Thursday, April 18, 2013

Altruism and optimism, the antidotes to terrorism

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

To the Boston Terrorist(s),

You may be feeling smug right now, after detonating two bombs in Boston that killed three and injured over 100 more. I know the reaction you are trying to generate. I study how people perceive and respond to uncertainty, and your efforts definitely take advantage of these tendencies in us.

Not familiar with the details? I’m not surprised. You are actually being short-sided about human nature, only accounting for part of it. Let me go over those details with you. In addition to teaching you that people are less easily manipulated than you think, the details will also give readers of this letter to you a sense of hope. I love my work in part because of the hope it provides me and others.

People have two gut reactions to uncertainty: denial and overreaction. In general, denial is healthy…who would want to spend their waking hours (or worse, sleeping ones) worrying about everything that might go wrong. It turns out that Murphy’s Law is just plain wrong. So many things could go wrong, but few actually do. We only have so much time, energy, and resources to devote to averting problems. If we worried about every possibility, we would spend our lives stressed and broke, and still be unable to prevent bad things from happening. Fortunately, most risks pass by unnoticed or appreciated.

When it does occur, overreaction can be a problem. In the US, tens of thousands of people die from car crashes and gun violence each year. Yet we are much more afraid of dying in a plane crash, particularly at the hands of terrorists like you. Though they do so without your malice, sharks also play on our fear of the unknown and have a prominent place in our nightmares despite only killing a few people a year worldwide. Because of our tendency to freak out about rare events, we do not always have our priorities right. In this way, you terrorists can sometimes push us into sacrificing key resources, including our own liberty, to calm the irrational fear you generate. That’s your ultimate victory, right…to tear down our way of life, or better yet, to prompt us to tear it apart ourselves?

You won’t win, though. Counterbalancing the human tendency towards terror are optimism and altruism. Optimism is tightly tied to our ability to ignore uncertainty as described above. Altruism, the act of giving of ourselves to help others, is a fascinating phenomenon. It challenges the simplified view of evolution. How could a gene evolve to help others at the helpers expense, since individuals with the helper gene would be less likely to survive and would instead be helping the competition? Yet altruism is undeniable. Beehives, termite mounds, and naked mole rat colonies are all examples of eusociality, where most individuals give up reproduction in order to support the king, queen, and their offspring. Evolutionary biologists believe that genetics play a key role in eusociality, since individuals are sacrificing to help their close relatives who are likely to share the helper gene. Similar examples can be found in some birds, which will sometimes help their parents or sibling if they are unable to have babies themselves in a given year. Not all altruism is directed at family, though. Vampire bats live in colonies and require a blood meal every couple of days to avoid starvation. It is common for full bats returning to the colony to regurgitate food to the hungry, not all of whom are relatives. A mechanism that might explain this phenomenon is that these bats are able to recognize each other, and ones that do not share are ostracized from the colony. Thus, vampire bat altruism may simply be a form of enlightened self-interest.

We humans, however, present far more dramatic examples of altruism. Terrorist attacks bring out the very best of these. Mr. Rogers, a beloved television character, said it well:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Indeed, in the footage of the detonation of your bombs and the immediate aftermath, we see many people rushing towards the noise, smoke, and chaos. Mind you, those running away were not showing signs of overreaction to the possibility of additional bombs. Their response was pretty reasonable. The helpers were the remarkable ones. Their optimism and altruism put a major dent in your plans.

As much as their efforts to help the injured and vulnerable make them heroes, they deserve at least as much credit for the example they set by not letting your strategy work. The damage you do in deaths and injuries, though tragic and significant to the individuals who have suffered directly from your attack, pales in comparison with the number of deaths and injuries that occur during our daily lives from a wide range of less terror-provoking causes, such as disease and accidents. The real threat you pose is the fear you create and its ability to cloud our judgment on priorities. That is why we call you terrorists.

Thanks to the helpers, the ones who push back their fear and run to help others, your strategy is doomed. Altruism and optimism are alive and well. Mr. Rogers’ mother was right…you will always find people who are helping. Their selfless sacrifices serve as an example to counteract your entire strategy.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

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