Fear is more dangerous than evil

CS140, 01/18/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Last week’s thought for the weekend was, a little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept.  This week’s thought for the week is, fear is more dangerous than evil.

First of all, maybe I’m an optimist, but I think there aren’t many truly evil people in the world.  Maybe there are some and they get their fair share of publicity.  I think much more damage is caused by people who are afraid.  This is a much bigger problem I think for society in general.

Let me give you an example.  People who are afraid will do things that they know are wrong.  For example, when people cheat on assignments, in most cases, it’s when people are up late the night before an assignment is due and they get desperate and afraid and made a silly decision to steal somebody else’s work.  In industry, CEO’s are afraid to announce that their company had a bad quarter, so they allow their salespeople to report sales from the next quarter.  Then in the next quarter, they have to cheat even more and eventually it all comes tumbling down.

When people are afraid, they often behave irrationally because they’re desperate.  They try things that can’t possibly work but they do anyway because they’re desperate.  That makes them unpredictable and really dangerous to be around.

But at an even simpler level, fear makes people underachieve in all sorts of ways and this may be the biggest problem of all.  For example, people are afraid to try something new, so they get stuck in a rut doing something they know is not right for them.  People might have a really bad relationship or a couple of bad relationships and they become so afraid of having another one and become so distrustful that they can’t form a good relationship anymore.  They are basically damaged by their fear.

Or in another example, people are afraid to look bad.  This is often true about leaders: you think you have to be invincible, that you’re not a good leader if you appear to make a mistake.  So, you never admit a mistake to look strong.  But if you never admit a mistake, then you don’t learn from it.  If you don’t learn from it, you keep making more mistakes, which makes you more afraid, causing you to lie more and more and the whole thing just cycles on itself.  And if you’re a leader, eventually people realize you don’t know what you’re talking about, even though you’re pretending everything’s alright.

Ironically, the people who sound the most confident and arrogant, I think, are often the most afraid.  That arrogance is just a shell they build around their fear underneath.  Furthermore, when really evil things happen, fear is often closely involved.  If you take sociopathic criminals, these people are often motivated by fear, typically the fear of losing control.  They commit violent crimes like murder and rape because that’s the only way they feel they can take and exert control over other people.  It all comes from inner fear.

When evil’s carried out in a really large scale–take your favorite large-scale evil action, most of the work is done by people who are afraid.  You have the evil person at the top who scares all the other people into doing the really nasty stuff.  So it’s the fear that actually did most of the damage.

In general, I think fear is much more pervasive.  It happens at all levels and it damages everyone to some degree.  There are certainly times in my life where I did the wrong thing because I was afraid.  On the other hand, fear does serve a fairly good biological purpose.  Life without fear would probably be fairly short.  An animal is about to attack you or a car is about to hit you and you’re standing on the edge of a cliff–these are good occasions to feel fear.  And I think sometimes fear is unavoidable.  With stage fright, if you’ve never given a talk before, you’re going to feel fear.  Or if you take risks and try new things, it’ll be scary.  But fear, I think, also occurs in many cases that are not constructive and helpful and just damages.

The question is, how are you going to keep fear from damaging your life?  You’re not going to eliminate fear–you might not even want to do that: life is pretty dull if you have no fear at all.  A couple of things to think about:

The first one is the red flag approach.  Ask yourself, am I making a decision out of fear?  The best way you can tell is if you’re running away from something instead of running towards something.  Am I doing something because I’m afraid of something, not in spite of the fear, but because of the fear?  If so, you should think about making changes.  Change the decision or change the situation.  If you’re fighting self constantly, being afraid a car is going to run you over, maybe you should be more careful when you walk out into the street.  Or change yourself.  Figure out how to get yourself in a situation where you’re not going to feel as much fear.  I think the most important thing is to understand, see what is happening.  If you do that, I think you’ll figure out a way to help yourself.

What do you do about fear?  To me, the solution to fear is power.  The opposite of fear is confidence and what gives you confidence is power.  This is the superman kind of power, not the ability to manipulate and control other people, the Stalin kind of power.  The way I think to have a fear-free life is to continually be developing skills so you don’t feel afraid anymore.  My single most important strategy when bringing up our kids was to try and make our kids self-confident by teaching them lots and lots of skills.  If they know how to do a lot of stuff, they’ll be confident and live lives without fear–that’s probably the best way to live a happy life.  So develop your powers.

The third approach is to learn how to harness the fear.  In some cases, it’s inevitable.  For example, with stage fright, I still get scared when I make presentations to a large audience, but I realized that stage fright is an amazing natural drug.  The adrenaline rush when you’re really scared wakes up your whole mind.  I suddenly realize that I’m at my most alert, my best, just after I’m scared out of mind for ten seconds with a burst of adrenaline.  This is an enormous source of power–I have all this adrenaline on my side and I didn’t even have to take a pill.  So learn how to harness it.

Overall, I would say, just don’t let your life be damaged by fear.  And furthermore, not just for yourself, but also for the people around you.  Get them to a place where they’re not afraid and they can work through fear.  My opinion is, if you want a world of peace, you need have a world without fear.

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