People often fail to appreciate what amazing machines our brains are. How many times have you wished you could do math like a calculator in your head (especially when figuring out a 22% tip on a $321.56 lunch bill split between 13 people)? Well, we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn our brains.
It’s safe to assume you’re reading this post right now. Your brain is translating the thousands symbols you see into sounds; sounds into words, words into sentences. It’s drawing upon thousands and thousands of memorized meanings to get what I’m trying to say into your head.
Further, you’re probably reading in a chair right now; so on top of decoding this post, your brain is also performing countless calculations to balance your hundreds of muscles so that you don’t fall to the floor as you read… God help you if you’re standing. Oh, and not to mention that your brain is also controlling the millions of cells and enzymes that regulate your breathing, feeling, and digestion …all this without you even realizing it. The amount of electrical activity in your brain would easily short-circuit your pocket calculator, and your brain can maintain that activity for about 80 years.
So we have remarkable machines within our skulls, which usually do a pretty good job of assessing danger; we know not to shower with radios, etc. But sometimes, our brains are so active that they make mistakes and our intuition fails us. This happens commonly with risk.
If you haven’t read our post about the math behind insurance, I suggest you read it quickly, because the probability functions behind the simple games in that post are very similar to what your brain does automatically. For every risk you take, your millions of neurons perform a cost-benefit assessment.
Let’s say that it’s a nice day. You know that you’ll enjoy yourself outside and you also know that there’s a very small probability that you’ll get hit by a meteorite. However, your brain quickly calculate that the rewards are much greater than the risks, and you go sunbathing. Normally, this process is very effective, but our emotions sometimes distort this process and mislead our intuition.
Think about how many times you’ve seen people drive to the beach and then refuse to swim because they’re ‘really afraid of sharks.’ This is a classic misrepresentation of risk. The chance of getting into a car crash on the way to the beach is thousands of times higher than the chance of being attacked by a shark, but it’s the shark attack that people are scared of.
This is what psychologists would call a misrepresentative heuristic: the process that we use to calculate chances is distorted by our thoughts. Even though we have a better chance of winning the lottery than being munched on by JAWS, the fear that accompanies a shark attack leads us to assign an artificially high concern level for an event with a very low probability.
This is also the case when talking about poisonous spiders, lightning strikes, and other things that go bump in the night. Our impulses are good things to keep in mind when fear prevents us from having fun or enjoying life.