Overwhelmed by fear: beware the “low road” of emotion

August 10, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

It is because we tout ourselves as the smartest animal on the planet we are oh-so-vulnerable.  As one can read in Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

Human cognition is an unwieldy and fallible bag of mental tricks. Anyone who has seriously studied human cognition knows this. As Leda Cosmides and John Toby wrote

“The mind consists of a set of adaptations, designed to solve the long standing adaptive problems humans encountered as hunter-gatherers.”

Many people think, however, that they know how they think; they have faith that conscious common sense is always accurate and on target.  Common sense fails consider Freud’s rock solid finding: conscious awareness is only the tip of the cognitive iceberg. 

Common sense seduces us with powerful illusions, illusions that look like “uncontestable facts” to those of us who believe we can merely sit around and think in order to figure out how we think. Although common sense has led us well us for eons, it often leads to errors.  The Sun does not circle the Earth.  Our ears do not operate like microphones and our eyes do not work like cameras. “I” am not really a little person who seems to dwell in my head.  Science has shown that what the “thing” that constitutes me is a complicated and often self-contradictory bag of skills and strategies.  For many good examples of how we are often misled by the same heuristics on which we usually depend, see the many meticulous and creative experiments of Amos Tversky & Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman in “Judgment Under Uncertainty:  Heuristics and Biases,” in Judgment and Decision Making (1986).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the image of a Middle Eastern terrorist lurking around armed with explosives.  I don’t dispute that many such people exist.  I don’t dispute the huge danger that such people pose.  But the emotions generated by this image of the lurking Middle Eastern terrorist have gotten so many of us bent so out of shape that it has warped our perception of the world and utterly mangled our national priorities.  I realize that this is a pretty strong charge.  If our aim is to save lots of lives, though, there are many better ways to accomplish this than to spend $250 Million every day to occupy Iraq.  We have no evidence that the Iraq military operation saved any lives at all.  In fact, it has cost many thousands of Iraqi and American lives (in excess of 50,000, see here, along with the comments).

The American occupation of Iraq has also stirred up massive hatred of American. It makes you wonder how many Middle Eastern residents our “rescue” of Iraq has affected such that they have committed their lives to inflict horrific damage on the United States?  Has the Iraq occupation thus saved any net lives?  It’s highly questionable.  Yet our political leaders forge ahead with confidence, thanks to that image of that lurking Middle-Eastern bomb-toting terrorist.  The emotions roused by that image compel our leaders to act immediately and decisively, even if their actions are not well thought out, even if their actions aren’t calculated to lead to their stated objectives.

The emotions that flare up in response to the image of the lurking Middle Eastern terrorist thus give off much more heat than light.  Those fears need to be carefully managed, lest they run amok.  It requires a self-critical intellect to tamp down those emotional flames to rationally deal with threats.  It’s especially important to get such fears under control because people who are stressed are unable to engage in creative problem-solving.  Being stressed is thus a dangerous state of mind for a political leader to have in a complex world that begs for outside-of-the-box solutions.

Yes, America was attacked.  Because we were attacked, we want to do something.  But we should only do the kinds of things that make sense, not things that merely give immediate satisfaction. When we don’t get that raise at work, it’s not appropriate to go home and kick the dog. 

Because America lost many lives on 9/11, we now feel compelled to do something to save lives.  But what is the best way to save lives?  Not by causing deaths in Iraq, it is now obvious. Grumpypilgrim pointed out a few solutions for actually saving lives: 

For example, medical experts say that over 100,000 Americans die every year from human errors in hospitals. About 60,000 Americans die every year from pneumonia. About 35,000 die from the flu. To put 3,000 in perspective (the number that died five years ago from the worst terrorist attack in US history — an outlying data point from a statistical perspective): that’s how many people die annually in Wisconsin from colon cancer. I don’t see anyone in Washington calling for a “war” on colon cancer in Wisconsin.

Perhaps this juxtaposition of topics sounds bizarre.  On 9/11 we lost lives, so let’s save lives by spending money to find a cure to colon cancer?  If saving lives is really the focus, though, this approach does make sense.  Or how about focusing our energies on improved airport and port security?  These things make a lot more sense than attacking a country that was not responsible for 9/11, causing the loss of many additional lives and stirring up hyper-animosity against the U.S. in the process. 

