What happens to our ability to make good decisions going forward when we and all the world are gripped in fear of what we might lose (or already have lost)?

Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, makes a good case in a recent New York Times article for the profound impact fear has on our decision-making. 

As part of an experiment seeking to replicate on humans the effects of the old electrified Skinner box conditioning, participants were advised that they would receive a shock after a time period of one to 30 seconds. For most people, it was the wait that was most uncomfortable. Anticipating the (mild) pain was worse for them than actually receiving the shock. Everyone preferred to experience the shock immediately rather than wait for it, and nearly a third elected to receive a bigger shock right away rather than wait for a smaller one.

From an economic or policy standpoint, that result is illogical–a bigger shock whenever received is patently worse than a smaller one. What is clear is that fear of the pain—deployed in anticipation of the shock—took such a large toll physiologically and psychologically on the participants that they had less available energy and neural processing power to rationally assess their next move. 


The same parts of the brain activated in this experiment are also active when people must part with something that is valuable to them, and a similar pattern is observable. The implication is that when we anticipate any kind of loss, we exert a lot of energy to hold onto what we have, diverting that energy from endeavors that may well better serve us.


When the fear/loss system is activated, exploratory activity and risk taking are turned off and data processing is impaired.  Of course, if everyone reacts this way, not only is there a downward economic spiral, but the overall level of cognitive functioning also drops. 


Which means that progress is impaired. Just at the time when we are most in need of it.


And the more fear there is, the more fear there is likely to be. 


In a recent double blind study, researchers from Stony Brook University in New York found that participants were actually able to "smell fear" produced on the clothes of 40 volunteers who went on their first skydive, compared to a second group of non-skydivers who had simply been narrated a frightening story.  In an MRI scanner, the participants showed increased activity in their amygdala and hypothalamus in reaction to the fear they smelled–in other words, smelling fear in others engendered fear in the participants. 


Further, the experience of fear (and perhaps anger) primes the over-perception of fearful and anger-inducing scenarios, making us see more fearful scenarios than may actually exist.  In a series of experiments involving a broad range of types of stimuli, happy subjects perceived more happy faces and friendly interpersonal scenes while fearful and angry subjects perceived more fearful and angry faces and hostile interpersonal scenes. Thus, being in a fearful place not only reduces your capacity to best get out of it, it actually magnifies your negative experience by distorting your perceptions.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow said "I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness."


What to do to get out of the grip of fear and into the present? Berns suggests that in order to neutralize that brain drain, you have to reduce the instigators of fear:  avoid the fearmongers, turn off the disturbing news and stay away from the market tickers.  Being more positive (hard for us pessimistic lawyers) and consciously looking for opportunity and how to move forward constructively can take you out of the preoccupations that are distracting you from the important business at hand.


We only have fear itself to fear.