Business Musings: Fear-Based Decision-Making (Part One)
I was reading the May, 2021 issue of Entertainment Weekly (the most poorly named magazine since it switched to monthly) and came across a quote from the actor Daniel Dae Kim in an article on Asian-American entertainers, the Asian hate going on in this country, and the lack of representation.
Kim said, “I think it’s fair to say that Hollywood operates under a fear-based decision-making system, and people don’t want to take chances because they’re afraid to lose their jobs—they want to do what they know.”
I sprang up out of my chair and immediately grabbed a notebook. I’d heard the phrase “fear-based decision-making” a million times, but never really thought about it. And the phrase is more relevent than ever in 2021—not just in business, but in our personal lives as well.
As I jotted notes, I realized this was a short series. In it, we’ll examine the way that fear-based decision-making impacts the movies we see, the TV we watch, the books we read, and the way we writers react to various ideas and stimulai. I’ll deal with indie (self) published writers last, because they’re the most curious phenomenon, at least to me.
So, first, let’s examine what fear-based decision-making is. I got lost in a series of Google searches on this, so that I had some authorities to back me up or at least, explain things better than I could.
I found a combination of scholarly articles that are eye-crossingly long ( 20-40 pages, without the footnotes) and self-help crap that was reasonably good, but was so cookie-filled that I’m not going to recommend any of it to you.
(For fear of pissing you off. Okay, sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist.)
I ended up with a somewhat dated Psychology Today article from last July (yes, I know. Weird that an article from less than a year ago is slightly dated), which has some very good links and references you can follow if this all interests you. That’s the article I’ll take much of this from, although I will delve into other sources.
The way that human beings make decisions is startlingly complex and amazingly simple at the same time. It also differs from person to person. Some of us think we rely on gut instinct. Others believe we make decisions from a purely rational place.
Neither of those is correct. Some of the gut-instinct people have developed a lot of shortcuts in their decision making process, short cuts that came from years of rational decision-making. And some of the rational folks have learned how to rationalize their emotions into reasons for a decision that sound amazingly reasonable but really might not be.
All of us, every single one of us, have many cognitive biases. We know what we know, and find information to confirm what we believe. That’s the simple way of discussing it. Cognitive bias is much more complicated than that. Take a look at this article from The Very Well Mind, which not only explains how the bias(es) work, but also gives tips for how to overcome yours.
People who study this stuff for a living believe that each individual can work of as many as 200 different biases at one time. Finding and neutralizing these is not only tough, but might be impossible. Still it’s good to be aware of them. My reading of the Psychology Today article led me to Buster Benson, who maintains a list of more than 50 cognitive biases which he helpfully categorizes into four different groups.
He also has a great cartoon at the start of the article, and a drawing showing all the different kinds of cognitive bias at the end of the article. It’s worth checking out.
Some of these biases can be deeply embedded. I still vividly remember reading an article on riddles in my twenties. In those days, I was confidently, maybe stridently, convinced of my lack of bias. Not a racist or a homophobe or a misogynist. Nope, not me. None of those attitudes lived in me.
In that article, I found a riddle I couldn’t solve. It went like this: A man and his son were in a serious car accident. The man died. When the son arrived at the emergency room, the surgeon who was supposed to perform the surgery that would save the boy’s life said, “Oh, God. I can’t perform this surgery. Someone else has to. This is my son.” Who is the surgeon?
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the answer to that question. It actually hurt to think about it. Then I turned the page and saw the answer. The surgeon was the boy’s mother.
I was mad at myself for days. I hadn’t even realized I had that particular blind spot. It wasn’t just the medical professions either. It extended across a variety of professions. I had to figure out where I’d learned those biases. They were, mostly, cultural. The way I was raised.
And they were insidious.
That’s one form of cognitive bias. There are others, many of them based in who we were raised to be.
Making fear-based decisions can be caused by cognitive bias. Let’s take a look at general fear-based decision-making. This quote appeared in a 2001 paper written for the Psychological Bulletin by behavorial economist George Lowenstein and others. I found the quote in that Psychology Today article I mentioned above. (They’re the ones who list Lowenstein “and others,” and I’m not going to waste half my life chasing the authors. You can do so if you like.)
Here’s the quote:
Fear causes us to slam on the brakes instead of steering into the skid, immobilizes as when we have greatest need for strength, causes sexual dysfunction, insomnia, ulcers, and gives us dry mouth and jitters at the very moment when there is the greatest premium on clarity and eloquence.
The Psychology Today article spends the rest of the paragraph combining fear with risk, explaining that fear results in a greater sense of increased risk and a lower perception of possible benefits.
This actually makes sense. Our fear reaction is a necessary evolutionary development. In a bad situation—a mugging, a fire, a physical threat—fear empowers us. It makes us move—or freeze, if freezing prevents us from getting noticed by the bear tearing up the campsite.
