Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rational and irrational fear

Fascinating cover article in TIME this week: Why we worry about the wrong things. Here are some excerpts:

We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. … Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos. … At the same time, 20% of all adults still smoke; nearly 20% of drivers and more than 30% of backseat passengers don't use seat belts; two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. … Sensible calculation of real-world risks is a multidimensional math problem that sometimes seems entirely beyond us. And while it may be true that it's something we'll never do exceptionally well, it's almost certainly something we can learn to do better. …

"There are two systems for analyzing risk: an automatic, intuitive system and a more thoughtful analysis," says Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. "Our perception of risk lives largely in our feelings, so most of the time we're operating on system No. 1." …

These two impulses—to engage danger or run from it—are constantly at war and have left us with a well-tuned ability to evaluate the costs and payoffs of short-term risk, say Slovic and others. That, however, is not the kind we tend to face in contemporary society, where threats don't necessarily spring from behind a bush. They're much more likely to come to us in the form of rumors or news broadcasts or an escalation of the federal terrorism-threat level from orange to red. It's when the risk and the consequences of our response unfold more slowly, experts say, that our analytic system kicks in. This gives us plenty of opportunity to overthink—or underthink—the problem, and this is where we start to bollix things up. …

[After citing many forms of risk response] Finally, and for many of us irresistibly, there's the irrational way we react to risky behavior that also confers some benefit. It would be a lot easier to acknowledge the perils of smoking cigarettes or eating too much ice cream if they weren't such pleasures. … With enough time and enough temptation, we can talk ourselves into ignoring almost any long-term costs.

To me, this article draws a clear distinction between rational fear and irrational, and gives many important clues as to how to stay in the rational realm. Of course, in a spiritual sense, all actual fear can be considered irrational. If you are trusting the Divine fully and completely, if you are aligned with the one Mind that governs all creation, there is nothing to fear.

So I'd like to pose the idea that "rational fear," or the ability to accurately calculate risk and thereby avoid trouble, *is* a function of Mind, whereas "irrational fear" or being thrown by every suggestion that comes your way, is not. "Rational fear" in this sense becomes a form of good judgment; "irrational fear" is allowing yourself to be buffeted by rumors and conjecture.

I'm especially intrigued by the article's statement (at the end of the excerpts above) that we can talk ourselves into ignoring almost any long-term costs if the harmful activity is pleasurable. Here is a terrific working definition of sin.

Activities are sinful if they include momentary short-term gratification that ignores the long-term harmful effects. Sin *harms* you. It's not that the activity is bad in and of itself, or that you're bad for wanting it. Everybody likes pleasure. It's those pleasures that have harmful long-term effects we need to avoid—and it takes good judgment ("rational fear") to know to avoid them. Golly, how many good parents throughout time have wished they could instill that good judgment in their kids at birth!

Anyway, this article is exciting me because it deconstructs so thoroughly and rationally that most agitating of emotions—fear. Take a look, let me know what you think.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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At 1/31/2014 05:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're operating on the assumption that everything declared sinful can be logically known to be a long term risk as if you could just as surely say an action will drive you further from a being whose existence has yet to be proven or send you to Hell as you could say that if you smoke a cigarette you will likely get lung cancer (something that we know for a fact has happened to many people already). Do you really know for a fact that God is unhappy with you when you lie? Is that knowledge acquired directly from a divine mind? Do you know there is a Hell? Know anyone who has seen Hell? Would you describe faith & the fears that come as a result of faith as rational?

At 1/31/2014 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Laura said...

Huh, I appreciate your logic and I agree with you... I think you're incorrect about my premises, however. If you read my writing more closely, you'd see that I never say God is unhappy with us when we "sin." Sin, as I put in the above posting, causes us harm. That's enough of a punishment. I actually don't believe in hell or any direct punishment from God -- we cause our own punishment as a direct result of our actions. If our actions don't cause any problems, they're not sin. Simple. So I think you and I actually agree. Maybe some of my wording caused you to think I was more traditional in my theology, but I'm about as non-traditional as they come.

Wishing you well on your journey, and thank you for writing,


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