Fear and How it Scales

Nice post:

The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate. The fight-or-flight reflex that speeds up your heart when you're about to get a speeding ticket you don't deserve isn't very different than the chemical reaction in the brain of an accused (but innocent) murder suspect when the jury walks in.

Bigger stakes can't lead to more fear.

And, in an interesting glitch, more fear often tricks us into thinking we're dealing with bigger stakes.

Posted on August 24, 2012 at 6:27 AM • 31 Comments

Comments

Peter HillierAugust 24, 2012 6:56 AM

Using fear as a tool, rather than the traditional keeping it inside, is much healthier as well!

Dr. I. Needtob AtheAugust 24, 2012 7:42 AM

Fear is contagious too. I remember that as a kid, I could watch a scary movie alone at home much easier than in a theater full of people. It seemed like what really scared me was anticipating the reaction from those around me.

ScottAugust 24, 2012 7:50 AM

One needs to only look at post September 11 to see how well our own gov't has used "more fear" to ratchet up the sheeple's belief that there's more at stake than what really exists, all the while continuing to gut the US Constitution and our Rights.

cakmplsAugust 24, 2012 7:51 AM

So does lack of fear make us think the stakes are low, the matter is unimportant? And why do those fear chemicals flood certain brains and not others over a particular experience? I have no fear of public speaking, none at all, and never have had. In fact, I enjoy it very much, and always did. (In grade school, they made me the MC for programs, because I didn't mind facing the assembled students and parents and talking.)

dotAugust 24, 2012 8:16 AM

>I thought the article was titled,
> "Fear and How It Sells"

You weren't the only one.

GweihirAugust 24, 2012 8:36 AM

Just means one thing: If you judge danger with your gut, you will be wrong. Only rational decisions can cut it today. Unfortunately, most people cannot make them when it counts.

Duane GranAugust 24, 2012 8:38 AM

I think Godin has a lot of insight and appreciate his point of view, but is there any factual data to back up his point? I don't disagree with the conclusions, but I also think he could have written something very different and it may have also sounded reasonable.

miwAugust 24, 2012 9:14 AM

It seems reasonable to assume that there is such thing as a maximum level of fear. That does not imply that there are no levels of fear. If not, training to reduce fear (e.g. of flying and so on) would not work. Hence, fear does scale to at least some degree. Strange argument to assume different and drawing all sorts of security implications from it.

Clive RobinsonAugust 24, 2012 10:12 AM

With regard,

The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate

Sorry no it's not.

Fear is a process of the brain and works in a very similar way to pain.

As we know people have very different tolerances to pain, and further they can learn techniques to reduce the effects of pain. We also know that with repeated pain of the same or similar type the human learns to "live with it".

So if you have to give a speech to a bunch of kids for the first time then I would argue that what you feel is considerably greater than a Presedential candidate who has done hundreds if not thousands of speaches just to get to the point of being a candidate.

Or look at it the other way the first few days on the job as a teacher is nerve racking and real pit of thhe stomach churning, but within a few days it's not such a problem and quickly becomes normal routine.

Doug CoulterAugust 24, 2012 10:27 AM

I call BS, fear DOES scale. Been in many situations where it obviously did.

@alan - sheeple was coined by Robert Heinlein.
If you don't know who that is and why he's widely respected for his views and predictions which have largely come true - then you're a dick, not someone with some cultural awareness and background who uses the term correctly in context.

But calling out someone for being judgemental is, well, judgemental - and with no justification. Funny that.

aaaaAugust 24, 2012 10:31 AM

"The fight-or-flight reflex that speeds up your heart when you're about to get a speeding ticket you don't deserve isn't very different than the chemical reaction in the brain of an accused (but innocent) murder suspect when the jury walks in."

Can he prove that? Because I had been scared a little and I had also been scared a lot before. It was different feeling and I doubt that I'm so exceptional.

On related note, unfair speeding ticket would make me angry, but not scared. Prison sentence would make me scared.


Captain ObviousAugust 24, 2012 10:50 AM

Fear scales as does anything. Think a skydiver would get the same thrill from jumping off a chair? They did that when they were 1. Then they moved on to couches, roofs, cliff diving etc. Raising the stakes is how we learn and grow...and how we get the population to give away their rights one bit at a time.

Fear = level of threat / (experience with threat + preparedness to meet threat)

Civil LibertarianAugust 24, 2012 11:26 AM

The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate.

As Clive said, sorry no it's not. I think it's safe to assume that the fifth-grader's fear is about screwing up in front of classmates and being mocked. It's about not having control. Any pre-debate anxiety that presidential candidates have is, I think, more about ego. They want to seize the moment to achieve a (megalomaniac ?) victory, not merely survive emotionally unscathed. They're in that position because they want to be, not because teacher mandated it. The risks, both real and perceived, are very different, as are the resulting fears.

Bigger stakes can't lead to more fear.

- I have been anxious about giving important presentations. (Fear of screwing up.)
- I get nervous every time I opt out of an airport nudiescan and TSA pulls me aside for a freedom grope. (Fear of TSA agent screwing up, or just being cranky, and jeopardizing my freedom.)
- I have lost sleep waiting for biopsy results. (Fear of losing my life.)

These are *very* different fears, due in large part to the stakes involved.

karrdeAugust 24, 2012 12:28 PM

@Clive Robinson

>>The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate

Sorry no it's not.

Fear is a process of the brain and works in a very similar way to pain.

I think I agree.

Story time: About a week ago, on a Friday, I took a motorcycle ride. Traffic was fairly heavy on that particular piece of the highway. At one point on the trip, I was maneuvering past a car when that driver decided to do a lane-change in my direction.