But back to that un-nuanced image of a Middle Eastern terrorist lurking around with a bomb. It is an unrealistic cartoon image—it’s the image of a “crazy” and “irrational” person who has attacked America “for no reason” or to deprive us of “freedom.”  Nonetheless, that image “gets” to many people to an almost obsessive degree.  It reminds me of how many humans over-react to spiders and snakes.  It raises the sort of helpless horror that you would experience if you awoke to find a stranger standing over your bed.  What would you do?  You’d hear your own heart pounding like a drum and you’d work hard to not freak out.  That lurking terrorist image similarly packs an enormous emotional wallop, a big enough wallop that it moves right through our intellectual radar.

According to Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux writes that there are two pathways for human emotions:

Emotional memory and explicit memory happen at the same time, but separately. For example, the amygdala mediates emotional memory and the temporal lobe memory system mediates explicit memory . . . Normally, these systems work in parallel to give rise to our conscious memories about emotional experiences, and unconscious emotional memories. 

The first type of memory LeDoux mentions, emotional memories, is processed in pathways that take information directly into the amygdala.  This is a quick-response system; a “low road,” that is a rough and quick route not controlled by conscious thought.  The amygdala quickly mediates fear and other responses, allowing rapid responses that kick in before other parts of the brain have a chance to react.  The second type of memories, explicit (conscious) memories, is processed at the level of the hippocampus and neocortex.  These explicit memories can include memories of the emotional experience. Therefore, emotions can make their way through our brains in two separate ways.

How do we control our emotions?  Not as well as many of us would like to believe.  According to LeDoux,

[E]motions can be and, in fact, probably are mostly processed at an unconscious level. We become conscious and aware of all this after the fact. Conscious feelings of fear are thus not a necessary step in the link between a dangerous stimulus and emotional responses. We’re probably not as in control of our emotions as we sometimes think we are, or wish to be. 

[See also, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, by Joseph LeDoux (1998).]

How, then, might we deal with that image of the Middle-Eastern bomb-toting lurking terrorist, given that our feelings of fear don’t necessarily rise to the level of consciousness?  With great caution.  Yes, that image sometimes motivates reasonable and disciplined vigilance and countermeasures.  And, yes, we need to employ all reasonable resources into preventing horrible attacks against American interests. [This happened today when a huge terrorist plot was foiled at Heathrow Airport].

But we also need to remember that the unconscious emotional “low road” can lead to ungrounded unconscious desperation, which can lead to the illusion that all motion is progress, that doing anything is better than doing nothing.  Such emotional overload can justify counter-productive measures like attacking the wrong country, spying on innocent American citizens, torturing human beings or failing to do those things we can do to truly save real lives. Most important, the “low” road can also blind us to workable creative solutions.

One starting point might be for our leaders to remember to rein in some of their confidence, to take more deep breaths, and to look long and hard at their “one size fits all” solution to terrorism.  Thoughtful people consciously balance confidence with some humility.  It’s the price of using a human brain responsibly; it enables us to think laterally.  After all, there might be better long-term solutions to our security/energy needs than shooting missiles, dropping bombs and sternly invoking the name of a religion sincerely and peacefully practiced by hundreds of millions of people.  A bit of humility might go a long way to help to reallocate our nation’s energies and resources only in such ways that they will truly be effective to our stated aim: saving lives.

I will end with the an excerpt from Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.


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Category: American Culture, Current Events, Iraq, Psychology Cognition, Religion, The Middle East, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    For more on the President's decision to use the phrase "Islamic Fascism" (alluded to in this post), check out this post by James Boyce.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    There is an evolutionary explanation for the excessive fear we see in people in response to terrorist attacks. Let's think of fear as being the product of two risk factors: (a) the probability (odds) that a given bad thing will happen and (b) the severity of the consequences of that bad thing if it does happen. Multiplying these two factors together tells us how important a given risk is: if something is unlikely to happen (low probability) and the severity is low (low level of injury), then we ignore it; whereas, if something is likely to happen and the severity is high, then we pay much more attention. Unfortunately, as discussed below, evolution has not prepared us well to cope with the risks that modern life presents.

