Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cry Wolf:  When experience becomes fateful.

          In my previous blog, posted simultaneously at and at, I argued that experience, once it leads to automatic routines, can be detrimental.  The fast and efficient reactions become out of our control and prevent us from making the necessary adjustments in slightly altered circumstances.  In this blog I wish to discuss yet another potential danger of prior experience. 
          We are all familiar with the story of the shepherd who cried wolf and subsequently paid for it dearly.  In one form or another, this story appears in most, if not all, cultures.  The universality of this theme clearly suggests its deep rooted wisdom.  Here it is not the frequent repetition that leads to an established routine, but rather a single, but emotionally meaningful experience, that dramatically reduces our reaction to similar subsequent threats.  Laboratory research suggests that a single false alarm reduces the fear reaction to the next threat by close to fifty percent.  (Shlomo Breznitz:  "Cry Wolf:  The psychology of false alarms."  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984). 
          The main problem seems to be that our brains are incapable of not learning from experience.  The ensuing loss of credibility that follows a false alarm is thus practically inevitable.  Furthermore, the more frightening the initial alarm, the greater the credibility loss following the realization that it was a false one.  Needless to say, frequent exposure to threats of hurricanes, floods, and other types of dangers, all tend to desensitize us to future threats. 
          Not long ago, people knew about an approaching hurricane when it was practically upon them.  Consequently, the number of false alarms was much smaller.  These days, with sophisticated satellite pictures, even distant, low probability events, are easily detected and reported in the media.  However, only a very tiny number of detected hurricanes actually hit a particular area, thus producing a large number of false alarms.  The willingness of people to take precautionary measures is much reduced by these repetitive false threats.
          The ways to reduce the negative impact of false alarms, whether in the context of natural disasters, or in medical threats, are quite complex.  Some of them are reported in the forthcoming book by Breznitz and Hemingway:  "Maximum brainpower:  Challenging the brain for health and wisdom".  (Ballantine, June 2012).  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Experience is a package deal.
          The title of our forthcoming book:  "Maximum Brainpower:  Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom" (S. Breznitz and C. Hemingway, New York:  Ballantine, June 2012) could just as well have been:  "The Many Dangers of Experience."  By that I do not mean that sometimes we have to go through major negative experiences that adversely impact our lives for years to come.  Rather, it is experience as such, irrespective of its content that often leads us into trouble. 
          On the one hand, there is, of course, no need to sing the praise of experience.   After all, it is the basis of all learning, without which we would be totally at loss when dealing with the world and its challenges.  The value of having as much experience as possible is practically axiomatic.  It is, therefore, with some trepidation that one embarks on the road attempting to show some of its negative consequences. I hope to address these issues in a series of blogs, of which this is the first one.
Routines and automaticity.
          The brain's exquisite capacity to learn from experience ensures that repeated behaviors in similar circumstances quickly become routine.  Events become anticipated and the corresponding reactions are readily available.  Once a routine has developed it dramatically reduces the need of the brain to search for the appropriate reactions.  Thus, one of the main advantages of learning is that it reduces the effort that the brain has to put into analyzing a particular situation.  Instead of analysis, it can now rely on quickly searching its database for an appropriate precedent.  If more repetition takes place, the routine can become automatic.  Automatic behavior is fast and saves a lot of cognitive effort.  At the same time, our control over our actions is also affected, since automaticity reduces awareness.  We do not know anymore why we act in a certain way and cannot very much behave otherwise. 
          This is often seen in the behavior of experts.  Their database of experience is so vast that when faced with a particular situation they can automatically come up with a "solution", without being able to tell us how they reached it.  In fact, they do not know themselves why was it that an idea, usually an appropriate one, suddenly popped up in their heads.  That is one of the reasons why experts are not so good in teaching their expertise.  Their chances of sharing their wisdom are much better when they are good at what they do, but not yet experts.  In other words, while they still need to think about their actions, rather than relying exclusively on automatic, experience based responses.
          But what about most of us, who are not experts, but still rely progressively more on previous encounters with similar situations?  There is no guarantee that the brain will come up with the best solution to a problem, particularly since though similar, situations are rarely, if ever, identical.  From the moment we abdicate conscious analysis in favor of an automatic routine, we are at the mercy of the brain's ability to distinguish between nuances and give them sufficient weight.