Fear helps us a lot of times in our lives. But fear can take over our lives. And right now, we’ve all lived in a world filled with fear. We’ve lived in it for more than a year, and it has taken a toll. An article on NPR.org examines why so many of us are exhausted right now. We’ve been living in a heightened emotional state. Afraid of our neighbors, afraid of microbes, afraid of going out of our homes—with good reason. We’re afraid of dying, of losing our friends and family, of losing our livelihoods.
And many of us have lost a lot, so we’re grieving. Maybe we’re grieving the Before Times or the loss of a friend or family member…or the loss of several friends or family members.
The perceived (or actual) irrationality we’re seeing from our friends, colleagues and neighbors? A lot of it comes out of deep fear, some of that fear unacknowledged. Behavior that makes no sense makes a lot of sense if you realize that the person who is belligerent and angry and in your face is actually terrified of something. They’re trying to bully that something into submission, but they might be directing their fear at the wrong target—or they might not perceive the risk correctly.
That’s why some people are immune to argument based in science or numbers or actual facts. Because they believe they’re at great risk. You don’t want to hear how many people get attacked by bears and survive when you believe that a bear is in your campsite. You want to get away from that particular bear…even if the bear doesn’t exist.
Fear-based decision-making is inherently conservative. Not politically conservative. But do the same-old same-old conservative. Better not to try something new, because trying something new is a big risk. There’s no way to assess that risk using those shortcuts we all have.
Assessing that risk will take a clear-minded focus and a lot of self-analysis. As you assess, you’ll need to figure out why you mistrust that particular piece of information or why the very idea of trying this thing outside of your comfort zone upsets you so much.
It takes a lot of internal analysis, and hard-won honesty.
Years ago, shortly after I met Dean, he asked me a question that I’ll never forget. I can’t remember what prompted the question, probably because he’s asked me that same question a million times over the decades. But he said, “Well, if you did [whatever it is], what’s the worst that could happen?”
I always had a worst-case scenario answer. Sometimes it was ridiculous, and sometimes it was realistic. When it was realistic, he’d ask, “Would it be so bad if that happened?”
And usually, no, it wouldn’t. Every once in a while, I’d find a line I couldn’t cross. But because I have vivid imagination, I could imagine said worst case scenario, but until Dean, I couldn’t really imagine surviving that scenario.
Sometimes I wouldn’t just survive it. I would thrive after the worst-case happened. Sometimes doing the scary thing was –and is—the right thing to do.
The problem with fear-based decision-making isn’t the fear-based part. It’s the decision-making part. When you make a decision out of fear, you’re making a bad decision. Even if someone is pointing a gun at you.
Look at that quote above.
When there’s fear, there’s the “the greatest premium on clarity and eloquence.” And we’re least likely to be clear. Learning how to be clear while frightened takes practice. It requires you to acknowledge that you’re operating out of fear.
I was raised by a woman who was afraid of everything. Orphaned during the Depression, sent to different relatives to live, and sent to other relatives in at least one case after she was sexually assaulted, she had reasons to be terrified of most things. She lived her entire life in extreme stress, and by the end of her life, she drank too much to cope with it.
My parents moved to Upstate New York before I was born, and in all the years they lived there, my mother never went to New York City. I asked her once why she didn’t, and she looked at me like I was insane.
I didn’t want to go there, she said, and in her tone, I heard the familiar sound of terror. When I went to England with a school group at 17, she actually hugged me (the actually should tell you about the relationship) and complimented me on having the courage to go.
Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that travel took courage. I didn’t let that go in. I learned to travel and loved it.
But I absorbed a lot of her attitudes, particularly the one about leading with fear. My teen years and my twenties were all about doing something that interested me despite my fear.
Who knew that forcing myself to do something was a good thing? Had I made fear-based decisions my entire life, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have met Dean. I wouldn’t be who I am now.
Do I still make fear-based decisions? Of course. I think we all do. But I try to weed them out. And more than that, I’m trying to understand them, and to understand how they influence all of our lives.
I suspect we’ll see a lot of fear-based decision-making in the next five years. We saw quite a bit in the worst of the pandemic here in the U.S., usually by people who refused to change their behavior. Responding to a global threat takes calm and thought which is tough when the situation is always changing—particularly when none of us (alive, anyway) have ever dealt with this before.
That was why in the early days of the pandemic, I looked to history. Because I knew we hadn’t dealt with this, but humans had. History has a lot to teach us, some of it good.
Now we have a year of pandemic-living under our belts and we have to make choices. As we individually return to the world—whatever that means—we need to make all kinds of choices.
This series will focus on the writing business as it was, as it is, and as it might be. (I can’t say will because I don’t know. I’m humble enough to understand that we can’t anticipate some parts of the future.)
I will look at specific corners of our industry, starting next week.
First, a plug. I’m participating in a really great Storybundle right now that I curated. The bundle is for writers, and has books I want to read, from Loren L. Coleman’s crowdfunding book to my book on working with the movie/TV industry, you’ll find all kinds of good stuff here. (Craft stuff too.) Check it out.
And since I’m doing plugs…
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“Business Musings: Fear-based Decision-making,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / pepperbox.