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Fear Psychosis & Personal Enterpreneurship

Posted Dec 14 2008 8:24pm

Sramana Mitra has written a must-read column on Forbes.com, “Stop the Fear Epidemic.”

I have talked a lot about the climate of fear in the U.S.–it is a vehicle for attracting readers, viewers, voters, policy-endorsers, rights-waivers, and customers. It influences how scholars do research as much as how policy-makers legislate. The media often gets targeted as the root of this phenomenon. Clearly media channels are the way information is distributed, but the media producers are not on one side of an impermeable wall with the “rest of us” on the other. Media producers are us. Media content reflects what we believe and what we believe will work. Sure, there are people persuading other people about stuff, but there is no us and them. It used to be that when one guy was worried, the only person that knew was the local bartender or his/her best friend. Now, through he miracle of modern technology, we all know. (How many of you got the email about jury duty fraud?)

Mitra cites Judy Estrin’s book “ Closing the Innovation Gap. ” In her book, Estrin worries that the attitudes and beliefs that are essential for innovation, such as risk-taking, patience, and trust, are being extinguished by what Mitra calls a “fear psychosis.”

Mitra and Estrin are talking about entrepreneurship in terms of creating and inventing business, ideas, products. But we can also view entrepreneurship in terms of the individual’s psychological health. If an individual is unwilling to risk and trust, there is little possibility for good relationships, good parenting, and good decision-making because these, like business, all require a longer term view of hope and purpose. What is life and growth but serial innovation and personal entrepreneurship?

Unfortunately, there are biological reasons why fear is a successful attention-getter. Humans are hard-wired to notice change and sense danger. These were much more successful skills than being mellow and hopeful in the course of evolution when it came to stuff like tigers and starvation.

Our fear response has not kept with modern life. On the one hand, we have built some pretty good systems to keep tigers from prowling the streets. But at the same time, we also still have the amygdala with it’s heightened sensitivity to danger and highly efficient means of notifying the whole body. From Newsweek :

The evolutionary primacy of the brain’s fear circuitry makes it more powerful than the brain’s reasoning faculties. The amygdala sprouts a profusion of connections to higher brain regions—neurons that carry one-way traffic from amygdala to neocortex. Few connections run from the cortex to the amygdala, however. That allows the amygdala to override the products of the logical, thoughtful cortex, but not vice versa. So although it is sometimes possible to think yourself out of fear (”I know that dark shape in the alley is just a trash can”), it takes great effort and persistence. Instead, fear tends to overrule reason, as the amygdala hobbles our logic and reasoning circuits. That makes fear “far, far more powerful than reason,” says neurobiologist Michael Fanselow of the University of California, Los Angeles. “It evolved as a mechanism to protect us from life-threatening situations, and from an evolutionary standpoint there’s nothing more important than that.”

With media technologies, we now we have the means to broadcast those fears to millions of ears. So we have to work harder, engage our cognitive processing (i.e. think) to assess danger these day. Media plays a role by amplifying and distributing the worries. You don’t just see the tiger once, you see it every day a 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 11p.m. and on hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs and news sites. It’s true that businesses use fear and desire to attract customers; but so do politicians and psychologists, if we’re going to be honest here. Not much use for a psychotherapy if you feel mellow, effective, and hopeful.

An important by-product of fear to consider in the public consciousness is the lack of self-confidence and belief in one’s control over life’s circumstances that fear responses create. (Psychologists like to call this self-efficacy.) Without a belief that you have control, you don’t try very hard. If there are no consequences to your actions, then people become opportunistic not hopeful and forward-looking.

The damage to self-efficacy and therefore to resilience is one of my concerns about all the government bailouts. I do recognize things that things may have gotten too far along for other solutions and that many people are worried and hurting–my point here is not to point fingers or bash the efforts to alleviate that, but to talk about what I believe will be a serious and detrimental psychological by-product if relief programs aren’t carefully crafted. The expectation of such wide scale bailouts tell me that people don’t feel in control and the implicit messages in all the policy-making–even if it is meant to help–just confirms it.

The rule have changed when the “big brother” rescues businesses that aren’t profitable or people who borrowed too much money. Who decides which businesses are “important” to save and or which people are worth saving? Why should you work hard to run a venture the right way (which is REALLY hard) if that’s not the criteria for success? How come the rules aren’t the same for everybody? Talk about disincentives to risk and hope.

Fear and a knee-jerk response to it, undermines self-efficacy, hope, and resilience and basic positive emotions essential to invent, risk, relate, and love. It’s time for us to think first, and write (or talk) second so we aren’t enabling the fear psychosis.

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