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Your Caveman Brain
Are you so afraid of a million incidents like a shark attack, child abduction or death in a plane crash? Why are you so willing to believe broad scenarios about possible future weather events from the same people who can’t even accurately predict tomorrow’s weather? Have you stopped to realize that many of the near-hysterical “pop” scares you once feared–fear of BSE, acid rain, dangerous silicone breast implants, road rage, SARS, or avian flu–have miraculously disappeared in an instant. A point to be replaced by others who disappear now or soon in the same mysterious manner? Why are you so afraid? In short, it’s because of your cave brain.
Consider this: A psychological test has proven that you have a brain that believes that a piece of dog poo-shaped material is actually dog poo. You have a brain that will use the first available number indicated to guess something that has nothing to do with that number. You have a brain that concludes that detailed predictions about the future are more likely to come true than simple predictions. Your brain concludes that things that are easy to remember are more likely to happen again. And, above all, it is your brain that constantly succumbs to the machinations of self-interested parties and fear-mongers who have a vested interest in scaring you.
As Daniel Gardner explains in his book The science of fear, when it comes to evolutionary psychology, try to picture the development of the human brain by equating the past 2,000,000 years of human development to a 201-page book. A couple of hundred pages would cover the entire time our species spent as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic. The last page will cover our time as an agrarian society, which began only 12,000 years ago (the first settlements appeared only 4,600 years ago). The last paragraph of that final page will cover the last two centuries of the world we now live in. We are cavemen.
Now take a look around you. How could the cave woman, at the lower but still crucial level of our brain, not be horrified by what she sees in our strange and complex world? Her head was designed for wandering the savannah, not for dealing with whatever was thrown at her here. That is why her gut has been the dominant decision-maker. And it is this force that diminishes our understanding of the world around us. The gut reacts and loosens up quickly and lives in lightning fast time, the head just can’t keep up, or get through it. This is the reason why we now live in an anxious nation, in a society at risk. While our heads are trying to tell us that we’re living in safer and healthier times than previous generations, our guts stop it and focus only on what appears to be the opposite on the evening news. It waits in anxious anticipation to cling to the next fear, real or imagined. Needless to say, the guts didn’t have to wait long.
Many complex psychological mechanisms are at play during this ongoing conflict between the gut and the head. Three things can be said here:
Availability heuristic. If examples of something can be easily remembered, Gut tells us that it must be common. If a brutal murder occurs in City X, the faction assures you that you are also at greater risk because you can easily remember this. After all, you “saw” it on TV. It doesn’t matter what the head is trying to tell you about how small your chances of being in danger are. And memory is biased; The more recent, emotional, and vivid events are, the more likely they are to be remembered and therefore, according to Gut, the more likely they are to happen.
Confirmation bias. Once a fear is awakened, we screen what we see and hear in a biased way that ensures our fear is “validated.” The group does not want to be confused by reasonable arguments or counter-reassuring statistics. Figures are poor in numbers. Love a good story.
Group polarization. When people who share fears gather in groups, they become convinced that their fears are justified and become more extreme in their views. Once fear becomes mainstream, so to speak, the distortion about what should be scary and what shouldn’t be perverted. We are social animals and what others think is important to us. That’s why we don’t need reasons to believe in risks and problems that “everyone knows about”. We don’t want them.
Viewed in this context, we delude ourselves when we think we evaluate the evidence and make decisions about risk through rational calculation. Experts are wrong to think that they can allay fears of danger simply by revealing the facts. The gut doesn’t listen to reason. And experts, as we will see, cannot be trusted.
We overestimate the likelihood of being killed by things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t. It doesn’t matter that diseases related to smoking or obesity kill more people than catastrophic events, accidents, terrorism and murder. The group watches these over and over again on TV (or other media), becomes obsessed with stories related to them, and thus indirectly contributes to what then turns into a fear feedback loop. Our distorted perception is easy to explain when we realize that the bowels are in control when the head is asleep on the wheel. The head cannot erase intuition. It can’t change how you feel. And how we feel is an essential part of the calculation here: fear sells. Buy the gut feeling.
Is there something ominous or conspiratorial about selling fear? Not really. After all, selfishness is the natural state of mankind. The news industry and new media make no secret of their desire to make money, and they don’t need to. And it doesn’t stop here. Fear is a fantastic marketing tool for companies, consultants, politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, activists and NGOs, all of whom compete with each other, fight for influence and sell through fear. For example, it is standard practice for companies that sell cleaning products or alarm systems to raise your awareness of the risks you are taking by not using their products. What politician hasn’t jumped at the chance to overplay a real or imagined threat on an issue his political opponent has failed to address? Law enforcement and security officials are naturally averse to risking their funds by minimizing your security threats. Scientists need funding too, and well, no problem, no funding. NGOs and other groups have political agendas to promote. Would they hesitate to spread fear if it helped them achieve their goals?
What can heads do to address this misperception of ours? Not much, really. Many of the issues we face today are so complex that we as individuals are not in a position to understand them properly. Since we don’t have enough time or energy to do the research ourselves, we must rely on experts to do it for us. And these experts are usually biased, often belonging to one of the various groups mentioned above. And we are often just as biased as the experts. Paradoxically, expressing fear about certain issues has become a form of expressing cultural identity or making a political statement. I find it interesting that peering into the future and imagining what might go wrong has become a parlor game for intellectuals, for example. And sadly, another problem is that questioning things that “everyone knows to be true” requires a lot of effort and stamina that many of us don’t have.
So why are you afraid? Your caveman brain wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s too bad that so many risk-awareness buttons in your inner cave are being pushed by someone else.
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