Decisions, Fear, and Excitement

I got into a discussion on Tribe the other day about what is fear — specifically, when are decisions made because of fear. I argued that fear never comes into play in decision making because it never gets the chance to be explored. I talked about this with my friend Tony and he pointed out that biologically, fear is the same thing as excitement — the only difference is attitude. So I thought I'd revisit all of it and try and tie it into something coherent.

In the Extreme Honesty Tribe, I made a case for fear never actually being experienced in a rational decision-making process. It's a semantic argument, but important: saying one didn't act because of fear usually means they decided to avoid a situation that might cause fear. For instance, saying "you didn't apply for that creative director job because of fear" doesn't really mean that you were afraid — you just avoided the anxious experience.

In other words, fear is the experience of feeling anxious from taking an action that has a broad and unpredictable set of outcomes. Curiously, it's the same circumstances that cause excitement — except that instead of anxiety, one feels invigoration. Hence, it's all attitude; whether one is worrying about a negative outcome or anticipating a positive one.

Let me start a scenario to work from: running into a busy street, right into traffic. When I think about it, I think, "that's a stupid idea because I'd probably get run over." If I imagine myself actually doing it, there would be screeching tires and people honking their horns and maybe some collisions; I might get run into and thrown over a car; or maybe I get whacked and injured bad enough to lose consciousness and end up in a hospital.

But then I think, "well, I actually probably won't get run over unless I jump right out in front of a moving car." What would probably really happen is that people would honk and yell and stop. If I made my way to the other side, they'd probably cuss and gesticulate angrily and that would be that.

In that is an interesting demonstration: that our reflexive rational sense is often quite flawed. If I say, "why don't you just run out into traffic?" the reflexive answer is something like, "so I don't get hit by a car". However, if you separate "running into traffic" into two cases — "arbitrarily jumping into traffic" and "abruptly entering traffic such that an attentive driver would have adequate time to stop" — you find that two separate risks emerge. In the former, there's a statistical likelihood that you're going to get hit: if cars pass at an average of one every 5 seconds and it takes 2 seconds for them to successfully stop, then your odds are 2/5 that you'll get hit by a car if you randomly enter traffic. But if you only enter traffic when an attentive driver has the ability to stop, your chances of getting hit are much lower — let's say (arguably …. arguably)1 in 200 that a driver is not being attentive — then that's your odds of being hit. It's still not enough to warrant the risk, at least for most of us, but if you add in your own ability to jump clear in the 2 seconds when a driver is failing to stop, then it's really not all that bad.

But that in itself is a flawed argument. While statistical analysis opens up to new ways of understanding the world, it still is not a predictive tool: it can only guarantee the outcome of future statistical analysis. For instance, no matter how many ways I analyze the results of the roll of a 6-sided die, I still cannot predict the outcome of the next roll. If I run into traffic — whether arbitrarily or with caution — I cannot predict whether I will actually be hit by a car.

So now where's our rational mind? Mine says, "Well, regardless: I don't want to piss people off". I'll leave an exercise for the student to chase each risk and reward (to oneself, to the drivers, and to society in general) of such behavior to its nonexistent conclusion.

But what would the point be — of running into traffic, for instance? Therein lies the point of the whole thing: I don't know and neither do you. Perhaps one would grok the behavior of people in cars and find solace in that. Perhaps one would realize that they have been overly cautious their whole life. Perhaps someone turns around and seeks the pedestrian to punch them. Perhaps one would get hit by a car. — I don't know.

I can guarantee, though: that one will face a situation where the outcome is unknown. And that is the root of both fear and excitement.

I can also say that I experience regret whenever I encounter a situation that would force me to face unknown outcomes and I avoid it because of that — that I avoid a situation if I believe myself to be unlikely to succeed without evidence. I regret it because I think it perpetuates a state of childhood — that dispelling the unknowable through experience is the path to true adulthood.

And I think it is indicative in the culture around me. Powers-that-be are drawn to the safe and the statistically demonstrable. We shun risk-takers — and at the same time admire them … in an instinctive way. I think it is our nature to face the unknown to make it understood.

The ultimate, permanently un-shareable unknown is death itself. Only by constantly building confidence in our ability to face the unknown can we even hope to face our inevitable ends with peace, confidence, and grace.