F.E.A.R. Redux

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The availability heuristic is the tendency to judge the frequency, or probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind. This was a vital tool for our great-great-great-great (you get the idea) ancestors. Upon seeing their buddy get mauled by a saber-tooth tiger, that threat became paramount: “saber-tooth tiger – BAD.” In our modern society, we don’t have to worry too much about being mauled by a tiger. In fact, when one looks at the actual statistics, we find that for the past 25 years our lives have continually gotten safer. Violent crime in the U.S. has been on an overall decline since their peak in the early ’90’s (and that includes the slight uptick for the past two years).

vcrimechart

Traffic safety has also been steadily improving. This is good news, as automobiles are one of the top causes of accidental death in the U.S. (37,757 in 2015, or 11.7 per 100,000)

traffic deaths graph
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

So why is it that a majority of Americans feel less safe than ever, when the reality is the opposite? In large part, we can thank our availability heuristic. Every time we see a heinous crime on television or the internet, that visceral image becomes dominant in our mind. A singular event portrayed over and over again becomes larger than life. We give it undue influence on our assessment of it’s frequency, and how likely it is to happen again. In this manner, our fear grows beyond reason, as a False Expectation Appearing Real.

What can we do to remain calm in the face of the proverbial storm? How can we keep our head, and make sound decisions for our future, without allowing our emotions, our fear, to cloud our judgement? The first step is in acknowledging that such biases as our availability heuristic have an impact on our perspective. Second, when it comes to risk assessment, people really should study actual statistics, which can help clear up misconceptions. Here are a few resources:

Third, in my opinion, is to stop watching the news. These organizations do a poor job of presenting material in a manner that isn’t intentionally inflammatory, over-sensationalized, and down-right misleading. They want you ticked off, and/or scared. It sells.

Turn off the television, get on the mat and train.

image credit: Alexander Sidorov

Throwing Out the Baby

October is upon us, and with it comes the fall weather, and the knowledge that Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are right around the corner. Indeed, we’re already seeing it in the marketplace as vendors stock their shelves with seasonal holiday products too far in advance. (Santa will be on the shelf before our kids have finished trick-or-treating.) October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, so we’re sure to be bombarded in the media with scary statistics, and anecdotal tales, while those professing to have a fix peddle their wares.

As a parent and a martial art instructor, I want to know the facts in order to best prepare my children and students for the world in which we live. For the month of October, our posts will be an attempt to add some clarity on the subject of bullying.

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how concepts like bullying have been expanded to “encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” They are extended outward to include new phenomena and downward to include less extreme phenomena. Potential benefits of such expansion include recognizing formerly tolerated negative behavior as problematic, and increased sensitivity to others suffering or maltreatment. There are, however, a number of problems that come with this expansion.

Some Bullies tease, but not all teasing is bullying.

Teasing is one of the casualties in the ever-expanding definition of Bullying. The two are often used synonymously in the media and much of the available “anti-bully” literature. This semantic overlap has led to much confusion and mis-information for parents. It is also a headache for teachers and school administrators. As they work to establish legally mandated “learning environments free from distractions,” they create so-called zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying. In other words, NO TEASING ALLOWED.

There is an extensive body of academic literature studying the many cultural facets of teasing and it’s beneficial role in human communication. As explained by Kruger, Gordon, and Kuban (2006),

“To be sure, some teasing is designed with the sole purpose of hurting, humiliating, or harassing the target of the tease. But often, individuals tease to flirt, socialize, play, enhance social bonds, teach, entertain (themselves, the target, or an audience), or to express affiliation, affection, and even love (p. 412).”

In The Good, the Bad, and the Borderline: Separating Teasing from Bullying (2009), Mills and Carwile thoroughly discuss teasing, it’s relationship to bullying, and it’s value as a communicative device. While teasing can be used by bullies in a negative, aggressive manner, teasing also plays a very beneficial roll in our interpersonal interactions. For a more in-depth look click here.

Teasing is very nuanced, utilizing humor, innuendo, sarcasm, and irony to indirectly communicate the intended message. Even as adults we oftentimes misinterpret the intent of someone’s witty or sarcastic quips. How can our children grow into strong, high-functioning adults, if they aren’t given the opportunity to develop this skill?

Rather than eliminating all forms of teasing in a misguided attempt of protecting our children, as parents and educators we need to do the hard work of distinguishing between the positive, beneficial forms and the negative. We need to allow children the opportunity to fine-tune these skills themselves, and help guide them through the sometimes murky waters of human communication. This understanding will make them stronger, more resilient, and more safe, enabling them to more effectively discern healthy human interaction from the threat of a bully. Otherwise, we’re just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

See you on the mat.

image credit: stopbullying.gov


Haslam, N. (2016).  Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Kruger, J., Gordon, C., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in teasing: When ‘‘just kidding’’ just isn’t good enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 412􏰀425.

Mills, C. B. (2009, April). Communication Education. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carol_Bishop_Mills/publication/263612607_The_Good_the_Bad_and_the_Borderline_Separating_Teasing_from_Bullying/links/58a72725a6fdcc0e078ae9c7/The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Borderline-Separating-Teasing-from-Bullying.pdf