How Understanding Threat Responses and the Hardening of Priors Can Help Us All Flourish
If you want to understand a lot of the chaos and strangeness in our world today, it is extremely helpful to understand the ways people respond to threats in general. Our natural human threat responses act on us powerfully in ways that can help us cope in emergencies. However, they are often much worse when it comes to understanding and solving complex problems. Here, we’ll explore one of the ways these threat responses can make it harder to solve complex problems, and what can be done about it.
One of my main projects right now involves tracing these responses and the ways in which the core of Christian thought involves a powerful psychological, social and symbolic response to harmful behaviors that can come from our threat responses. These foundational practices reliably lead to a deep and enduring form of success that is refreshingly different than our more widespread notions of success. The core practices include enemy love, joyful solidarity with the poor and marginalized, and reconciliation practices. Especially when pursued together, these practices help individuals and communities slowly move toward truth by replacing counter-productive natural threat responses with learnable alternative responses. All of these practices are expressions of gracious generosity from first to last, and they encourage more grace to break out in our own personal lives and in the societies where they are practiced.
I think that there is a really enormous scope to improve our personal lives and our societies by cultivating and training these practices, because they are nowhere near as widespread as they could be.
Why aren’t they more widespread, if they are so helpful? The short answer is that they are hard. A lot of our natural responses to threats lead us to do the exact opposite of reconcile, stand in solidarity with the marginalized, and love our enemies. This means that there will probably always be a market for people who offer rationalizations for enemy hatred, the pleasures of wealth and power, and avoiding the hard work of reconciliation. It is intuitive and natural to respond to threats by fighting, fleeing, fawning, or freezing. But to pursue reconciliation in truth requires dedicated practice. It demands slowing, persistence, risk-taking and patience. Shortcuts are usually more attractive, at least at first blush. And shortcut peddlers can reliably build careers for themselves, even if they leave behind little that really lasts.
Here the underlying difficulty is that threat responses act more quickly on our minds and physiology than rational thought and careful, holistic observation. Fortunately, active practices of slowing and reducing threat response can can give us conscious access to alternative practices.
Here, I’m going to dig into the hardening of priors, which is a pattern of threat response that powerfully impacts individuals and institutions. What is the hardening of priors? It is a regular practice of taking certain working assumptions for granted (and impervious to questioning) at least for a time. Some examples of priors include axioms, mathematical models, best practices, research methods, and the findings of prior research, reflection or investigation. What makes something a prior is that it exists before a situation arises or a process of inquiry starts. Priors are unavoidable and important. They help guide our responses to situations. And sometimes they’re badly wrong or inappropriate.
Hardened Priors in Medicine
A friend of mine who works in an ER shared a good example of this from his own work. He discussed the way research helps medical professionals establish a certain standard of care that is then mandatory to implement. A good standard of care, firmly held, can be especially important in a hospital environment. Where these standards are based on sound evidence, they encourage people to provide reliably good care instead of going off-book with untested quackery. Having them firmly in place before an emergency helps doctors provide better and more consistent care, evaluate their practices, and respond quickly to urgent situations without needing to re-invent the wheel every day. On a psychological level, they make an incredibly stressful and dangerous environment manageable.
Understandably, standards of care become very hard priors in the life-or-death situation of a hospital. If you get things wrong as an individual or as a hospital system, people are likely to die and people are likely to sue. Those aren’t imaginary threats. What’s more, time is often of the essence in this environment. You might not want to rethink a major body of research when someone is about to bleed out in front of you.
However, sometimes a treatment can become the standard of care based on bad research. When this happens, it is often the result of research being manipulated by pharmaceutical companies. They are prone to do this because of the threat of losing money on a product that is more harmful than helpful. In the academic literature, evidence abounds with cases of this happening. From Actos (pioglitazone) to Zantac (ranitidine), there’s no shortage of illustrations. When they succeed in getting a standard of care established while concealing essential information, the system’s understandable threat responses get twisted backwards. Instead of defending against a threat, the hardening of priors is mobilized to defend the threatening standard of care itself. Once established, a bad standard of care is a lot harder to question because the general environment of medical care is so fast-paced and high risk.
Part of the story of pharmaceutical corruption certainly involves greed. I have no interest in minimizing that issue. But here I’d like to focus beyond simple greed, to the deeply legitimate desires for personal and institutional self-preservation that sometimes prevent truth-seeking and reconciliation. Individual researchers often want to keep their jobs because they need to care for their families, and because they got into the business to save lives. If they don’t succeed in their profession because of some clinical trial, won’t that impede their ability to help people in the future? And defenders of hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can rightly point to the enormous good that these institutions do. Why jeopardize all of that by letting a huge investment of time, money and reputation go up in smoke? Wouldn’t it be better to just massage the data a little bit here and there and get a better-looking result for your medical study, especially if you really believe in your work? (And who knows, there’s a fair amount of random chance. Any single study might have turned out with a better result anyway …)
And so a prior commitment to a treatment can easily become unduly hardened in the face of a study that fundamentally brings its value into question. Importantly, when this happens it often feels right to do the wrong thing and fudge the data, as long as someone focuses on the threat that could jeopardize their work.
The presence of a threat (and the lack of grace that lies behind it) encourages destructive hiding, even hiding from ourselves. This points us to a much broader truth:
Bold attempts to frankly address real problems frequently encounter powerful resistance because the essential work of truth-seeking becomes identified as a threat.
Because we are finite creatures with finite institutions, we never escape the need to have priors. And in high speed and high threat environments, it really does make sense to harden them. However, sometimes priors need to be questioned.
Importantly, this situation where our old priors need to be questioned arises more and more frequently in our era of constant learning and technological and social change. This, in turn, means that our threat responses of prior-hardening routinely become maladaptive.
A world of constant learning, growth, and change is also a world where we need to routinely soften and investigate our priors.
The faster things change, the more we need to learn to slow ourselves down and soften our priors.
Addressing Hardened Priors
We encounter similar cases of maladaptive prior-hardening in almost every domain of life today. Where a prior has become hardened inappropriately, there are a lot of ways to soften them up and move forward into truth together. Here’s how.
1) Physical and social threat need to be reduced.
Feelings of shame and the threat of coercion need to be removed as much as possible. This can and should involve small scale and substantially internal responses. Some good examples include calming visualizations, deep diaphragmatic breathing, prayer, establishing a firm identity rooted in being unconditionally loved, being listened to lovingly and attentively, laughing together in a group, dancing together, singing together, exercising and playing games together, and more.
This can and should also involve interpersonal and large-scale public responses. Some examples include reducing the level of violence and weaponry in our neighborhoods, enacting restorative justice policies instead of threatening and punitive ones, increasing the level of equality in society in order to reduce both physical and social threat intensity, nourishing a culture of non-violent responsiveness and problem solving instead of violent attack and blame-shifting, and ensuring the provision of basic human needs like food, shelter and friendship. All of these public responses can be cultivated through widespread norms, voluntary associations, non-profits and public policy.
2) Truth and reconciliation must be pursued.
If we are going to parse out priors that deserve to be relatively firm from priors that deserve to be questioned, we can’t just have a blanket critique of “having priors”. The softening of some priors is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a necessary part of a process truth-seeking that involves reflection, self-awareness and other-awareness, careful observation, and rational modeling. Seeking coherence through modeling and careful observation lie at the core of science, but they also lie at the core of any decent community that avoids hypocrisy and operates in good faith.
Boldly pursuing truth and reconciliation are essential for all kinds of reasons. Here, it is especially important because it helps us zero in on how firm or soft a prior really ought to be, in a particular circumstance. This helps us extend warranted trust and firm up more reliable priors, while cutting back on unwarranted trust and softening less reliable ones.
Well actually, part of the problem is that you’ll probably have fewer ultra-rich individuals and ultra-powerful individuals if people deeply pursue these practices. But as a society, especially in our ever-more-rapidly changing age, there is a degree of widespread human flourishing that really does come from this.
My own perspective here is different from (but in some ways similar to!) the perspective of “prosperity Gospel” preachers who glorify personal wealth. Unlike them, I don’t think limitless prosperity is a good personal goal. I also don’t think it is an effective means to the end of a flourishing society. However, I do think that groups who pursue truth and reconciliation contribute to the flourishing of their cities and nations, and that includes the individuals within them.
In fact, I think the replacement of general human flourishing with individual prosperity is a big part of the problem in the US today. Individual prosperity-seeking represents an excessive response to threat by the few who pursue personal prosperity, a desperate effort to find safety behind a huge pile of money. The problem is that this actually increases social status threat in society overall and has a wide range of other negative consequences. On the deep and widespread negative effects of inequality within a society, I recommend the book The Spirit Level.
Importantly, the cult of personal prosperity also entices us to miss an important reality: those with power and wealth need to make sacrifices and give up power so that we can flourish overall. This lies at the very core of the example and teachings of Jesus and all of Christian Scripture, for those who care about that.
However, I have this in common with prosperity preachers: my views aren’t world-denying. I especially cherish the deep and shared joy that comes when the poor and marginalized receive the things they need to thrive. I think that human flourishing and well-being are important, and that God cares about whether we have things like food and shelter and loving communities.
So yes, it is good that this helps us profit. But true profit comes when those who truly have too little finally get enough. It is a loss and a waste when those who have too much end up mired in even more excess.
This is all especially poignant for me, living in an especially violent area of an especially violent nation in the middle of a pandemic that my hardened nation has allowed to expand far more than most nations. Here I feel it in my bones every day. The desire for basic security is about far more than a physical house to protect us from the elements. It requires safe and loving communities, in safe and functional countries.
All of that is eroded when threat responses cause us to preserve bad and unwarranted priors. Threat responses can induce a vicious cycle in which we escalate threat and foster ever-more interpersonal violence, creating ever-more threat in the form of physical violence as well as social status threat.
When I see this vicious cycle unfold in front of me, I find a measure of hope in something I learned from the great economist of famine-prevention, Amartya Sen: every vicious cycle implies a virtuous cycle going in the opposite direction.