Can Pain Be an Effective Call to Action?

If you are trapped in the nightmare you will probably be more strongly motivated to awaken than someone who is just caught in the ups and downs of an ordinary dream.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now

The quote above rings true. Why do we will ourselves to wake up during a nightmare, while we remain blissfully ignorant during regular or pleasant dreams?

Tony Robbins describes in his book Awaken the Giant Within the following scenario:

I believe that life is like a river, and that most people jump on the river of life without ever really deciding where they want to end up. So, in a short period of time, they get caught up in the current: current events, current fears, current challenges.

When they come to forks in the river, they don’t consciously decide where they want to go, or which is the right direction for them. They merely ‘go with the flow’. They become a part of the mass of people who are directed by the environment instead of by their own values. As a result, they feel out of control.

They remain in this unconscious state until one day the sound of the raging water awakens them, and they discover that they’re five feet from Niagara Falls in a boat with no oars. At this point, they say, ‘Oh shoot!’. 

Tony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within

This scenario is similar to the nightmare scenario is that we only really awaken when we realize that catastrophe is looming. We can no longer ignore the pain we are experiencing and are forced into action.

One of the biggest human motivators is the avoidance of pain, even more than pursuing pleasure. It’s been shown in experiments that humans refuse to gamble on a coin toss until the ratio of the reward is twice as much as their initial stake they could lose. This is explained by Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning theory of loss aversion – people hate losing more than they enjoy winning.

So how do we avoid noticing that life is going sour before it’s too late? One way is to increase our reference points in our lives. This is the same as raising our standards, or turning up a metaphorical thermostat. This applies to our finances, health, relationships, and any other area of our life. If we have higher standards, we will feel ‘pain’ even when other people may not, which we can use as motivation to get where we deem is acceptable.

Therefore, pursuing a goal means you must be willing to sacrifice. To get something “better” you will have to give up something – be it energy, time, even sense of current identity. Having a higher level of reference will mean that you have to be ready to meet the challenge of living life at a higher level – taking more responsibility and using up more effort.

Success Leaves Clues, but We Shouldn’t Disregard Luck

A quote popularized by Tony Robbins – “Success leaves clues” – can get us very excited about lofty goals. If we were only to follow the playbook of mega-successful entrepreneurs, sportspeople, politicians and artists, we could (and should) achieve the same results. But what most people are poor at understanding is the role of luck in success.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, highlights books like Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras that describe common characteristics of successful companies that are built for growth and long-lasting success. Kahneman argues that the companies that are chosen for their success are statistical anomalies, rather than the consequence of skill. Many companies run exactly the same way would fail due to the role of luck and chance. Therefore, the conclusions made in these types of books could well be useless.

Although it is difficult to get your head around, Kahneman’s point makes sense. A year after their inception, Google were willing to sell their company for $1m, but the deal didn’t go through because the buyer said the price was too high. There are likely a multitude of other ‘lucky’ events in the company’s history that will have helped Google to get where they are today.

But just because a lot of success is down to luck, doesn’t mean that we should no longer try. The real question is: How can we put ourselves in more positions to get lucky? We are much more likely to get signed by a professional football club if we play in front of scouts and spectators than if we played in our back-garden where nobody saw us.

How UK Government Has Used Statistics to Influence Behaviour During the Covid-19 Pandemic

At the time of writing there are currently 161 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 in my area, according to a page on the BBC website. That’s the same as 0.161% of the population.

Which statistic sounds more daunting?

Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow that when formatting a probability, a frequency (e.g. 161 per 100,000) elicits a more emotional response than a percentage does. We picture 161 people that are infected, and therefore realize that there’s a threat. It’s much more difficult for us to imagine 0.161% as a threat, and formatting the statistic in this way makes it seem like Covid-19 is much less of an issue.

I believe that the UK government are familiar with this phenomenon, and have chosen to present statistics as total case numbers and frequencies per 100,000 of population (instead of percentages). Amid a national lockdown, the government of course wants compliance and this is a small detail that can influence the public perception of Covid-19.

I am not suggesting that the government have been deviant or unethical in any way, but the fact that the format in which statistics are written does influence the way that we think about things.