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Unriling Ourselves

May 31st, 2007 by dk

Have you ever wondered why lion tamers use a chair? Of course you haven’t! That’s OK — I’ve got your back. (And thanks to my dear friend Melissa who has my back — she turned me on to Errol Morris, whose fine film “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” jump-started these thoughts.)

Before we get to the chair, and how Karl Rove has learned to use it, we have to look at what’s in the other hand of the lion tamer. The whip is there to create a commotion. Lions — at least well fed ones — have an annoying tendancy to be sedentary. Watching lions lounge doesn’t make for a very good show. So the whip is there to make a loud noise. But unlike most noise-makers, a whip can be manipulated to make the noise in front of the lion or behind the lion. This turns out to be important.

Lions react to the loud noise, but where it comes from determines whether their brains go to “fight” or “flight.” A loud noise behind them prompts them to jump away — flight — toward the trainer. Then the trainer can holler or snap the whip in front of the lion to provoke a fight.

OK, so now we have a 600-pound man-eating animal with a mouth large enough to consume a person in two bites. Paws are as large as human thighs. Capable of running 60 feet in a little less than three seconds. He’s moving toward the trainer. And he’s upset.

Here’s where the chair comes in.

The chair has four legs. All four legs are connected to the chair, which is connected to the trainer, which is the source of the commotion that the lion wants to stop. And if there’s a two-bite snack in the deal, so much the better.

But which leg should the lion grab? The closest leg, of course. But which is closest? The lion tamer twists the chair and the closest leg doesn’t remain the same. So now the lion has to choose. Never mind that all legs are equally good, that any choice will produce the same outcome. Because the lion is riled, his thinking becomes very linear — pointal, even. What is the closest, best alternative? Problem-solving is not urgent enough to satisfy the lion’s urges. There’s no time to consider that each leg leads to the same chair, leads to etcetera.

So what happens? The lion’s brain shuts down. The situation instantly became too complex. “Aw, screw it!” says the lion, who gives up. It’s only because the lion was in fight-flight mode that it couldn’t be bothered to solve the problem at hand of which leg of the chair would be best. Watch how a lion pulls every bit of meat off its prey, despite those huge paws. The problem-solving ability is there, but not when the fight-flight mode is engaged.

So it is with us. When we’re all wound up about something — be it global warming or a neighborhood watch meeting or some emotional struggle that is known only to our inner self — the urgency of fixing the problem overwhelms our ability to SOLVE the problem. Solving a problem requires considering context, weighing multiple factors, watching how contributing factors interact over time. We’re very good at it, but not when we’re riled. WE DON’T WANT TO DEAL WITH A COMPLEX PROBLEM WHEN IT IS PRESENTED TO US WITH ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Fear-mongering undoes problem-solving. It’s a wiring issue.

If there’s a problem you don’t want solved, either because it may curb oil profits or because you don’t believe it’s a problem, the second part of a good strategy would be to offer a cornucopia of options for people to choose between: public transit, car-pooling, bicycles, hybrid technology. But a reasonable person would then weigh how each of those might work for them and what trade-offs would be required. So the problem can best be solved when there are multiple alternatives.

Unless. Unless the whip has been cracked and we’re riled up and EVERYTHING has to get FIXED — not solved! — RIGHT AWAY. Never mind that the data support the hysteria. The problem to be solved may well be huge, and tangible, and coming right toward us. The fact is the hysteria and the data won’t both fit in the same brain at the same time. Hysteria is rock to data’s scissors. Hysteria wins every time. Urgent trumps important.

Karl Rove is thanking his lucky stars that the political left is cracking the whip about global warming. They are even doing the work for him of providing multiple options. Swap light bulbs! Turn off the air conditioning! Buy a Prius! Plant a garden! Quick! Now!

All he has to do is twist the chair a little bit, mixing up which option looks best at any moment. People then shut down, become complacent, decide for themselves that no solution is worth the trouble. And it’s all been done without ever touching the lion.

The only chicken-little advice that may actually work is to take a cold shower. Settle yourself down. Get unriled. Then set out to solve the problem, whatever it may be.

{184 – 31 = 153}

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