Friday, February 06, 2015

Safe in Your Tribe (by Neville Scott)

Guest Post: Neville Scott

I met Neville in my first job after university. He headed the glamorously named 'Modelling Team'. It was their job to work with the Actuaries in Product Development to take whatever ideas we had and clarify them. If ideas could be clearly articulated, they could be built into models that could do what they were meant to. Neville also arranged weekly learning sessions where we would focus on a different concept that would help in our quest to think better. One of the most lasting lessons I got from those Monday mornings was the idea of describing something (and yourself) by what it is rather than what it isn't. I wrote about this idea in 'Aporcupine Apineapple'. Neville is always curious and has lots of interesting ideas. I hope this is the first of many guest posts.

Safe in Your Tribe
by Neville Scott

Many years ago I saw an experiment on a TV program. They set up a huge pyramid of coke tins in a supermarket. With a touch sensor and a device to collapse the pyramid when touched. Successive people looked at it, touched it, and then witnessed the calamitous collapse of tins clattering noisily over them and all over the shop. Lawyers, doctors, housewives, ministers, children all touched it and triggered the collapse, and every single one declared loudly "I never touched it!"

They all lied.

The experimenters put forward an interesting hypothesis. People are herding animals who don't individually have all of the tricks needed for their own survival and need to stick together. Herding creatures know that expulsion from the herd means death. And apparently collapsing a monster pyramid of coke cans in a supermarket generates a significant herd-rejection fear.

On the science level, we've got at least two completely independent brains: the survival brain (amygdala) and logic brain (frontal lobe). Simplistically our amygdala maintains lists of life threatening stuff. It got high speed hard-wiring to sensors (sight, hearing, ...) and hard-wiring to the central nervous system to trigger action. If it senses something on its list, it fires survival actions. And it doesn't consult the far slower-acting logic brain. It doesn't concern itself with morality or logic. Its sole job is to keep you alive. It manages its list:
  • Every time it learns of a new risk it adds it to the list. Cars. Rocks. Pointy things. Big Johnny.
  • If it is repeatedly exposed to a listed item with no ill effect it may shift down the list. Even off the list. Fear of heights can be overcome.
If you abuse it for too long it gets confused and can malfunction and start firing false alarms. Anxiety attacks, panic disorder, PTSD, shell shock - these are the survival brain misfiring. Apparently most people are born with spiders & snakes pre-coded on the list. And mice are born with cats in their list - a newborn mouse panics when exposed to cat hair.

The frontal lobe does the thinking and moralising and logic stuff. But it doesn't have the same hard-wire privileges of the amygdala. It gets information far later and takes longer to respond. Throw a ball at a person. They will invariably duck immediately, then say "what was that?". The survival brain saw the danger immediately and generated the ducking survival action. The frontal lobe eventually woke up and got vaguely fascinated about what they hell just happened. It seems we are hard-wired to survive; and be logical later.

The Amygdala (left red) and the Frontal Lobe (right blue)

So we've got these brains operating independently. When we're scared the survival brain is dominant and triggering defensive responses. When we're safe the logical brain is dominant and making moral and sensible decision. Simon Sinek tells us why good managers make you feel safe.

Let me stretch the hypothesis and suggest that herding creatures feel safest when they are in the company of others that "feel" like the same herd: Genes, Qualifications, Profession, Race, Religion, School, Politics,... The 911 attacks triggered enormous herding polarisation. Winning the rugby world cup defined the "South African" herd and aligned those within it against an external common enemy. My takeout is that environments of perceived safety allow morality, tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Perceived danger awakens defensive responses and cause polarization into herds and survival responses. "I never touched it!"

The moments when the brightest, most trusted people look you straight in the eye and blatantly lie. They're scared. Something has awakened their fear of herd expulsion. For managers and governments: if you want teamwork and a sense of national identity - make people feel safe.


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at 

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