Paul Bloom: I totally agree. There have been times myself where I have said, ‘Wow, that’s over,’ and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn’t so anxious about it. I would have actually took pleasure in it. So, my book is titled The Sweet Spot and I have vowed not to try to insert the phrase, ‘the sweet spot,’ into every conversation I fall into, because it becomes very tempting. But, I’ll do this here, which is: regarding these negative thoughts, these worries and everything, there is a sweet spot. Imagine a dial in your head–and I think a lot of you would say, ‘I’ll turn that dial down.’ But, there is a psychiatrist, Nesse, an evolutionary psychiatrist, who points out that a lot of people go to psychiatrists and psychologists to turn their anxiety down. They take pills to turn their anxiety down. But then there are individuals whose anxiety is too far or low down. Where do we find them? Not in a psychiatrist’s office: we find them in morgues. We find them in morgues and we find them in prisons, and so on. If you’re too cool, then you say, ‘Yeah, I’ll drive my motorcycle in the rain. I’m not worried at all.’ They never see it, they’re feeling fine. But, they constantly expose themselves to more risk for themselves and for others. And, in its own way it could be just as terrible. So, it’s a curse to have too much anxiety, but it’s also a curse to have too little.
Excerpt from a conversation between psychologist Paul Bloom and EconTalk’s Russ Roberts. Full episode is available here.
As in the case of relative risk aversion among people I think you’d be much better off ”leaning into” this diversity – acknowledging that ”evolution is cleverer than you are” – and deconstruct the phenomenon in terms of a distribution ensemble with somewhat high variance. Bloom’s ”sweet spot” (mean) isn’t necessarily suppose to reside within every single individual (unless this is a variation on a kind of zone of proximal development, ie subjectification).
This might be most apparent in a heterosexual couple with a stereotypically more risk allowing dad and a more risk averse mother. The combination of the two is likely more often than not closer to the ”optimal” mean than a single data point (dependent on the degree of bimodality). Variability is preferable to uniformity, which is why it’s preferable to have both a mother and a father growing up. In most instances they complement each other.
The same, it could be said, holds for social norms, laws and politics. It’s quite rare to meet someone of the mean political opinion. The mean opinion is usually a compromise between, for instance, those with a relative proclivity for freedom and those with a relative proclivity for security (make of these words what you will), to use a commonly adopted dichotomy. Or for those with a relative proclivity for high variance and those with a relative proclivity for low variance.
If one of these modes – high or low variance – were to become too dominant there’d be no reason to compromise between the two modes cause one would be deemed a virtue and the other a vice.
The decision to let your 5-year-old ride the bus by themself has a particular connotation in a context dominated by calls for safety (low variance) and a different one in a context dominated by calls for self-reliance (high variance). Too strong insistence on low variance is going to make the child more fragile and less independent once it reaches adulthood, while allowing for too much variance, as a matter of fact, makes it less likely for the child to reach adulthood in one piece.
(There’s a fun case to be made that universities select for individuals with a preference for low variance – see Paul Bloom ^^. If you’re smart enough to become a college professor but have a preference for higher variance you’re more likely to enter the private sphere, entertaining higher highs and lower lows than a tenure professor. This is likely a contributing factor to why so few university employees speak out against the idea of a university as a safe space. Anything that may rattle their gilded cages would be out of step with their psychological makeup, and having a proclivity for low variance they are – obviously – also predisposed to support the ideas of the ”woke”. Robert Nozick’s Why Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism has inspired my thoughts immensely on this subject.)
What Paul Bloom neglects to mention in the quote – he might do so later in the episode; I hit pause, sat down and wrote this mid-episode – is to what extent the more risk willing (high variance) individuals – besides being over-represented in morgues and prisons – are more likely to be innovators, entrepreneurs, explorers and overall overrepresented in history books. Earth-shattering scientific breakthroughs usually occur at the outskirts of any discipline. Destinies and discoveries which would be far less likely in a society dominated (or suffocated) by a totalitarian emphasis on low variance.
Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience. – Adam Smith