January 20, 2013

Beyond threatmindedness

Steve Flatt
2013, Steve Flatt

The evolution of the human brain is an amazing story full of surprises. Underlying that evolution is one drive - survival. Without survival evolution cannot continue. This seems obvious but surviving means avoiding threats such as being eaten or killed for territory or mates (and I don't mean your buddies down the pub, though that is part of it too). There are two aspects of survival that seem fundamental in all organisms - noticing threats and communication.

In order to avoid death noticing threats is pretty significant. If we don't see a threat then we are likely to be adversely affected. Whether it is the lion stalking us for meat or the internet criminal stalking us for money, our bodies react in much the same way. We produce a series of chemicals (adrenaline, cortisol, for example) and a series of nerve based signals to arouse our muscles ready for flight or fight. In the case of the lion we might run, in the case of the internet criminal we stand aroused, upset and impotent - in this situation our physical response is useless. In the case of the lion our response is in the here and now and appropriate. In the case of the internet criminal, being physically aroused is useless as it is a psychological threat. We also have systems (emotions and dopamine) that reward us for avoiding threats successfully that make us feel warm and happy - and paranoid! We have learned to avoid threat very effectively or we die. There is a reason why this response is often unhelpful in today's world, but first we need to explore communication a little.

Communication has been a fundamental link in surviving and the possession of and ability to use language is currently the peak of this aspect of the evolutionary process. The way human beings communicate through language is unparalleled on this planet. All creatures communicate in some form, inter-species communication is normal too (you can read danger in the nonverbal language of most creatures, we wouldn't have survived if we didn't). Communication is fundamental to mating too and without communication to attract a mate no species would have evolved. Communication in the form of spoken and written language has transformed human beings from mere organic survival machines into something rather special! We can think! We can imagine! We can imagine or think of anything! It is an immensely powerful tool. Communication evolved as it was essential to survival and language was a logical progression. But evolution doesn't aim for success, it doesn't predict - it selects "what works". If something "doesn't work it does something else". Language worked, it rocks!

So we have two built in mechanisms – noticing threats and communication - that help us survive both as individuals and as species. Putting these two together in human beings has produced a very curious situation that we are now struggling with globally. We have the ability the think and imagine and a built in survival bias that causes us to notice and react to threat far more strongly than we react to the good stuff in life. We tend to imagine what can go wrong more often than we imagine what can go right. Furthermore, we try to protect ourselves, not unreasonably, against the bad stuff. However, this desire to be safe can produce unwanted results. Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) , for example, is this safety mechanism overworked and over used. People who suffer from OCD have rituals they repeat time after time to reduce their anxiety. The problem is that the threat is not in the outside world but in their imagination and so disrupts their normal behaviour. Gathering great wealth is another form of this safety behaviour, based on the belief that money can make us happy and safe (for further ideas about this visit www.equalitytrust.org). Thinking is a great tool for detecting threats and even creating threats that don't exist and responding to them as though they do. We have the dopamine system which rewards the avoidance of threats that we have imagined! Evolution has given us a potentially toxic mix of qualities and skills. Every one immensely useful in its own right but combined to produce a potentially imaginative, thoughtful, threatminded and paranoid creature.

What is the result? As a species we have done amazing things. Wherever we look we can see the benefits of our imagination and thoughtful creativity. In terms of evolution we are arguably the most successful organism on the planet (though all but a vanishing small proportion of species that ever existed are now extinct, 99.9%! Not odds of survival worth betting on). We are safer now than we ever have been (Steven Pinker). Yet we persist in seeing threat everywhere. The reason is simple, our systems evolved to detect threat and if we don't see one we manufacture one, or we look to smaller and smaller threats - loss of job; foreigners (a very basic primitive threat); loss of status; difference of ideas; in fact any that is strange and alien, rather than see the good stuff (which can't harm us and is therefore not important). Then we resist change as well as change creates threats and uncertainty too. Threats are problems and as a species we are only just evolving to begin to think about ourselves in a rational way and notice the nature and paths that our thinking and prediction takes. Globally we still approach activity in a problem solving manner whether it is in policy, business or our personal lives. We are beginning to ask "what would it look like if it was the way we wanted it to be?" but mostly we are still working on getting rid of unwanted things such as conflict, poverty, crime, the competition, etc. No world leaders dare ask the "miracle question" or ask "how far along a path to our vision are we?" or "what would be the next step?" or, most importantly, explicitly asking "what is already working well?", agreeing and doing more of it. So many small projects are highly successful and based on a shared vision (the women's bank in Asia for example) yet are trodden on by people who are threatened by change to their power and sense of security.

A challenge we face in this day and age is to learn to manage our thinking, change our focus, develop a philosophical strategy that seeks success through asking the right questions rather than trying to avoid threats. We must learn to take control of the threatminded bias of our thoughts and imagination and learn to seek out success that is consensual not conflictual, cooperation rather than conflict, and perhaps then we can become all that we have the potential to be! There are some other things that also need to be developed as this process takes place: we need a rational and scientific moral code; we need a different way of measuring value, one that is based upon value rather than cost. Systems that help us learn to value people rather than objects. Primarily, it is a way of communicating that goes beyond the threatminded thinking that has been so successful until we homo sapiens began to change our environment with our imagination and thinking! Perhaps an evolving solution focused way of thinking will be part of our story. What small steps forward might we take in that direction?

Steve Flatt, Director Psychological Therapies Unit, Liverpool. UK


  1. Loved this though-provoking and noble article, thank you.

  2. http://solutionfocusedchange.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/unidirectional-macro-trends-overarching.html

    those trends underpin much of Steve's thinking, dare I suggest?

  3. Thanks, Steve, thought-provoking.

  4. "...asking the right questions... What small steps forward might we take in that direction?"
    Thanks for this, Steve!
    What we do here, is asking clients:
    What do you think is the most useful question I can ask you right now?
    Then all kinds of "...amazing stories full of surprises..." happen!


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