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How Do We Make Decisions for Radiation Safety? Part I

June 13, 2012

The answers to this question are very complex. Despite my studies for 25 years with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) trying to understand how people acquire information and make decisions, I still have much to learn. While the MBTI provides helpful insights on dominant data gathering preferences using our five senses or intuition and dominant decision making preferences using either logical thinking or feeling, decisions for safety involve all of these preferences at the same time. Our brains are programmed to protect us in many different ways.

In this monthly Newsletter I would like to share some observations drawn from a recent book by David Ropeik, “How Risky is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. 2010 (Amazon – $13.60). These observations will also build on materials presented in Newsletters on September 19 “The Power of the Subconscious Mind” and on October 27 “Radiation – to Fear or Not to Fear?”

Two Systems for Safety Decisions

People make decisions for radiation safety based on how much they fear radiation. There is nothing wrong with fear which is a natural response of our minds for our safety. We have survived as a species by paying attention to our fears and reacting as needed for protection. While we may take time to think about dangers, most of our fears originate at a subconscious or instinctive level which reacts very rapidly as appropriate for protecting us from imminent danger, such as a striking snake. Psychologists have commonly believed that there are two separate systems involved in safety decisions: 1) reason and rational analysis of facts and 2) emotion, instinct, and gut reactions. Ropeik says these are not separate systems. We are not perfectly rational or completely emotional and instinctive. System 1 seems to be favored by technical specialists and may lead to more intelligent judgments, however, this approach is very slow and takes more effort. Also, we often do not have all the facts for making a good decision, the time for gathering the facts, or the knowledge to understand what the facts mean. On the other hand, System 2 is often favored by non-technical people based on gut instincts and feelings which are much faster and does not need all the facts before sounding an alarm for safety. Ropeik says we actually use both systems all the time and he says we are Affective. This means we make decisions using both our minds and heart. We decide based on facts and how we feel about the facts, as well as instincts, values, cultural views, personal experience, and life circumstances.

We are Programmed to Fear First and Think Second

Our first reactions to danger happen subconsciously in the part of our brain close to the top of the spinal cord called the amygdala. Sensory information speeds from our five senses through our spinal cord to a group of cells in the center of our brain called the thalamus. These cells act as a relay station between the midbrain which sits directly on top of the spinal cord (sensory pathway) and the larger cerebral cortex (where thinking occurs). The thalamus also shares a signal with the amygdala which resides closer that the cerebral cortex, so it responds quicker. The amygdala recognizes signals of danger and immediately mobilizes automatic responses for protection. Ropeik calls these Fight, Flight, and Freeze responses. Before you are even consciously aware of danger, your body has already reacted without benefit of a slow rational analysis. If a snake is about to strike you, you do not want to take time to process the degree of danger. Somewhat later processing of information by the cerebral cortex may modify the fear response.

While the amygdala responds immediately to external indications of danger, it may also respond to memories of previous signs of danger. These memories of danger are implicit, meaning that you cannot consciously recall them, but the amygdala, whose goal is to protect us, will remember. As the amygdala responds it also enhances our ability to consciously recall explicit memories of danger. Thus, recall and reaction are speeded up when the same danger is encountered again.

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