we learn about an airplane crash in which 127 people died we instantly begin to fear air travel. What if we also die when a flight we’re on crashes? No news organization is going to remind us that air travel is by far the absolutely safest way to travel with fewer deaths per million miles than any other means of getting from point A to point B, including walking.
News organizations rely on our fear for their revenues and consequently the news is nothing more than a constant barrage of context-free sensationalist fear-mongering.
Everything in the news is a crisis or a catastrophe. Words are carefully chosen to exaggerate minor events in order to make them appear far more impactful than they really are. The Dow Jones drops from 25,780 to 25,310 (a decline of a trivial 1.8%) and this is announced as “Billions Wiped Off Shares As Dow Jones Plummets!” Even better if someone loses their job as a result because this secondary story can be spun to extend the original sensationalism.
A truck breaks down on a narrow London street, creating a tailback than traps 600 cars. This is presented as “London Gridlock Paralyzes City!” Even better if a single ambulance is prevented from reaching its destination on time because this secondary story can be spun to extend the original nonsense.
And we fall for it every single time because our tiny ape-brains are hardwired to do so. We are incapable of stepping back and rationally assessing the nonsense we’re fed. Everyone around us is afraid and panicking, the politicians are flailing wildly as they attempt to work out what posture will lose them the fewest votes as citizens lose their heads, so who are we to stand back and actually use hard data and reason? Best to go with the mindless herd and live in a near-constant state of fear.
We are very fear-driven these days. Most of us (over 70% according to many studies) hate our jobs and loathe our co-workers but we put in long hours because we’re afraid of losing those jobs and the paychecks than they provide.
Most of us (over 75% according to many studies) are dissatisfied with our primary relationship but we stay put because we’re afraid of being alone.
Most people who attempt to lose excess weight do so out of fear: fear of ill-health, fear of being unattractive, fear of being adversely judged by others. Very, very few people are motivated by a positive desire to be healthier and happier.
Parents experience anxiety far more than they experience joy from their children because they’re fearful that as parents they’re not living up to the mark, they’re not being “good enough” to pass some imaginary parental standard. Their parenting is driven by fear, not by love. And if that’s not enough, the news media will regularly run stories about a child being kidnapped, disappearing, being murdered, drowning, or becoming crippled after falling off a swing. Far too many people’s experience of parenting these days is little more than fear-driven eternal vigilance.
Most of us conform to pointless social rules not because we think they have validity but because we’re afraid of standing out from the crowd and being adversely judged by those around us. We’re so used to fitting in by wearing the right clothes, getting the right tattoos, watching the right entertainments, and buying the right electronic toys, that we don’t even notice we do these things mostly out of fear.
We think we’re “living.”
Politicians are nearly as good at exploiting our fear of loss as the mass media. This is especially true of today’s gang of populist demagogues who pretend that immigrants are going to steal our jobs, that darker-hued people are destroying our society, that political opponents will take away the things we cherish, that tolerant people are undermining moral values, and that foreigners want to do us down.
All these, and so many more, messages are all about inducing fear. And they work. Fear always works. As soon as we begin to be fearful the prefrontal cortex is inhibited by signals from the hippocampus. As the prefrontal cortex is where we perform our irregular and error-prone attempts at reasoning, this means once we become fearful we also basically become morons. At this point we’re reacting entirely on the basis of hardwired behaviors that have outlived their usefulness — but we have no way of changing them.
The current global hysteria over SARS-CoV2 is a classic example of fear-driven nonsensical behavior. Context-free headlines about death, death, and death make covid-19 seem like an existential threat and political panic has turned a very minor problem into an enormous orgy of unnecessary self-harm. In order to “save” thousands of very old and very sick people we’ve effectively condemned to death tens of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people of all ages. But as these unfortunates are starving out of sight, unreported by western news media that don’t want to risk going off-message and ruining the show, we can ignore all the horrors we’ve created and cling to our comfortable self-indulgent fear.
Yet if we weren’t fear-driven, we could make far better decisions and save hundreds of millions of people from terrible harm.
If we weren’t fear-driven, we wouldn’t erroneously imagine we’re all at terrible risk.
If we weren’t fear-driven, we could live far more satisfying and fulfilling lives.
If we weren’t fear-driven, we wouldn’t be such easy prey for blustering incompetent populist politicians.
If we weren’t fear-driven, we could actually take a deep breath and try to live.
It’s almost enough to make a person wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, it would be highly beneficial to try a different way of going about things.
If only we could.