Pop!Tech: Happiness and Risk

Dan Gilbert, professor at Harvard and author of “Stumbling on Happiness“, focuses his talk on human analysis of risk. He begins his talk with a story about Dostoyevsky. Annoyed by a young child, Dostoyevsky told the child not to come back and talk to him until he could spend ten minutes not thinking about a white bear. As we all know, this is hard to do. It’s about to get easier for the child, because shrinking ice will wipe out two-thirds of the world’s polar bears in the next forty years.

Global warming is a great example of William James’s realization that, “A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissede as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.” Gilbert points out that, “If George Bush knows we’re in trouble from global warming, everyone else knows it too.”

Gilbert had the opportunity to put a quote on a Starbucks coffee cup – “affecting millions of Americans in that vulnerable moment before they’ve had their caffiene.” He wrote, in part, “The human brain is the only object in the know universe that can predict its own future and tell its own futrune. The fact that we can make decisions even as we forse their disastrous consequences… If you hold your future in your hands, why would you ever make a fist?”

Why indeed? Given human adaptability, why are we so bad at realizing massive changes like global warming? Our brains evolved to respond to threats of to our well-being; “the smell of fire would empty this theatre in a minute,” because our brains can detect and deflect threat with astonishing speed. But we’re really bad at responding to threats that have certain characteristics. Why don’t we panic about global warming? Gilbert offers four reasons:

– There’s no face for global warming. The brain has special neural networks designed to process information about other humans. This is why we see faces in the clouds, not clouds in faces. It’s why we worry so much about anthrax, which kills no one, while we ignore influenza, which kills a quarter to half a million people per year. “If a plane were struck by lightning and destroyed the World trade center, none of us would remember the year it occurred in.” Gilbert speculates, “If global warming were trying to kill us, our president would be fighting a war on it, with or without congressional approval.”

– Global warming doesn’t challenge our moral framework. We don’t get worked up about it, like we do about gay sex or flag burning. “If climate change were caused by gay sex or eating puppies, people would be massing in the streets.”

– We’re good at responding to threat to our future, not to our present. We respond to clear an present danger. Our brains are very good at ducking baseballs thrown at our head, but we’re very bad at ducking threats in the distant future.

– We are very sensitive to changes in light, sound, pressure, and weight, but we’re sensitive to relative changes, not to absolute changes. When the rate of change of a stimulus is slow, we barely notice those changes. We’d be up in arms about changes that have happened in the past two generations in impurities of our air, water and food. We only tolerate it because it happened so slowly. The problem in reacting to global warming is not that it’s happening so quickly, but because it’s happening so slowly.

Human beings are good at sensing PAIN – situations that are personal, abrupt, immoral and now. If we can’t figure out how to address global warming in ways like this, we’re going to lose this battle.

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3 Responses to Pop!Tech: Happiness and Risk

  1. Pingback: Pito’s Blog » Blog Archive » Pito Salas blogs about technology, life and everything

  2. I very much agree with you.
    People somehow don’t really care the devastating effect of global warming because they can’t gain power to this one. Humans are quick to respond if a power is at stake if he will do something.

    -Jan

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy

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