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How Fear Impacts Your Future

Posted on Sunday, October 4, 2015 at 08:11PM by Registered CommenterLon Langston | Comments Off

You’ve likely heard the old axiom, “There are only two human motivations: Greed and Fear.” And since most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as greedy, we default to being fearful. Fear probably also tends to win out over greed, because, before humans enjoyed the relative safety of modern civilization, being fearful, when a bad decision could mean being eaten by a wild animal or starving to death, was just more practical than greed. I’m not arguing that greed is better or fear is better. I’m arguing that greed and fear are both wrong. The axiom is wrong. The only human motivation is joy.

I know joy sounds like a mostly unachievable spiritual state, so you may prefer the word “happiness,” or the word “successful” (see yesterday’s post, below). The choice of words is really just semantics, though I think of happiness as extrinsic and joy as intrinsic. In other words, happiness is subject to what happens to you. Joy is the inner flame that is not blown out by external storms.

Whichever word you are comfortable with, the point is that human motivation is at its best when it comes from a positive source, rather than a negative one.

As an aside, I am familiar with and supportive of the argument that “greed is good,” because it motivates us to be ever more resourceful (Gordon Gecko not withstanding). The concept is right. The use of the word greed, however, evokes such a negative reaction that maybe, “grit is good” or “drive is good,” would be a better way to say it.

Dr. Beau Adams’s sermon, at Community Bible Church this morning, was on fear. He said, “Fear leads to destruction.” And fear tells us the lie that “something bad is bound to happen.” Remember the premise of C. S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters?” Actively doing evil is not what usually gets us, fearfully doing nothing is.

I like to look at things from a Behavioral Economics standpoint. We humans are always doing cost-benefit analyses. We look at a potential future and calculate how much effort it will take to achieve the desired outcome. If the cost is too high – if the quest requires too much effort – we choose to invest our limited resources elsewhere. But fear skews our cost-benefit analyses.

In classical economics, it is assumed that decisions are made by perfectly rational actors with perfectly accurate data. In reality, we know that, while we are rational in the sense that we are mature and informed, we are not perfectly rational. Perfectly rational would be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek – emotionless. And since real life has so many variables, we never have perfectly accurate or complete data.

Behavior economics is more realistic. It adds psychology to economics and takes into account that humans make decisions based on more than just empirical data, as we should.

I’m reading Jane McGonigal’s book, “Super Better.” The book is based on the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that we have the power to influence outcomes, in our lives. If we believe our actions will change the future, we are more likely to engage in positive actions. For example, if we truly believe exercise will make us feel better, we are likely to exercise.

Colin Powell said, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” Believing the future will be good tends to influence how good the future turns out to be. But why?

Optimism and self-efficacy are closely related, maybe even synonymous. Trading fear for optimism positively impacts the future for a couple of reasons. One is that it trades the release of feel-bad neurochemicals (like Cortisol) for the release of feel-good neurochemicals (like Dopamine), in our brains. Another is that, because we are imperfect actors, with imperfect data, our cost-benefit scales tend to tip too far to the cost side, when we are fearful. So we don’t invest effort in things (like exercise) that actually would make our lives better.

The good news is fear can be traded for optimism. I teach my clients several practical exercises for doing just that.

(By the way, Pastor Beau also taught us some ways to mitigate fear, in his sermon, which, if you are so inclined, can be accessed on-demand at CommunityBibleChurch.com)