Gavin De Becker is a former law enforcement officer who has developed a compelling hypothesis about the "wild brain." De Becker virtually stands alone in the field of risk management because of his unique hypothesis about the psychology of human conflict and predation based on case studies from his career.
Violence, although relatively rare in much of the developed world, is a part of the human condition. It is not going away any time soon. According to De Becker, millions of years of evolution have equipped us with the intuitive ability to detect pre-attack indicators when violence is imminent, or when we are in danger.
Philosophers spend a lot of time using reason. Reason is the much celebrated but slow, plodding, methodical product of left brained thinking. It is wonderful for tackling complex problems and for everyday use, but not great at handling immediate threats to our safety and well being. According to De Becker, we have another, primal, lighting fast mental faculty for avoiding danger - intuition.
Not so happily for us, humans are the only animals in nature who routinely ignore intuitive hits about danger in our environments, often using reason to deconstruct what our intuition is telling us - sometimes with devastating consequences. Here is how to harness the protective gift of intuition that we have inherited from the wild brain of our ancestors.
The Case For Intuition
However philosophy has a long history of arguing for some form of intuition. Kant and Descartes both accounted for intuitive knowledge in their epistemology (theory of what can be known). Kant thought that when I leave a room, for example, I intuit that the objects in the room are still there until I return, even though I am not viewing them.
Descartes felt that we know certain things to be true a priori, or independently of experience or observation. De Becker defines intuition in a similar way, as "Knowing without knowing why." Intuition gives us an immediate conclusion about a person or situation without stopping to examine all the premises that led to the conclusion, the way logic does. It is instant a priori knowledge.
Biologically speaking, it certainly makes sense that the intuitive capacity may have evolved in such a way as to protect us from predators or danger. A threatened animal does not use logic. It relies instinct or intuition. Logic is far too slow to be of any use in an emergency. De Becker states:
The brain built for protecting ourselves was field-tested for millions of years in the wild. I call it the wild brain, in contrast with the logic brain so many people revere. The logic brain is plodding and unoriginal. It is burdened with judgment, slow to accept reality, and spends valuable energy thinking about how things ought to be, used to be, or could be. The logic brain has strict boundaries and laws it wants to obey, but the wild brain obeys nothing, conforms to nothing, answers to nobody, and will do what ever it takes. It is unfettered by emotions, politics, politeness, and as illogical as the wild brain may seem, it is, in the natural order of things, completely logical…to reinvest in our intuition, to know how to avoid danger, to know, for example, whom to stay away from, we must listen to our internal warnings while they are still whispers.
How To Notice Intuitive Warnings
The strongest intuitive hit is a feeling of dread or fear. Its important to note that true fear is different from worry. Worry is fear we create. It is a choice. The media often use fear to increase ratings or to manipulate. But often the latest catastrophe in the news is something which is far removed from us and incredibly unlikely to harm us.
True fear is an involuntary signal in the actual presence of danger. It's largely a physiological response where adrenaline and cortisol rise, the hair on the back of your neck stands up, your heart beats faster, you get tunnel vision, and so on. The wild brain will come and get your attention if necessary.
Suspicion can also be intuitive. Suspicion is an involuntary nagging doubt, or a feeling that you should keep watching a situation to gain more information about it. According to De Becker, humans have a unique tendency for denial. We often look for reasons to deny that something bad could be about to happen to us. De Becker suggests that we take any nagging doubts seriously until we can rule out various scenarios.
Black humor can also be an indicator of imminent danger. Black humor is usually something so extreme or shocking to say that it is funny. Intuitive hits sometimes come out spontaneously as black humor. A good example would be receiving a heavy, suspicious looking package and someone saying out of nowhere, "I don't want to be here when it blows up."
Of course that's not to say that every time one of the above occurs that something bad is imminent, but it's good to take notice nonetheless.
When to Not Be Nice
But - and this is really important - you should never feel obligated to be nice to anyone who makes you fearful, creeps you out, in a situation where you are isolated or which makes you generally uncomfortable. It also a good idea to be aware of tactics that human predators use to get you to let your guard down.
Young children are usually better than adults at not wanting to interact with people who make them fearful. Adults, and for cultural reasons women especially, are vulnerable to feeling like they always have to be nice, even to people who make them uncomfortable. An example of this phenomenon would be getting into an elevator with someone who gives you an instinctual feeling of fear to avoid looking rude by letting the door close in their face.
It's unfortunate, but the small percentage of anti-social people in society will often use our virtue and our tendency for politeness against us. So its a good idea to be informed about what behaviors predators use to get us to stand down around them. De Becker lists the following tactics or pre-incident indicators that predators use in his book The Gift of Fear:
- Forced Teaming - When a person implies that he has something in common with his chosen victim, acting as if they have a shared predicament when that isn't really true. Speaking in "we" terms. "We don't need to talk outside... Let's go in."
- Charm and Niceness - Being polite and friendly to manipulate by disarming mistrust.
- Too many details - If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound credible.
- Typecasting or Negging. An insult is used to get a chosen victim who would otherwise ignore one to engage in conversation to counteract the insult."Oh, I bet you're too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me." The tendency is to want to prove the insult untrue.
- Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and anticipating the recipient will feel obliged to extend some openness in return.
- The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, "I promise I'll leave you alone after this," usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone.
- Discounting the Word "No". Refusing to accept rejection.
It's better to be polite but firm, to be forceful, or to completely avoid interacting with anyone who gives you a bad feeling. If you are wrong and the person wasn't intending to harm or manipulate you, you loose nothing by being overly cautious.
Your strategy should depend on the situation - which is what intuition and the wild brain are for.
In general, having this knowledge should you make you less fearful, rather than more fearful. Much of what we worry about is a only a remote possibility rather than a legitimate reason to be cautious. Nature has equipped us with what we need to stay safe.
What do you think? Do you believe that the wild brain exists and can protect us? Please comment below.
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