Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daniel Gardner's "The Science of Fear" - how Feeling always trumps Reason, and how YOU can use it in your work!


Did I scare you?

Maybe I'm losing my touch. Or maybe you haven't been watching any scary movies recently.

Fear is on my mind, because I just read Daniel Gardner's The Science of Fear. It's largely about how we're Stone Age creatures relying on prehistoric brains to make decisions. The book describes the dozens of ways we make decisions, thinking they make sense, when they're really “gut” reactions. For example, The "Example Rule," which Gardner tells us is the easier it is to recall examples of something, the more common that something must be. So if we just watched a movie full of murder and mayhem, it's no wonder we tiptoe through our dark bedroom, groping for the light switch. Our Stone Age minds think we're really in danger––because we just saw a lot of people in danger! Never mind that it was fiction. Who hasn't felt that way, scared by something we know, reasonably, couldn't possibly be true?

Gardner explains this, and other “rules,” by discussing one of the concepts I mentioned recently when I was writing about Paul Slovic's work, and in fact he cites Slovic repeatedly. He says the human brain has two systems of thought. Let's call them Feeling and Reason.
“System Two is Reason. It works slowly. It examines evidence. It calculates and considers. When Reason makes a decision, it's easy to put into words and explain.

System One––Feeling––is entirely different. Unlike Reason, it works without our conscious awareness and is as fast as lightning. Feeling is the source of the snap judgments that we experience as a hunch of an intuition or as emotions like unease, worry, or fear.”
For example, after September 11th, thousands of people briefly shifted from traveling on planes to traveling in cars. Who wasn't scared to fly after 9/11? I sure as heck was. But due to the far greater risk of traveling in cars, psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer discovered that 1,595 Americans were killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars. By September 2002, travel patterns had returned to normal. While taking pains to recognize the suffering that 9/11 caused for so many people, the book points out repeatedly how tiny the risk of terrorism to any one of us. But terrorism is terrifying! The Example Rule tells us that because we recall something as horrifying as 9/11 so vividly, it must be common! And so we put ourselves at much greater risk by following Feeling rather than Reason, by traveling by car rather than by plane.

The book is filled with example after example of how we follow Feeling over Reason, and how often we're powerless not to. So this is not a post about fear, really. It's about the power of Feeling. Storytelling is inherently built on Feeling. Gardner says:
“Shakespeare may have as much to tell us about psychology as psychologists do, which is why we respond to his plays as we do. When Iago whispers in the ear of Othello and Othello's love for Desdemona turns to hate, and hate to murder, we sense that yes, this could happen. This is what jealousy and distrust can do. This is true.”
Othello's reaction is completely human, though more extreme (I hope) than many of us would have. Which is what makes the story so compelling: we recognize his behavior in our own, and in fact, we recognize Iago's! (See Tom Hiddleston's video for further discussion.)

The fact is, any artist has enormous power to wield this same power, the power of Feeling. By appealing to Feeling, an artist has an opportunity to cause enrollment, which I described when talking about Rosamund and Benjamin Zander's work; it's also a key concept from Landmark Education. As the Zanders said,
"Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.... we have at our fingertips an infinite capacity to light a spark of possibility. Passion, rather than fear, is the igniting force. Abundance, rather than scarcity, is the context."
Julie & Julia came out last week as well, it was number two at the box office; it's a crowd-pleasing, entertaining film anchored by a spectacular performance by Meryl Streep. Meryl, Amy Adams, and the writer/director Nora Ephron (not to mention Authentic client Chris Messina) enroll an audience, and sweep us away in a wave of possibility. The story itself is compelling; a forty-something Julia Child takes on French cooking and changes the way the world sees food. A young woman turns her life around by simply being open to the possibility Julia created decades earlier. Simple enough: a story about two women in different times, each taking on a challenge in her life and transforming through the process of facing that challenge. The film succeeds because of its compassion, because it creates real, human portraits that lead us to Feel. Feeling always trumps Reason; if I told you the story of Julie & Julia in a sentence or two, you'd come away feeling uninspired. But watching the film, it's hard not to be moved.

Consider that Feeling works best when it feels authentic. We're all experts at seeing through inauthenticity, even if we don't know we are. This is where Reason sometimes fails but Feeling's signal can always be heard loud and clear. When a performance rings false, it's ability to elicit Feeling is diminished.

Perhaps it's a matter of respect, and feeling respected. Psychologist Piero Ferrucci talks about the mythical image of Procrustes' bed in The Power of Kindness:
"This terrible man would make people lie on his bed. If they fit exactly, they were lucky. If they were too long, he would cut off their feet, and if they were too short, he would stretch them till they were the right size.... at some time or another, we are all tempted to shape others the way we want them to be."
Watching a human being on screen or on stage who we recognize as a real person ideally makes us feel respected, because they share recognizable and understandable traits with us. They're not making us wrong in their performance, even if they're unlike us on the surface. They're causing us to feel compassion by their work, which must, in turn, be compassionate.

But many of us look at our work like Procrustes. We take on a story, or a character, thinking of the way it should look, based on our preconceived notions. But as I discussed recently, what we think it should be, even when we're really, really sure, ain't necessarily so.

So for an artist to elicit Feeling, this incredibly powerful force that can bring possibility to life, that can scare us, and excite us, we have to star with the real thing. Compassion.

Boo! *

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