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(7 years ago with my brother – Alayo, Now taller than I am. And I have no idea why we aren’t smiling 🙂 )

Like it or not, it’s the amygdalaLike I said, Plain, Pure Bull**it!  –  The working self-concept and Seneca’s Justified Ego HarmA 5% Chance of a Jihadist Blowing up your CityFriends, we are dying every day.

Following through with my tradition from last year, one way I celebrate my birthdays is to write about ideas that do really resonates with me. Last year it was about some 25 lessons. This year I write about something we all battle with – Neophobia.

 Like it or not, it’s the amygdala

There are several dimensions to the self-knowledge (defined literally), we have the self-schema – the set of beliefs we have about our behaviors; the working self-concept – how we see ourselves at a specific moment; the self-esteem – how we represent our self-knowledge. Etcetera.

These terms are not just empty jargons concocted by some social psychologists to make things complicated, they are important to understand how our versions of these concepts influence our behavior.

Neophobia – the fear of doing new things –  is just an example to explain the relevance of our self-knowledge (out of plenty).

To start, most of us are neophobic, at least in its mildest form, and this is because when we are in an unknown territory, the most expected outcome is failure (negative outcome), which does a couple of things neurologically leading to fear, followed rapidly by (usually) plain, pure bull**iting

Since it’s my birthday, I am happy to share a recent neophobic experience. I have had a perennial interest in effective altruism (doing good well). After reading a couple of books on the subject, and some introspection, I decided on a project – to raise money for indigents for cataract surgery in Nigeria (the logic of which I have written about here).

But just about immediately I began to feel uneasy. On retrospection, I have subconsciously expected a negative outcome something along this line:

“what if I start a campaign and nobody donates? What if the campaign is ignored? What if I don’t have the time to keep up with managing the campaign, what if this, what if that …”  you get the point.

Once this information enters the brain, in fact, it’s being generated in the brain, from my little grasp of neurology. It – one way or the other – ends up at the center of emotional reactions, amygdala; and then we feel fear.

          MRI coronal view of the amygdala

But the drama is far from over, it ends with an extremely popular self-talk:

Here was my own version:

“I am going to be busy anyways, I have so much going in the lab to even think about fund raising and managing a campaign”.

Like I said: plain, pure, bull**it!

But to really go to the root, I ask, what generates such demotivating fear in the first place?

That, we will turn next. 

The Working Self- Concept and Seneca’s Justified Ego Harm

Again, the working self-concept is how you see ourselves. That is, how we answer the question: who am I? As such, taking any action that has the potential to harm the working self-concept will drive fear.

For example, I have hypothesized that Seneca must have gone through the same phase while leaving exile (Corsica) in 64AD.

You see, Seneca was a stoic philosopher, something like a saint (but not close, even though you might have got that idea by reading his books, he unfortunately engaged in some shenanigans).

Around 65AD he was invited by Agrippina to tutor the teenage emperor, Nero, after his rise to power. Given the endemic corruption of Roman emperors, that was a very dirty job for a stoic. However, if he had had that fear, then it was justified, as history will have it – Seneca got his hands really dirty.

But, in most cases such fears are never rational nor justified.

In my case, I subconsciously imagined that if I started this campaign and it somehow fails, that will affect how I answer the question “who am I?”. What will be in essence a harm to my ego. If you have followed this thought tightly, you will see that this fear of failure is a mechanism to preempt some sort of low self-esteem, that is how we represent our self-knowledge. Which, like I have stated (and I will show very soon), is usually not rational nor justifiable.

In my case, since it hinges on morality, let’s look at the moral justification.

Thomas Scanlon.

Thomas Scalon, the Harvard Philosopher shares with us an insightful thought experiment:

During the broadcast of a football game, one of the technicians in charge of the broadcast, after some mishap, found himself in severe pain and he would have to stop the game for at least an hour to halt the pain. This will apparently cut off the pleasure of millions of people watching the football game.

Scalon concluded that no matter the number of people watching the game, i.e. no matter the quantity of the addition of individual pleasure from millions of people watching the game, it does not morally outweigh the extreme pain of our dear technician.

How on earth do you then justify the fear of failure (or the illusion of an ego harm) against restoring the vision of scores of people?

Next, we turn to its rationality.

A 5% Chance of a Jihadist Blowing up you Home City.

You wake up in the morning, and you get this message on your iPhone:

“Dear Fellow, the security agency has deemed it fit to let residents of the city be aware of a 5% chance of the city been blown up tomorrow by our most hated Jihadist group, Thank you”.

You later found out that everyone in town got the same message.

If I could muster courage to a walk through the downtown of your city the next day, I will be surprised to meet you, your friends, members of your family or anybody for that matter.

This is the possibility effect: “unlikely effects that are considerably overweighted”: That is, we don’t think in terms of probability rather we think in terms of possibility. unfortunately, the possibility effect applies the same way in non-life threatening situations.

When we are going into an unknown territory i.e. when we are trying out new things, we are faced with alternative options, and if the options happen to include a bad event such as failure, we become risk averse and in far much cases, we settle for less.

And, yet friends, we are dying every day.

PS: The charity campaign, 5bucksforcataract is still ongoing.

Here is a 1 min video trailer of our documentary

Click here to go to the fundraising page.



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  1. Obiora Okechukwu says:

    Great Article, Tomi. I think I suffer from neophobia more than, well, most people. And it is one weakness I need to shed. But it is not always a bad thing though. Perhaps, don’t you think neophobia may, in a way, be part of the glue to our present commitments?

    And on the Jihadist part, you mentioned that “we don’t think in terms of probability rather we think in terms of possibility. unfortunately, the possibility effect applies the same way in non-life threatening situations.” Do you mean that to be that be that we think in terms of outcomes/consequences not necessarily the probability (it appears to me that probability and possibility are essentially the same thing).

    In the end, happy birthday to you. May fortune smile on you (Seneca may call this a harmful prayer though =D)

    ps: I have read more of Seneca’s writing than I have read about him. Please, do share some of his shenanigans.

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      Thank you Obiora.
      I agree with you Neophobia is not always a bad thing. The heuristic I have begun to adopt was intimated in the article: how does the ‘drama’ ends? I think we do know when we are giving bullshit reasons for not doing what we ought (or can) do.
      For the Jihadist part, this what I mean: The chances of a Jihadist blowing up the town is about 5%. If the town has a population of 100,000. Statistically, I will expect 95,000 folks to hang around in the town. That is if they think in terms of probability. But, like I said I wouldn’t expect to see even a bird in town: Meaning folks think in terms of whether it is possible or not (possibility). So, you are right. I might have worded it differently.
      The ‘writer’ Seneca, might have preferred “may our days be rough” haha.
      On a second thought, shenanigans might have been an understatement for Seneca. I will share them.

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