Wednesday, October 21, 2015

.Squirrels Vs. Cars

Evolutionary psychologists tells us that different animals have evolved to react to various specific threats in different ways, and these reactions have served to let them pass on their genes.  For instance, squirrels have evolved to react to fast-moving objects in the sky (hawks), but they tend to ignore fast-moving objects on the ground (like cars).  That's why, as fast and as agile as squirrels are, you often see them dead on the road, run over by automobiles.  When they see something as large as a car moving low on the ground, their brains don't immediately process what they're seeing as a danger. "Not a hawk," their minds reason (too low), "not a snake," they think (too big).  "Nothing to worry about."  As a result, they tend to ignore the car until it is almost right on top of them and then it's too late.  And worse, their instinctual reaction to a threat is to go vertical and scramble up a tree, but that option isn't available on the open road and they wind up getting killed.

Poor squirrels.  Millions of years of natural selection, finely tuned reflex systems for avoiding hawks and snakes, but totally vulnerable to the new threat of large, fast-moving cars.  And this brings up the question, what threats have we as humans evolved to avoid, and, corollarily, what threats do we ignore?    

Again, evolutionary psychologists tell us that our most fundamental perception of danger is from direct and personal threats, mainly, but not always, from other humans.  Someone points a finger and charges at us, and our adrenal glands go into hyperdrive and our fight-or-flee instinct kicks in.  

From what I've seen, no one likes direct and personal threats, but we don't react as intensely to equally deadly threats that aren't directly from another person or directed specifically and solely at us. For example, we react very strongly when faced with an invading army, or a violent gang, or a lone mugger, a specific person or persons intent of doing harm specifically to us.   But cigarettes kill more people than gangs, but we don't get as upset about cigarettes as we do about gang violence. We don't perceive that there's an individual person intending to do us harm with cigarettes, but we spend lots of money combating gang violence and we get very upset by images of rioters and looters. However, when it comes to the dangers of tobacco, or for that matter, deaths by  automobile accidents, we tend to shrug it off as collateral damages. "What can be done?" 

Take guns (please).  Everyone reacts when someone points a gun directly at them - the very epitome of a direct and personal threat - but one of the great tragedies of 21st Century America is that we're starting to accept the epidemic of gun-related fatalities as just another one of those collateral damages like cancer from tobacco or the percentage of fatal accidents per commuter mile driven. "Stuff happens."   Someone shooting a gun at us is perceived as a threat but the almost daily atrocities caused by guns on others is not perceived as a threat, until one of those others is us, and then we're like squirrels that just realized that the fast-moving cars will, in fact, kill us.

I also notice that conservatives seem to be more reactive to direct and personal threats than liberals. Conservatives get very upset over images from the Middle East of crowds chanting "Death to America!"  Those are specific people, the conservatives perceive, expressing a threat directly at me. One of the conservative criticisms I've heard of the recent Iranian nuclear treaty was that the U.S, didn't get a concession from Iran to stop the crowds from chanting "Death to America!," as if that were a threat on par with nuclear weapons.  To liberals, that crowds seem like more of a general, non-specific threat, nothing to worry too much about ("What can be done?"), and footage of flag-burning mobs don't get the same ratings on MSNBC as they do on Fox News.

Conservatives seem to get more upset by name calling than do liberals, and therefore, conservatives tend to engage in it more often, as they see it as a weapon of choice.  Look at the difference between the Republican and the Democrat debates to see what I mean.

On the other hand, we humans don't react as much to impersonal and diffuse threats, threats that aren't from one specific person toward another.  Just like with the dangers of cigarettes or automobile driving, there's no one person behind these impersonal and diffuse threats, so our instinctual reaction is less. Since liberals aren't as keyed in to perceived personal threats as conservatives, they have room left over in their psyches to be concerned about this larger category of threats, which includes global climate change, income inequality, the effects of GMOs, etc.  Conservatives are too concerned about that person over there calling them names to have any neurons left to worry about these "non-threatening" issues.

So I'm back to mental maps and models, to schema. again.  To understand the difference between conservatives and liberals, and to understand how otherwise intelligent people can hold some seemingly unintelligent views, we have to realize that some of it is just how our neural systems react to threats, and what we perceive as danger and what we don't.  

It might seem silly to one squirrel to see another freak out over a distant car, and the freaked-out squirrel might regard the other one as naive for ignoring the on-coming traffic.  But they, we, are just wired differently.

No comments: