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What Does It Mean To Fear?

Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.

— Nelson Mandela

I want to talk today about fear. What does it mean to fear? Why does something appear “scary”? I don’t mean the capital ‘F’ fear such as our biological reactions to seeing a shark or standing on the edge of a cliff. Or other parasympathetic responses to natural stimuli drilled into us by millennia of evolution.

The fear I want to talk about is fear of The Unknown.

Most times The Unknown doesn’t have the life-or-death implications of the aforementioned examples. It tends to arise from a notion of absence. An absence of certainty, absence of clarity, an absence of, no shit, the “known”.

In this respect, life itself should make us deeply afraid. Any given moment is full of uncertainty, both on a micro and macro level. And uncertainty — by definition, the lack of certainty — puts us deep into Unknown territory. Yet we make many thousands (if not millions) of slightly uncertain decisions each day without so much as blinking an eye.

For example, no one knows with 100% certainty that they will wake in the morning. Yet we all sleep. No one knows with 100% certainty they won’t have a reaction to the food they’re eating. Yet we all take lunch. No one knows with 100% certainty their partner won’t maim them. Yet we still fall in love.

From this we see that our fear seems to break down into subcomponents:

  1. Our degree of uncertainty around the outcome
  2. The number of positive outcomes we have encountered
  3. The number of negative outcomes we have encountered

In addition, given that humans are social creatures, and that one of the “glues of society” is our ability to learn from and take advantage of third-party correlates, we can add an additional subcomponent to the mix:

  1. The number of positive outcomes others have encountered and shared
  2. The number of negative outcomes others have encountered and shared

The trouble with these components of fear is that they all fall bias to common heuristic fallacies (availability heuristic, representative heuristic, etc.) They also only account for a priori experiences that we or others have had (and, in the case of others, shared).

This brings up a very valid question of how anything new ever happens. Anything novel, from a fear perspective, will tend to get the evaluation below:

  1. Our degree of uncertainty around the outcome? HIGH
  2. The number of positive outcomes we have encountered? LOW
  3. The number of negative outcomes we have encountered? LOW
  4. The number of positive outcomes others have encountered? LOW
  5. The number of negative outcomes others have encountered? LOW

Since both positive experience and negative experience counts are low across the board, the only thing we have to go on is our own uncertainty. Which turns into a very individual risk-appetite dilemma.

There’s a popular adage in pilot’s circles that the “rules of the sky are written in blood”.

In other words, folks who implicitly (or explicitly) ran the above analysis and decided to try things anyway.  Sometimes miserably failing, no doubt, but all the while adding to our collective ability for fear assessment (by incrementing the “number of positive/negative outcomes others have encountered” count).

Short of spilling your own blood, however, first principles thinking provides an alternate method of evaluating novel situations. There’s an anecdote from Elon Musk recounting his childhood that goes something like — “I realized darkness was just absence of light. And that light was just photons in the electromagnetic spectrum. So darkness was just the absence of photons in the EM spectrum. It was silly to be afraid of no photons, so from then I was no longer afraid of the dark.”

Cute. And very Elon Musk-y. But the principle is incredibly interesting and presents a logical thought pattern to break fear down. Say I’m afraid of X:

  • What is X?
  • What is X the absence of? (let’s call this Y)
  • Does it make sense to be afraid of the absence of Y?
  • If yes — why?

Someone probably once said (and if they didn’t, I’m happy to take credit) that a problem you can solve must first be a problem you understand.

Between these two methodologies, we’ve constructed a framework to analyze fear. Fear, while a normal and natural response to stimuli, can also be irrational and a problem standing between our current state and a goal state. Using a framework like this, or otherwise, we hopefully — in Mandela’s words — are better able to keep moving our feet forward.

A framework to analyze fear:

— A priori data available —

  • What is your degree of certainty of the outcome?
  • How many positive outcomes have you encountered?
  • How many negative outcomes have you encountered?
  • How many positive outcomes have others encountered?
  • How many negative outcomes have others encountered?

— No a priori data available —

  • What are you afraid of? Call it X
  • What is X the absence of? Call it Y
  • Does it make sense to be afraid of the absence of Y?
  • If yes — why?

Till next time,
Abhi