Monday, May 15, 2006

On the nature of fear and courage

Fear is an emotion that tends to override all other others and to control our actions. Not surprising, its function is to protect our safety, our very existence. Those among our potential ancestors who did not react strongly to fear tended not to leave descendants.

But evolution is a short sighted mechanism and what has evolved in one environment can be quite dysfunctional in another. And it does not take account of an organism's needs other than leaving descendants of itself or its kin. It cares nothing about happiness or morality.

We evolved as tribal hunter-gatherers and this has had much more influence on our psychological nature than the comparatively short period since the start of agriculture and then civilization. And before that our ancestors were simply animals. Some aspects of our nature that evolved in the palaeolithic and earlier are dangers or hindrances now. Many of the dangers that we face are different and the best responses are different but parts of our brains don't know that.

Fear causes one or other of three reactions – flee, freeze or fight. The trouble is it can be so overwhelming that it can prevent us planning and hence we make an inappropriately simple response that can actually increase the danger. Panic, acting at random might be a good strategy sometimes for an animal. For an entity with a human beings reasoning powers it is a poor strategy which throws away its greatest strength. An example would be fleeing in a straight line when someone is shooting at you or fleeing at all when fighting is the better response. For dangers that we are actually likely to face freezing (“Please don't notice me Mr. Predator.”) almost always makes things worse.

Fear can also be out of proportion to the actual danger. Phobias are habitual disproportionate fear responses to certain stimuli. Again in these cases the response to fear can and usually does make a situation worse.

And of course we can face situations where danger should be accepted and we should act despite it. As the complexity of a society increases then the variety of possible goals for its members increases. Some of these goals will have dangers attached. Sometimes we know that accomplishing a goal is worth the risk involved but fear overrides our better judgment.

But fear is still necessary. Without it we are far too likely to do something that is tempting but stupidly dangerous. The consequences of this can be seen in adolescent risk-taking. This appears to be more due to faulty risk assessment than to any difference in fear reaction between adolescents and older or younger people. But it still makes the point of where we would be without fear.

Courage could be described as the ability to act when one might expect fear to interfere with the ability to act. It could be because one is not afraid when others might be or it could be because the fear is felt but overridden. Some might only describe overriding fear as courage and call not feeling inappropriate fears presence of mind or something else.

I can think of four kinds of courage according to the type of threat that one is facing. Three are physical, moral and intellectual courage. The fouth there is no phrase for.

Physical courage is the ability to act despite the risk of pain or injury or death.

Moral courage is the ability to act according to one's conscience despite the risk of disapproval from those whose approval one wants or the fear of bearing the moral responsibility for an action.

Intellectual courage is the ability to accept unpleasant truths and to act on them. It is the courage to admit that you might be wrong.

I can't think of any phrase that encapsulates the ability to deal with personal and social anxieties.

Physical courage is called on most when one is trying to protect others. Sometimes it is called on when one is carrying out a personal goal that one has set oneself.

It requires defeating what are probably the most intense fears (not necessarily the same thing as the worst fears). It often required in emergencies with little or no time to mentally prepare oneself. Fortunately in the nature of emergencies it is often only required for a brief period.

I can think of two methods by which in emergencies people can sideline physical fear which are not available for dealing with other longer term fears. The first is to transform the fear into thrill or excitement (or perhaps more accurately to have these feelings in conjunction with the fear). This can allow one to plan and act effectively. The drawback is that it can lead to seeking out danger and taking unnecessary risks. The other is to enter what is best described as a hyper-rational state. The fear seems to be happening to someone else, time seems to slow down and one's mind at least feels very clear. This is probably the most effective method for handling short-term intense physical fear. And no one wants to repeat it. It is not a pleasant feeling.

There is no good way of dealing with long-term physical fear. One can suppress the fear for a while but eventually it gets to people. The result is things like battle fatigue and the behavior of some victims of abusive relationships. We did not evolve subject to such long-term intense dangers. No one in a hunter-gatherer culture is subjected to anything as harrowing as combat lasting months or oppression lasting a lifetime.

Physical courage can be the result of moral or intellectual cowardice. One can be more afraid of others disapproval or of uncertainty than of dieing. Someone who takes a stupid risk on a dare is displaying moral cowardice. A suicide bomber is likely to be either acting under pressure from others or from fanaticism. The first is likely to be an example of moral cowardice and the second is certainly an example of intellectual cowardice.

In societies or groups that encourage violence or risk-taking showing fear can be the result of intense disapproval. When a culture places a very high value on courage (at least in men) it tends to try to turn danger into excitement. They encourage compulsive risk taking. Such cultures tend to try to make physical courage part of the definition of masculinity. But this social pressure works by undermining moral courage especially in men.

Moral courage is the courage to act according to one's own conscience rather than the judgment of others. If can mean words or deeds that tell others that they are wrong. It can mean incurring the disapproval of those whose approval matters to oneself. It can mean accepting that one does not have any good options and the right thing may leave a bad taste in the mouth. It may mean accepting responsibility for a judgment call rather than acting according to a set of rules.

It is not taking a rebel pose. Those taking such poses are offending only those whose approval they don't care about. They are usually seeking to impress an in-group of like-minded people.

Moral courage can come from intellectual cowardice. A zealot can have moral courage. They don't have intellectual courage.

Duty can be a mask for moral cowardice. Especially duty to the law or duty in war. Seeking a wickedly excessive sentence because the law demands it or it is what is usually done by prosecutors is often an act of moral cowardice. Currently this is especially common for drug offenses in South-East Asia or in the United States. Moral cowardice is involved in many, perhaps most atrocities in wartime. One's comrades are involved and one is unwilling to let them down or there are orders and one does not question orders.

Intellectual courage is the ability to resist the temptation to believe what one wants to believe if the evidence and reason say otherwise. It includes the willingness to admit to oneself that one might have been wrong. And it includes the willingness to admit to oneself that one doesn't know the answer, that uncertainty and doubt might be appropriate.

Fanatics and zealots all have the combination of intellectual cowardice and obsession. Almost by definition.

But intellectual cowardice does not have to lead to fanaticism. It can simply lead to prejudice. To refusing to admit that homosexuality is not a choice. To refusing to admit that transsexuality is real or that chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome are real. I'm not talking about ignorance. I'm talking about willful blindness about other people stemming from religious or ideological motives.

The difficulty in fighting fear of disapproval and fear of doubt is in recognizing these fears in oneself especially the latter. I think doing one's best to be aware of one's motives is the most important step in fighting these fears.

The same thing applies to dealing with personal and social fears. I'm talking of such things as fear of rejection or failure or any of the anxieties that can plague us. These are the anxieties that disrupt our social life and our private activities. The difficulty here is that often we can't pin down just what we are afraid of.

In summary fear is a necessary emotion that in humans often defeats its own function. When we have the required understanding of consciousness and of genetics it is a prime candidate for some retuning. The freeze reaction needs eliminating or being made voluntary. In general we need to stop fear being able to interfere with our judgment but leave it capable of carrying out its danger avoidance function. Dealing with personal and social anxieties is one reason that our powers of introspection need to be upgraded. I don't see us doing this for at least a hundred years, more likely a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty. A few fundamental breakthroughs required and the timing of these is always unpredictable.