A Brief Re-Cap of the Past Thirty Days
It’s been couple of weeks since my last post. I had been making notes for a post on the appeal of Trump’s rhetoric concerning terrorism, but the events of the past week have overtaken it. A couple of weeks ago — it seems so long ago, doesn’t it? — the news was dominated by terrorist attacks both domestic and foreign:
- 12 June 2016: 49 Americans slaughtered at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida
- 28 June 2016: The Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was bombed
- 1 July 2016: Terrorists killed hostages in Dhaka, Bangladesh
- 4 July 2016: Suicide bomber detonates outside of the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
This sequence of events was and is overwhelming and unbelievable. As the each terrorist attack occurred, we all focused on ISIS and the next horror they would perpetrate. The talking heads speculated about a big attack on the Fourth of July. The fear of a huge Paris or Brussels style incident was almost palpable.
In the midst of these attacks, on 23 June 2016 the UK went mad and voted to leave the EU!
While the big ISIS inspired attack didn’t happen on the Fourth, our very own police and citizens provided something just as disturbing, upsetting, and concerning. We don’t talk about American exceptionalism in the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid for nothing, do we?
- 5 July 2016: Police shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana while sitting in his car as his wife pleaded for his life.
- 6 July 2016: Police shot and killed Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota
- 7 July 2016: Five police officers were shot and killed and eleven shot and injured in Dallas, Texas
That is a lot of pain, death, and suffering to absorb in just less than a month. As a nation we are suffering from a collective PTSD. Wherever you stand on the issues that these events are based on or spawned, they effect us all. Reactions to such events is predictable, which is both sad and heartening. Sad because we are so easily exploited and heartening because knowing the predictable response gives a chance to resist having it and a prescription for curing it.
Feelings as Facts
We use our feelings as information, meaning that as we are faced with a decision, we check our emotional state. We take stock of which feelings are provoked by the situation. When a situation provokes strong negative reactions, we tend to focus on the worst possibilities. Let that sink in for a minute.
- I remember seeing the headline that 49 were dead in Orlando and the feeling of the ground dropping out from under me. Fifty was a big number. I was filled with uncertainty, fear, worry, concern. That was a lot of people dead. It just didn’t seem possible.
- I remember seeing the headline about the police shooting in Dallas. My head spun. I was dizzy. It was unbelievable. What was happening? Would we have rioting like we did in ’68?
- How did you react to those two events? Do you remember how you felt when you first learned of these two shootings? Please let me know in the comments!
The recent of killings by police, terrorists, and madmen cannot help but produce a cumulative effect of fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness, and hopelessness. Because of these strong negative emotions, we are likely to focus on the worst possibilities, but what are they? What could the worst possibility be? A comment on what you believe could be the worst possibility or what you’ve observed in others would be most enlightening and appreciated.
The Availability Heuristic
That emotional reaction means that those negative emotions are primed and much easier to access than other emotions. These feelings of fear and vulnerability are easily accessed
and, therefore, heavily influence our decisions. If you are my mom, you’ll realize that this phenomenon is called the availability heuristic, and if you aren’t my mom, well then you’re probably off doing something fun and interesting and worthwhile and not wasting your time reading this dribble. Mom, if you’re up to it, put a comment in the comments about what you would rather be doing than reading this, but since you’re my mom, I know you feel obligated.
One familiar outcome is the tendency for tourism to decline in countries that have had a recent terrorist attack. When people are planning vacations and travel and are considering a destination, the first thing they experience when thinking of Egypt, let’s say, is the foreboding of terrorism pops to mind, and you decide to go to Tanzania instead.
Evaluating Probability in Everyday Life
Every decision we make is an evaluation of probability — whoa, dude, buzz kill — but it is true. Unfortunately, you’re not Spock able to do the calculations quickly and silently in your mind. So, how do you do it? Well, it is all unconscious, but we all make a guess about how likely things will turn out the way you’d like.
How do you calculate your probabilities? Think about probability. See? That’s what I mean. It’s unconscious. Our guestimates are based on previous experience, circumstances that we know about, and our emotional reactions to similar or related events.
Pretend that you are planning a vacation, and that you’ve always wanted to visit Turkey. What is the probability of a terrorist attack in Turkey while you are there? What is the probability that you’ll be involved in a terrorist attack? We don’t know. It truly is very small in spite of the recent violence perpetrated in Turkey by ISIS and the Kurds. But, this type of thinking, this type of calculation is hard. People rarely engage in it, even people with strong math skills and training. It is far more likely that you felt the apprehension associated with Turkey because of the Ataturk bombing and other attacks, and decided to visit the Dalmatian Coast, instead. Emotions trump probability because emotions are easy. Emotions occur automatically, unconsciously.
Thinking, including calculating probability, is difficult, effortful, slow, conscious, and intermittent. Emotions are easy, effortless, fast, unconscious, and constant.
Your Favorite Drunk Uncle
The availability heuristic and the tendency to utilize emotions over probability explains your favorite drunk uncle’s love for Trump. With Trump doing his best Nixon imitation: the silent majority, a secret plan to defeat ISIS, the law-and-order, voters like your favorite drunk uncle may be drawn to him like they were to Nixon during the riots of ’68. Your favorite drunk uncle hears Trump say that we should fight fire with fire or proclaim himself the law-and-order candidate, and his terrified little heart and quaking knees begin to melt and solidify all at once. He feels better. It sounds good.
The attacks activated his fight or flight response. Thinking about the attacks and our vulnerability to them and the difficulty in defending ourselves from them causes him to experience fight or flight. Trump’s rhetoric simultaneously evokes the emotions of fear and vulnerability of the attacks or crimes and offers a meaningless but emotionally satisfying solution. The solution is easy, fast, and effortless. It is seductive.
Trump’s platitudes sound like fight which is far more preferable to the American tough-guy rugged-individualist psyche than flight. When Trump tars Obama and Clinton as not providing sufficient leadership and not being aggressive enough, he is implying — with emotions — that their response is flight. That reaction is not appealing to our gun-based violent might-makes-right culture. It draws people like our favorite drunk uncle to Trump like moths to a flame with the same destructive results since we know Trump’s rhetoric is empty.