The grand quest for our brain is to craft the certainty needed to act in a world that is anything but certain. Surely, we have great challenges- political polarization, discrimination, power dynamics, a zero sum world view, hatred, the violence it breeds, the desperation of falling behind, the depression of being behind, the danger in getting somewhere better.
The brain at each step crafts a story hoping to grasp enough it can lean on to make decisions and choose the best next step. It is no different when you make choices about your daily activities- what errand do I do next? What task on my long to do list do I do next? What must I get done before the next meeting? Do I finish work or go home to have dinner with my family? From your brain’s perspective, these are just as challenging as what to do in the face of the pandemic, the protests, the Capitol invasion, and 45 mass shootings last month alone.
The brain is extremely good at pattern recognition- finding a way to connect enough dots into a plausible enough story that’s good enough to act on. People latch onto these theories in their search for enough certainty. And it is possible that such pattern recognition leads to the best choice possible in the given circumstances. But it’s all too possible this theory fails to truly balance all the valuable, but competing factors and, instead, leads to a misguided choice- one that in retrospect could have been seen to not be the best option available.
Take the Covid vaccines. Many people see the risk of getting Covid as sufficient enough that a vaccine developed and shown to be effective enough is worth it even at the risk of side affects. Others are more reluctant, concerned that the risk of side effects is more than they are willing to endure, even if the vaccine does prevent illness. Some declare no vaccine under any circumstances is worth it. Some question a process that seemed to happen very fast compared with other vaccine development. Some question transparency. Trust matters.
In each case across this spectrum, people make a judgement about the risk they are comfortable accepting. And relative risk is tricky, because your chance of getting struck by lightning, for instance, is 1/500,000- super low, unless you are the one! Then it is 100%
Some people will anchor on a potentially rare, even unknown, risk from a vaccine, while discounting a much bigger, directly tangible risk from Covid, if it confirms the certainty provided by their story. Regulators paused the use of the J&J vaccine in the US based on 15 women developing a rare condition of low platelets and significant blood clots out of nearly 7 million doses given- around 1/500,000 - at a time that such vaccination is estimated to have prevented 950 ICU admissions and saved hundreds of lives for people contracting Covid. For some, that eliminated it as a viable choice. The brain is that capable of rationalizing its story.
And yet, people do change their mind. Before vaccine arrival in our community, survey of county employees and school staff revealed about 40% of people were interested in getting the vaccine. Once it arrived, about 60% took it. For some people, they were more concerned about near term reactions. When they saw their colleagues and family members suffer very little impact, that was enough. Some people focus on long term unknown possible side effects and remain uninterested. For them, that risk outweighs the risk of getting Covid, despite the experience of so many who ended up with long term symptoms, referred to as Long Covid, or even death.
So why is it that people can look at the same data and yet draw very different relative risk assessments? What is it that enables some to change their view?
For one, we all believe our opinions are carefully thought out. Yet, this is not what happens at all. Aware deliberation and thinking, as in the use of ‘data,’ is a prefrontal cortex process. Value judgements, the kind a person makes in assessing relative risk, takes place in the Hidden Brain, well outside the processing a person is aware of. That choice bubbles to one’s awareness fully rationalized, justified and defended by those prefrontal cortex deliberative functions. So people feel very confident that their opinion is the one based on the facts. And when challenged with a full accounting of the circumstances and concerns, and unable to support their view, the response often is: “Well, that’s just what I think.” What this really means is: ‘that’s how I feel.’ It’s hard to articulate that thought process because the thought process rests in the Hidden Brain, which communicates in feelings, not data and words.
This value judgement in the Hidden Brain has its foundation in genetics, upbringing, experience, and belief. It is ‘the’ certain path to success, a notion only partly influenced by the ‘facts’ that a person ‘knows.’ It is difficult to grasp relative risk, which depends on the standard of success and, more importantly, on what failure represents. Different measures of success result in paying attention to different concerns and facts. Different stories equal different correct theories. And this processing is largely happening in the Hidden Brain.
Remember, the brain introduces certainty when it can. The brain is a master at pattern recognition, something we depend on to keep up with all that comes at us. Problem thinking, the search for the one solution, relies on this pattern recognition. This often entails an inevitable outcome, one that is sought after or feared. But the challenge is not that we anticipate an outcome; rather that we latch onto one possible outcome as the only outcome possible, one way it can work out as the only way it will work out. This inevitability drives a person to fear the consequences if it doesn’t go that way. Fear leads to thinking from the amygdala, and as we have seen, this is not a frame of mind conducive to a broad perpective.
Inevitability creates a certainty when none necessarily exists and compromises the ability to look beyond. Those who invaded the Capitol believed this was the only way to avoid the loss of their country- the only possible outcome of Trump’s defeat. Many who argued vociferously about opening the economy while the virus raged believed the only possible outcome of restrictions was economic devastation. Those who stood behind their ‘rights’ believed the only possible outcome from public health measures was tyrrany and the end of the only kind of life worth living. And if it is inevitable that you will be the 1 in 500,000 who gets a rare blood clot following vaccination, then why on earth would you take the vaccine?
Inevitability provides ‘certainty.’ But that certainty rests on shaky ground. The story is plausible; it provides a basis for action; it just may not be real, correct, or accurate. It is based on seeing enough connection. But just like those who believed Trump’s return on January 20th to assume the presidency again was the only way to save the country, one's story may not be not real, correct or accurate. Much of the economy has held just fine. Tyranny is not rampant. And, the sky has not fallen in.
Inevitability blocks a fundamental awareness- there are always options; we just may not always be able to see them. Problem thinking makes this recognition difficult. On the other hand, dilemma thinking- recognizing many possible outcomes, working toward the best among the options, and openness to questioning one’s story by asking ‘what am I missing’ - leaves open a much better possibility to avoid a misguided choice. When the issue involves others and when it is not time sensitive, embracing the extra effort and energy required for dilemma thinking is pivotal. Recognizing the trap of inevitability is essential to judge whether the ‘certainty’ you feel is the certainty worth acting on.
‘Is that the only outcome possible?‘ may be the most important question to ask in the face of inevitability.