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Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Broken Brain

Say you're ready to buy a shiny new car, and forest green is your fave-orite color. On the way to the dealer, you pass by a horrible accident. A young man in a forest green Nissan; smashed by a truck; half of his body; on the road next to the car; blood like spilled paint. You turn away. And despite all your wishes, and all the logical, statistical and meaningful evidence, you cannot and will not buy a green car.

This "wrongful gross association", is the primary reason why we make bad decisions in our lives. It happens when a very distinctive feature (forest green, black skin in a white neighborhood), is in proximity to a horrifying, or fear-inspiring event (car crash, robbery). Our brain automatically associates the "unusual feature" as the *cause* of the event. This is a time-saving measure. It's always best to "blame the odd looking thing" if you have to make a snap judgement.

Under normal circumstances, fear is not involved. Your brain takes the slow, steady route, of weighing the information involved (is it really more likely to get into an accident in a green car?), and making the best choice for you. But, under "fear conditions", we make quicker decisions using this "distinctive association" shortcut. This is probably a very good idea for animals in the wild, where fear is needed to change cognitive behaviors for immediate survival. (There's a dead animal here. That scares me. I've never seen a plant that color before. I'd better stay away)

The result of this "broken process", is that, in cultures where fear is fostered, we have false "distinctive associations" that are made all the time. Fearful groups would thus be more likely to be racist, to make decisions based on "signs".

In other words, fearful people will find more meaning in meaningless things.

And isn't that just so damn true?

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