Monday, August 17, 2009

Fear & Hope

Watching the current debate on health care reform has been interesting, to say the least. The battle is a psychological classic - will our most primal negative emotion of fear overwhelm the progressive power of the transcendent positive emotion of hope? Right now, it looks like fear is (once again) winning.

Psychologists have known for quite some time that "bad is stronger than good". What this means is that negative emotions are much more salient than positive emotions. They also result in powerful physiological reactions. Fear, for example, causes cardiovascular reactivity, which increases blood flow to the large muscles allowing us to maximize our capacity to escape imminent danger. If only those feeling the most fearful at town hall meetings would run out of the room as fast as they can!

What's more important for the healthful evolution of human society is that negative emotions narrow our attention and limit our focus to the short-term. This is important for escaping predators, but is a terrible motivator for inspired societal change.

The survival value of positive emotions, on the other hand, is in the potential for the future. They literally broaden our capacity to envision a better future for ourselves - that is their ultimate purpose. Now, more than ever, we need positive emotions, such as hope, to guide us toward a more healthful future. The more the powerful emotion of fear guides our policy, the more short-sighted and less inspired this policy will be.

It looks likely that fear will overcome this time around. Ultimately, we must draw on the creative and transformative powers of positive emotions, in spite of fear, to authentically open up to the possibilities that exist to expand human flourishing.

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