I did a rapid slowdown/avoidance maneuver, and survived. However, I felt as if I came within 0.1 seconds of serious injury. A slower reaction on my part, or a more rapid lane-change on his part, and I might have been pushed over. For a couple of minutes, I felt the rapid heartbeat and sweat of the fight-or-flight response.

The following day, I felt a lot of tension in my stomach as I approached the motorcycle to take another ride. If pressed for an explanation, I'd say I approached that ride with fear and trembling.

That ride ended safely.

Since then, I have approached the motorcycle without feeling that tension in my stomach. (But I do spend a little more time scanning the behavior of other drivers while I ride among them...)

A strange experience.

The probability of a life-altering accident hasn't changed very much. They are low, but roughly constant per ride.

The fear-response spiked after one almost-accident. Then it disappeared.

FigureitoutAugust 24, 2012 12:31 PM

I could possibly see what he's saying if you think of all the people with all the various phobias (bees, heights, spiders, etc.).

If you have very high social anxiety, then the example with 5th graders or a presidential debate may feel the same to that person; even though outside viewers would see the obvious difference.

@Gweihir
If you judge danger with your gut, you will be wrong.

Don't sell yourself so short. GWB really messed up the phrase "Going with your gut" or "intuition"; it depends on the person's "gut" and of course that is the brain.

ANonny2August 24, 2012 1:44 PM

@Doug Coulter

Heinlein/sheeple - which work? And yes, I'm familiar with his work, but think Brunner is (depressingly) more on the button in many of the discussions here.

JonAugust 24, 2012 7:09 PM

Yes, for some, standing and preparing to speak before a huge audience and TV cameras is just as terrifying as speaking in front of a dozen of their 5th grade peers.

But to them, it wasn't that scary.

They revel in the attention. They do as Senators, and they did in the 5th grade.

Lousy metaphor.

J.

AlanAugust 25, 2012 7:22 PM

Doug: As with any other phrase that's been (over)used and abused by dicks ("wake up", "open your eyes") so confident that they have all the answers while everyone else slumbers in blissful ignorance, it doesn't matter who first used or popularized it - what matters is: you sound like a dick when you say "sheeple" and people judge you accordingly.

Have a wonderful day.

eAugust 25, 2012 11:27 PM

"more fear often tricks us into thinking we're dealing with bigger stakes."

The opposite is also true. Less fear can trick us into underestimating risks. Just ask someone who's afraid of flying but happily drives to work.

Ari ManiatisAugust 25, 2012 11:53 PM

@Clive

I agree that sometimes people become immunised against the fear of a situation through repeated exposure, however that isn't always the case. In my previous work in the theatre I met many professional actors who got what you would call stage-freight every time the went on stage.

Rather than trying to minimise that fear, they channelled it and used it to enhance their performance. In fact, those times when they were most comfortable and least afraid were often the least successful performances. Fear was something which they learned to control and then use and even enjoy.

Does the buzz (fear) of a bungie jump wane after the hundredth attempt? I could see that even after the thousandth time on stage, the fear was still there in those actors.

SlackAugust 27, 2012 6:34 AM

My experience of fear leads me to believe that it certainly does scale. The presence of malicious, violent intent is one of the most potent triggers for fear that simply cannot be replicated in a controlled environment.

Dirk PraetAugust 27, 2012 7:04 PM

I believe we're dealing with oversimplification here. Although the processes behind fear may be simple and straight-forward, the differentiators to take into account are the specific context and the way we deal with it both on a conscious and unconscious level. Hearing the neighboor doing some target practicing in his garden will have a completely different effect on a child, his parents and the guy next door who happens to be suffering from PTSD after his second tour in Iraq.

My advice to Mr. Godin would be to read up on some professional literature about fear and anxiety, or to spend a couple of days doing volunteer work in a psychiatric ward.

albatrossAugust 30, 2012 11:18 AM

e:

The classic example of this is people whose friends, boyfriends, husbands, family members, etc., are violent and dangerous people. Familiarity seems to make them less threatening, often leading to a dead friend/girlfriend/wife/whatever and a violent guy in prison.

albatrossAugust 30, 2012 11:24 AM

How would we tell whether Seth is right or not? I mean, it's plausible (Heinlein made some reference to this in _Double Star_, where the main character was already terrified, and something else scary happened, but had no effect on him--he gave the explanation "you can't wet a river."). But what is the evidence we could find to determine whether it's true or not? For example, we could ask people who have been in really scary situations (combat, fires, train wrecks, etc.) how they'd say that experience compares with others. I gather that in combat, it's not uncommon for adults to literally crap their pants, which isn't something most of us do as a response to public speaking or finding a really big spider crawling up our leg.

How else could we measure this? Cortisol levels in saliva samples after either a simulated but real-seeming emergency, or a really stressful public speaking assignment?

RezSeptember 15, 2012 11:07 AM

I think what people are getting at is that this fails to differentiate among types of fear -- frex, fear of failure is not always the same as fear of death. Indeed, in my observation, equating the two is a sign of a certain type of mental imbalance.

Peter GerdesSeptember 15, 2012 5:33 PM

Presumably, as an evolutionary adaptation, fear should scale with the stakes to you not to other people. After all evolution maximizes (modulo selfish gene effects) your genetic legacy.

The stakes for a presidential candidate on the last debate are no higher to them than are the stakes to you on a crucial job interview. Quite likely fear really does scale with the importance of an event to us, with potentially life threatening situations being more scary than mere interviews. Of course, it isn't perfect. We might rationally realize the glass floor of an observation deck is perfectly firm but that can't override our more primitive brain functions...however, I don't know I would call this a failure to scale.

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