Predicting what is going to happen and how we will react is, to put it mildly, difficult. When it comes to accurately predicting social outcomes, the complexity of this challenge blooms to what seems an infinite complexity. One of the reasons for this mesmerising animated blockade of possibilities has to do with how intensity outweighs probability.
At no point in my childhood or adult life did someone say to me, “You will find it especially difficult to predict behaviour around intense events because our dispositions naturally orientate us to address them as if they’re going to happen even if the intense events are wild fantasies. Don’t get strung up by creating intensely held theoretical possibilites, but instead strive for realistic appraisals.” Perhaps if this was said to me as a child I wouldn’t have understood much of what it meant. As a young adult, it might have helped me deal with life’s challenges with less stress and more composure. It would have definitely led to me understanding the behaviour of those around me to a much greater degree. Yes, I would have appreciated that.
So what does this actually mean? Why is it so important to understand?
If we perceive an intense event might happen, we may think about it logically for a while and decide it’s not going to happen. As the event draws closer, we find our thoughts disturbed and less able to concentrate on tasks at hand. We have no idea our distracted attention has anything to do with the predicted event, that we feel intensely about, that weeks ago we decided probably wasn’t going to happen. Only we perceived it might, and that’s enough, for we innately orientate our dispositions according to the intensity of perceived events. As this orientation happens on a subconscious level, we can be blissfully unaware of it happening.
One might ask, “Why would evolution create such an immense barrier to predicting events?” and by extension, “What is so important to accept such a mindboggling costly trade off?” The answer to these two questions is “preparedness”. It would seem that being prepared is so valuable a trait that on an evolutionary scale we are willing to pay heavily for it, or perhaps the reasoning is that without it we would not live long enough to use a greater ability to predict events, and even if we are calm enough not to have our judgement disturbed by an upcoming intense event, as long as everybody else is reacting to the intensity of perceived events, a rational calmness counts for zero when predicting everybody else’s behaviour.
Thus the rationale behind intensity outweighing probability is as follows:
In an evolutionary sense, intense events would have represented the most serious of life changing scenarios. Both intensely positive (say elation) and intensely negative (say terror) emotions would have been associated with our hopes coming true (say copulation, mate, children, food abundance etc.) or terrifying events (say deadly predator, lethal infection, famine, death of a loved one etc.). Throughout 99.9% of our evolutionary history real life (or nature) was the only source of stimulation for perceived events, and so our instinctively deep rooted associative network of memories is filled with a reservoir of natural perceptions whose hierarchy is based on intensity.
No television or computer screens, no cinemas or books to alter perception. Indeed words and speech would have become a factor in defining and transmitting thoughts, yet this came very late in evolution. Speech is thought to have been made possible by our bipedal evolution. Once we came down from the trees and stood up on two legs – about three and half million years ago – our weight bearing musculature around the neck and torso were able to perform more delicate functions. It’s thought that a million or two years were needed for the transformation of these muscles into what we recognise today as vocal cords. Thus speech, yet not vocabulary, as we understand it today has probably been around for a million years or so.
These facts demonstrate the colossal emphasis which is placed upon audio/visual stimuli from the natural environment. Our instincts and entire understanding of the world and behaviour within it runs on audio/visual explanations. Threaded through the breadths and depths of this audio/visual library of associated meaning are countless variations of intensity. The markers in this vault are what organise all of our behaviour on a subconscious level. If we anticipate an intense event is about to happen, it’s these audio/visual perceptions which are called upon to access what type of dispositional response is most appropriate for when the event happens. Intensity seems to be a major prioritising part of this process.
Therefore when we perceive a violent attack may happen in the not so distant future, as the expected time draws close, deep rooted natural functions begin changing our dispositions and cognitive biasses to prepare us for the threat even if it probably won’t happen. If we weren’t prepared and it did happen, the cost could be fatal.
The deadly attack scenario makes a stark case where the value of reacting to intensity is easily understood in an advantageous way. Rather than our unconscious orientating our behaviour according to any flight of fancy we predict might happen and being distracted every which way, the much more stable approach is to use our implicit knowledge base which reads severity and importance in terms of historically intense outcomes.
The principle holds true for positive events too. Surely the nerves people feel before a big event, performance or night out are concerned with this subconscious orientating of behaviour and cognitive biasses. Nerves are a good thing to feel, for it means that our most appropriate instincts and wits are being readied for our performance. Nerves do not mean doom is coming, yet rather that a good performance is expected to be important.
Just a few variations to this concept creates an array of complexity. As people who have more vivid imaginations experience more intense emotions, it’s probable that people experience the same event at different intensities and that they have different thresholds for emotional priming.
A few problems in processing are clearly risk factors. As with so many psychological processes, the execution of these adaptational dispositions, emotions, and cognitive biasses works along the basis of conviction. Belief is conviction based. Beliefs can be true or untrue. Beliefs can be completely fictional. This is potentially a gigantic problem.
At the end of the day, we have an immensely ancient and powerful ability which automatically prepares us for events. It runs primarily on audio/visual content while drawing correlations of intensity with importance. As specific dispositions and intense emotional priming are brought online as an expected event draws closer to materialising, the ability is four dimensional – it’s time and space based. What a sublime ability we have to aid our journey through life.
Can we keep our perception clean enough to make best use of it?
Intensity Outweighs Probability
An evolutionary adaptation whereby we prepare for an event according to its perceived intensity (importance) rather than its probability of happening.