    In most "risky" situations we encounter in everyday life — going for a walk, having sex with someone for the first time, playing baseball, etc. — the severity of the consequences are things that humans have been coping with for millions of years — twisting an ankle, getting pregnant, breaking an arm, etc. Risk factor (b) — the severity of the consequences — are things we can easily understand, so we can realistically assess the probability (risk factor (a)) and realistically calculate our overall risk level. Even somewhat more hazardous situations — driving to work on the freeway, installing a hydroelectric powerplant, building the Golden Gate bridge, taking an elevator to the top of a 100-story building, etc. — are still things that have analogies that we can easily relate to from our evolutionary past: riding a fast horse, installing a waterwheel to produce power, building an ox bridge, climbing a tree, etc. Falling out of a 100-story building won't (broadly speaking) make you any more dead than if you fall out of a 20-foot tree.

    However, things get much harder when we deal with problems that have extremely severe consequences — when analogies to past human experience don't exist.

    In the 20th-century, we began building nuclear powerplants, and we had a very hard time evaluating the risks. Why? Because even though the odds of something bad happening (risk factor (a)) were relatively low compared to other types of powerplants (hydroelectric, coal-fired, etc.), the severity of the potential consequences if something bad actually happened (risk factor (b)) was overwhelmingly beyond anything humans had ever dealt with before. Consequently, instead of assessing the risks in our usual way (multiplying the odds times the severity level of each risk), we as a society became obsessed with reducing the odds (risk factor (a)) to astronomically small levels. In essence, the severity of a bad outcome (a core meltdown followed by widespread radiation exposure…and possibly tens of thousands of fatalities) distorted our thinking, because the situation was unlike anything humans had ever encountered before.

    Let's now consider the 9/11 terrorist attack. Three thousand innocent people died that day and a lot of valuable property was destroyed, but much more happened that day. Images of jetliners flying into buildings, of people jumping to their deaths to avoid being burned alive, of landmark buildings collapsing onto the heroic people trapped inside, etc., were seared into the minds of every American. The result: an extreme example of a severe consequence (risk factor (b)) which then distorted our thinking in how we perceived the risk of another terrorist attack.

    The reality is that the death of 3,000 people is something we ignore every single day. As I pointed out in the post Erich mentions, 3,000 people die annually of colon cancer in Wisconsin — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 100,000 people die from human errors in hospitals — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 60,000 people die from pneumonia — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 400,000 people die from cigarettes — every single year — and life goes on. In the scheme of things, the 3,000 people who died on 9/11 are a DROP IN THE BUCKET compared to all the other things that kill Americans. The probability that an American will die from a terrorist attack is less than the probability that he or she will die from colon cancer in Wisconsin. Yet look at how our nation has reacted: hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of innocent lives (American, British, Iraqi, etc.) spent to invade a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.

    Let me anticipate the neocon objection: what about the next terrorist attack that destroys a whole city? My answer: hurricane Katrina destroyed a whole city and life still goes on. Hurricanes Floyd, Andrew, Wilma, etc., destroyed whole cities and life still goes on. Hurricane Mitch changed the landscape of Honduras so much that entirely new maps of the country were needed, and life still goes on. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed a whole city and life still goes on. The 2004 tsunami destroyed dozens of cities across the globe and killed hundreds of thousands of people, and life still goes on. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed entire cities, and life still goes on.

    My point is not to trivialize the threat posed by terrorists — destroying two skyscrapers or blowing up ten jetliners in one day is obviously a very bad thing — but to suggest that terrorism is the greatest threat America faces and that it should be our nation's top priority is, by any *objective* measure, completely ridiculous. Unfortunately, Americans have been so emotionally disturbed by the potential severity of a terrorist attack (risk factor (b)) that they have distorted their thinking about how to assess the threat. Of course, it's not entirely their fault: the neocons have been feeding America a steady diet of lies and propaganda to exaggerate fear and foster paranoia about terrorism, because doing so directly benefits the neocon agenda.

    The solution is for people to try harder to set aside their emotions and look more objectively at the actual threat posed by terrorists, relative to all the other threats and risks that each of us faces. When more Americans realize that they are far more likely to die in a car accident while driving to work, than to die from an international terrorist attack, they will go a long way toward dealing effectively with terrorism and avoiding gigantic mistakes such as the one in Iraq.

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