Alarmist, Reactive Behaviors LO26279

From: Cowan, Keith (
Date: 03/05/01

Here we see that many news items appear to disgust us, yet may be the
result of our fundamental alarmist biological heritage.

In his new book "The Anatomy of Disgust" University of Michigan law
professor William Ian Miller dissects what makes us squirm: "In many of
its forms disgust is not simply aversive, and the content of the
disgusting is complex and at times paradoxical. It is a commonplace that
the disgusting can attract as well as repel; the film and entertainment
industries, among which we might include news coverage, literally bank on
its allure. The disgusting is an insistent feature of the lurid and the
sensational, informed as these are by sex, violence, horror, and the
violation of norms of modesty and decorum. And even as the disgusting
repels, it rarely does so without also capturing our attention. It imposes
itself upon us. We find it hard not to sneak a second look or, less
voluntarily, we find our eyes doing 'double-takes at the very things that
disgust us.

"Humans are most likely the only species that experiences disgust, and we
seem to be the only one that is capable of loathing its own species. We
also seem driven to aspire to purity and perfection. And fueling no small
part of those aspirations is disgust with what we are or with what we are
likely to slide back into. ... ultimately the basis for all disgust is
us--that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting
substances and odors that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbors."

We are both a predator and prey species, and so we are very much
biologically influenced by alarmist warnings. In our early history, those
who reacted to alarms managed to survive and go on to procreate; those
that didn't probably didn't have many offspring, and those offspring
didn't stand a great chance of survival either. Therefore, judging from
the success of the lurid and alarmist news agencies, it would appear that
our present day obsessions were extremely important to our early survival
and are of strong biological origin. We are all familiar with scientists
who exploit this tendency, with their dire predictions, such as "salt will
kill you." Usually, we later learn that their alarmist proclamations are
often based on incomplete science or arbitrary statistical and dubious
cause-and-effect relationships that have no basis in fact--and serve no
purpose except to satisfy the biological cravings of the scientists
themselves. Moreover, the news reporters and scientists who exploit our
prey heritage of alarmism probably do so with a smug satisfaction, in much
the same way an early hominid felt when he gave the alarm about a nearby
saber-toothed tiger or a rape-and-pillage raid by a hostile tribe. Alarms
about rape or even inappropriate sexual approaches (e.g. towards
biologically adult females who are below the legal age of consent,) reach
our deepest levels of animal feelings and provoke savage responses--as
they must have when raiding hominids descended on an unaware group of
nubile females in our primitive past. Most prey species act and react in
ways that are very similar to ours. Pygmy chimpanzees have even been known
to give false alarm signals and then chase after their alarmed clan
members. Of course, in our case, those who can successfully alarm the
population are rewarded with a very large income and their pick of sexual
mates, and the latter may have also been the case with the early hominids
who raised alarms.

All of this was outlined by Danielle Marie Sola 10 years ago in a scholastic
paper that, not surprisingly, was ignored by both academia and the popular

(With thanks to Ken Puma)

So, we can expect many organizations to display alarmist, reactionary
behaviour rather than planned logical processes. That is, the "learning"
that is done may not produce the desired outcomes that we all hope for?

K.C. Cowan


"Cowan, Keith" <>

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