Humans Wired to Respond to Short-Term Problems

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert argues that humans are exquisitely adapted to respond to immediate problems, such as terrorism, but not so good at more probable, but distant dangers, like global warming. He talks about his op-ed piece which appeared in Sunday's Los Angeles Times.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that human brains are adapted to respond to some threats more than to others. For example, he says, we take alarm at terrorism, but much less to global warming, even though the odds of a disgruntled shoe bomber attacking our plane are, he claims, far longer than the chances of the ocean swallowing parts of Manhattan.

And the reason is biology, the human brain evolved to respond to immediate threats but may completely miss more gradual warning signs. If you have questions about how and why our brains got wired this way or about its implications, 800-989-8255, or e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, author of the book Stumbling On Happiness. You can link to his op-ed and to all previous Opinion Pages at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

Daniel Gilbert joins us now from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DANIEL GILBERT (Psychology, Harvard University): Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Now, you say that we need to put a threat, a face on a threat, in order to truly perceive it.

Prof. GILBERT: Well, that's true. I mean, you know, look, if alien scientists were trying to design something to exterminate our race, they would know that the best offense is one that does not trigger any defense. And so they would never send little green men in spaceships. Instead, they would invent climate change, because climate change has four properties that allow it to get in under the brain's radar, if you will.

There are four things about it that fail to trigger the defensive system that so many other threats in our environment do trigger.

CONAN: As you point out in your piece, our brains are exquisitely tuned to, if we see a baseball coming at our head, get out of the way.

Prof. GILBERT: Exactly so. So that's one of the features of climate change that makes it such an insidious threat, is that it's long-term. It's not something that threatens us this afternoon, but rather something that threatens us in the ensuing decades. Human beings are very good at getting out of the way of a speeding baseball. Godzilla comes running down the street, we know to run the other way. We're very good at clear and present danger, like every mammal is. That's why we've survived as long as we have.

But we've learned a new trick in the last couple of million years - at least we've kind of learned it. Our brains, unlike the brains of almost every other species, are prepared to treat the future as if it were the present. We can look ahead to our retirements or to a dental appointment, and we can take action today to save for retirement or to floss so that we don't get bad news six months down the line. But we're just learning this trick. It's really a very new adaptation in the animal kingdom and we don't do it all that well. We don't respond to long-term threats with nearly as much vigor and venom as we do to clear and present dangers.

CONAN: So a lot of us thought evolution would reduce us to four toes or maybe four fingers. You say what it in fact has meant is that we've developed delayed gratification.

Prof. GILBERT: Well, yes indeed. I mean, evolution has optimized our brain for the Pleistocene. I mean, you'd be, you know, if we put you back three million years, you're going to be the most adapted animal walking the earth. The problem is that our environment has changed so rapidly because we've got this great big brain so we could navigate our ancestral environment, and lo and behold, what did we do? We created an entirely new environment to which our brain is not perfectly adapted.

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard University, on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail, talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Another requirement for that human response, that triggered response, is some sort of moral outrage, you say.

Prof. GILBERT: You're right. And so I started by saying there were four, and then I talked about one, so what are the other three? The other three are, A) the source of the threat should be human rather than inanimate; B) there should be a moral component; C) as we just talked about, it should be short-term rather than long-term; and D) if you want the human brain to respond, you really want to make sure that the threat is sudden rather than gradual.

So you asked about the moral component. There's a lot of energy these days in our Congress, and indeed in our nation, devoted to what really our strictly moral issues. There's very little doubt that many people will be injured by burning flags or gay sex, and yet we are up in arms about flag burning and gay marriage. And the reason is that these offend many people at the moral level. We're very good at taking umbrage. We're just not very good at taking action against things that don't create - that don't arouse moral emotions. And you know, climate change just doesn't.

As I say in my essay, if, you know, if eating, if the practice of eating kittens were the thing responsible for climate change, we'd have people massing in the street in protest right now, because eating kittens is such a morally reprehensible action.

CONAN: Yet we see things like, obviously a terrorist attack, a human action, really centers everybody's attention. Tens of thousands of people die on American highways every year and nobody notices.

Prof. GILBERT: Well, you're exactly right. I mean, one of the things that the human brain is specialized for is other human beings. They are the greatest source of reward and punishment in most of our environments. We're a highly social mammal, and our brains are awfully good at looking for, thinking about, and remembering any sign of other people and their plans and their intentions. That's why we see faces in the clouds but we never see clouds in peoples' faces. If you play people white noise for long enough, they begin to hear voices in it. But they never hear white noise in voices.

So we're looking. It's as if the brain is tuned in to the signal of other human action. And that's why when other people do things to us, we're very, very quick to respond. We respond to terrorism with unrestrained venom and with great force, just as our ancestors would have responded to, you know, a man with a big stick. The problem is climate change doesn't have a human face. It's not an Iraqi with a big mustache. It's not somebody we can villainize. It's not a man with a box cutter. And so if there's no one to vilify, there's no face to put it to, it's hard for human beings to get very excited about it.

CONAN: Let's get a call in from Guillermo, Guillermo calling from Raleigh, North Carolina.

GUILLERMO (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

GUILLERMO: I guess my point is similar along the lines - somewhere along the way in school I heard a story basically along the lines of more complex issues humans don't process that well yet. So, for example, if a person had to hear all of the news events that occurred on the planet earth in a single day, your brain wouldn't be able to take it. And I just wanted him to see if there's any truth in this, or...

CONAN: Does quality relate to our quality of alarm?

Prof. GILBERT: Well, you bet it does. I mean, climate change in some ways is a very simple issue. But those who profit from not taking action against global warming have turned it into a complicated issue. Why have the opponents - and believe it or not, there are opponents of action against global warming - why are the opponents turning it into a complicated issue? Well, as our caller well knows, if we can make this complicated, enough people will throw up their hands and say, you know, scientists, they all disagree. Who knows what we can really do about this?

You know what? Scientists don't disagree about this, and what we can do is very, very clear.

CONAN: Scientists don't necessarily agree on the cause of it. They do agree that it's happening. Anyway, Guillermo, thanks very much for the call.

GUILLERMO: Thank you very much.

Prof. GILBERT: Well, scientists agree to an enormous extent on the cause of it. You know, it's interesting, when you look at scientific articles on global warming, there's enormous consensus. When you look at news articles on global warming, about half of them mention that there isn't much consensus. It really just isn't so. Scientists are in vast agreement about the causes of global warming, as much as they're in agreement about the dangers of cigarette smoking. You could say scientists don't all agree, and I'm sure there's somebody out there who's still saying it doesn't cause cancer, but by and large...

CONAN: So there you have an evil human face you can put on this. Those who are dastardly working towards profit 50 years hence.

Prof. GILBERT: You see, that's how I'm getting myself to respond.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us, Daniel Gilbert. We appreciate your time today.

Prof. GILBERT: My pleasure. Thanks.

CONAN: Daniel Gilbert's op-ed was this week in the Los Angeles Times. It's Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Threats.

Again, if you'd like to read the piece, there's a link to it at our webpage. Just go to npr.org and go to the TALK OF THE NATION page. Also there, all of the other previous Opinion Pages on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, in Washington.

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