The Frontal Cortex

So I’m watching a DVD and the usual legal disclaimer – “The views expressed in the commentary do not reflect the views of the studio, etc.” – comes on the screen. Whatever. Such a warning label seems unnecessary, but what do I know? Maybe there’s been a rash of lawsuits over DVD extras. Then the same legal warning comes on in French. Another 15 seconds pass by. Then Spanish. By the time all the warnings are complete, I’ve wasted 45 seconds of my life, and this doesn’t even include the requisite FBI copyright warning.

Granted, 45 seconds isn’t a lot of time. But multiply those same 45 seconds by the number of DVD’s watched everyday and you’ve got a significant amount of wasted life. And for what? So Paramount doesn’t have to worry about some offended customer suing them? That seems like a terrible tradeoff, at least for the consumer. My leisure time is being whittled away by nervous lawyers.

Or what about airport security lines? We impose these strict regulations – no liquids, take off your shoes, belt, etc. – without really considering the cumulative effects of such regulations. The screening process is a minor inconvenience for each individual, but when you do the math the inconvenience quickly adds up. Is the risk worth it? Perhaps. But it seems like we don’t even take the small burden imposed on lots of people into account.

Or what about mandating MRI screening for breast cancer? Last week, the American Cancer Society issued new guidelines recommending an annual MRI scan starting at age 30 for women at high risk for breast cancer. While this plan will certainly help detect some cancers that conventional mammograms or ultrasound wouldn’t detect, it will also generate an inordinate number of false positives. As a result, more women will have to suffer through needless biopsies and the intense anxiety of thinking that they may have breast cancer. (They also have to pay the ensuing bills.) Now perhaps mandatory MRI’s for women are worth the increase in false positives. But my worry is that this sort of personal “inconvenience” wasn’t even taken into account. (It’s very difficult to quantify anxiety.) We are so obsessed with the worst case scenario – a studio getting sued, someone smuggling a bomb in their shoes, not detecting the malignancy – that we don’t even consider the hassle caused by our attempts to avoid the worse case scenario. I’m sure that, in certain circumstances, the mass inconvenience is entirely justified. (Wearing a seatbelt, for example, should be mandatory.) But I’m not convinced that I need to see that warning label every time I watch a movie, or that it really makes sense to ban tubes of toothpaste over three ounces from carry-on luggage. Daniel Kahneman said it best: “Worst case scenarios overwhelm our probabilistic assessment, as the mere prospect of the worst case has so much more emotional oomph behind it.”


  1. #1 Alan
    April 3, 2007


    Just a few observations: Lawyers get paid well to think out improbable, worst-case scenarios for their clients. That’s just the way the business works. Probability calculus doesn’t generate billable hours or client satisfaction. At minimal cost (45 seconds of yours and other viewer’s lives) in adding a disclaimer, a company may have saved itself the headache of potential or actual litigation. Clients expect ACTION, not inaction or watchful waiting, in most circumstances.

    And this leads to the next observation, based on an action principle. I’m convinced it’s embedded in human nature, and welcome you to write about it specifically pro or con. Anecdotally, I think this is the driving force behind the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” The patient expects you to change them from condition X to condition W, and doing so requires action. The Hippocratic Oath was obviously a reaction to the poor outcomes resulting from physicians acting under the pressure to do something to change the health of their patients.

    I’ll conclude with some rather loose suppositions that might be turned into hypotheses if they were refined. Human beings need to feel in control of their physical and social environment. Acting, even without effectuating a stated or even useful objective generates a calming effect, even if illusory, of exerting control over the evironment.
    By acting out the impulses of more primitive brain structures, self-reinforcing cascades of neurotransmitters are felt in the cortex. Action and calm are self-reinforcing feedback loops.

    I posit that we evolved a need, almost an obsession, to be active rather than passive both in order to survive in our adaptive environments and to override the paralysis of worry and fear. Of course, this could be entirely off base. Your thoughts…?

  2. #2 BWV
    April 3, 2007

    Case in point are the countless kids who cannot play outside in their neighborhoods the way I used to because the parents are afraid of sexual predators. If people rationally evaluated risks regarding their children, they would put razor wire around private swimming pools, raise the driving age to 21 and never give a second thought to the extremely low probability of their child being abducted by a pervert.

  3. #3 Ted
    April 3, 2007

    I posit that we evolved a need, almost an obsession, to be active rather than passive…

    If you ever establish this Church of Blessed Passivity, I am soooo there…

    Seriously though, don’t you think that this action vs. reaction/passivity is a consequence of social complexity and method of dealing with a growing population base and technology?

    I grew up on a farm. You could go all day without encountering another person or car. What’s there to be anxious about in that situation? That the grass growing was going to smother me – eventually? Our life was characterized by passivity.

  4. #4 Tim
    April 4, 2007

    Seriously though, don’t you think that this action vs. reaction/passivity is a consequence of social complexity and method of dealing with a growing population base and technology.

    The Zen idea of non-doing has potential as a central doctrine of the Church of Blessed Passivity. Interesting comments about growing up on a farm. I agree with your observations, but might there be more to the picture. Growing up on a farm, we left our screen door unlocked–unheard of today. Times have changed due to population pressure and all its concomitants. Second thought: anxiety is social. When you are caring for farm animals or otherwise carrying out chores, there’s no time to become too self-involved or worried. Third–and this illustrates my earlier point–farm living in general means being physically active! By being physically active, an organism gets the feedback of neurotransmitters (e.g., the runner’s high of endorphins).

    Finally, childhood is a time when we tend to explore our surroundings, and our conscious experience is informed by the “real” objects and people around us, not complex social interactions, obligations, and nagging fears of adult life.


  5. #5 Jonah
    April 4, 2007

    These are all great comments. Thank you very much. I think Alan makes a very important point: people want the illusion of control, even if it’s only an illusion. I think this is why flying on a plane can be so frightening. Statistically, of course, flying is much safer than driving. But on a plane we feel helpless: we are captives at 30,000 feet. At least when we are behind the wheel we have the illusion that we are in complete control. I think there’s a deep seated need to do something – even if the action is useless – simply because doing something makes us feel better. And so we end up with all sorts of useless regulations whose sole purpose is to ease our irrational fears (or the irrational fears of corporate lawyers), even though they inconvenience vast amounts of people.

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