R. Paul Wilson On: Why Fear Is The Enemy
Can thinking like a gambler help us navigate times of fear and uncertainty?
At the time of writing, many countries are gripped by uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vaccines have proven successful at reducing serious cases and seasonal decline suggests that the summer of 2021 might be a step towards the normality that preceded this horrible disease but people remain wary, cautious and risk averse.
They are reluctant to take the next step towards once familiar habits because the odds against them have changed since the arrival of this new pathogen causing people to hesitate or allow their worst fears to dictate their best options.
In other words, they’re playing a game they don’t fully understand.
H. P. Lovecraft famously observed that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Those of us who’ve had to call a giant raise know how fear can easily intrude upon logic and it can be hard to push emotion aside – especially that emotion.
A healthy amount of fear protects us from ourselves, our environment and the choices we are required to make on a daily basis.
But as uncertainty increases or the stakes are raised, that fear can become counterproductive, prevent us from acting, or steer us to make the easy decision instead of the right one.
Gamblers know this all too well, often walking a fine line between caution and reckless abandon in the face of seemingly random outcomes.
A pure gambler might risk any amount on any proposition while others look for the best odds and available information that might improve their chances in the long run.
Stepping into any gaming situation without the best information or a solid understanding of a game will ultimately result in losses over time, while studying and applying best strategies can shift the odds effectively.
Yet, even when playing perfectly, the nature of gambling is such that, at some point, you will need to take chances.
But the more you know about the possible outcome of those chances, the better informed (and paid) you will be in the long run.
In life (outside the casino or card room), we can apply this way of thinking when presented with difficult or challenging situations.
The higher the stakes, the harder it is to make any decision but if we take a lesson from the advantage player’s handbook, we might learn to calculate the best odds and set aside or remove emotional concerns (fear) from the equation.
Crunching The Numbers
Applying a little gambling sense to life’s most challenging situations is not always the best approach but it can offer a cold perspective when presented with frightening uncertainty.
And during the pandemic, millions of people have been asked to make a simple decision without understanding exactly what the repercussions might be: whether or not to get vaccinated.
This is a casino blog and my topic is deception, cheating and how to beat any system so I’m not here to advocate one way or another about whether you should be vaccinated but I think it’s valuable to share my own thought process before deciding whether or not to take a vaccine.
Like any gambling proposition, the result of vaccinating millions – perhaps billions – of people with rapidly developed vaccines is hard to calculate since there isn’t a history for these particular vaccines.
If this were the flu or measles, we would have decades of evidence to inform and encourage our decision but in this case, we have good reason to be cautious.
My personal situation is that I’m over 50, overweight and male, which puts me into three categories that have slightly worse odds than being younger, slimmer or female.
Despite having a strong constitution against respiratory infections, this coronavirus is different and can cause potential vascular issues so I must concede that the odds of suffering a severe infection are slightly elevated and the outcome of a severe infection potentially permanent.
My solution was to set fear aside, focus on the odds and look at it as a game.
On the vaccine side of the table, I could place my bets on new technology mRNA vaccines or old-technology vaccines with a long history of efficacy.
Alternatively, I could roll the dice with the disease and risk the potential consequences.
I did my research and learned that potential vaccine-related problems were extremely small based on millions of doses already given and compared those to the statistics for my age group if I contracted COVID-19.
Calculating the odds of suffering a severe reaction to the vaccine compared to the odds of suffering a severe reaction to COVID-19 produced a clear result.
In fact, it wasn’t even close.
I booked my vaccine immediately and although I remain concerned, I feel informed (and comforted) thanks to the cold logic I applied to make that decision.
I shared this approach with other people, and it made enough sense to encourage a few friends to play the numbers rather than follow their fears.
We still don’t know the long-term effects of vaccinating so many people so quickly and those who refuse the vaccine should not be dismissed as being “anti-vaxx” – there’s real cause for concern but the odds seem pretty clear (in my case) so I played my cards accordingly.
While this kind of thinking might overcome fear in many circumstances, fear itself remains a powerful and dangerous tool that is easily misused with long-lasting repercussions.
Fear As A Weapon
The pandemic has caused a predictable atmosphere of fear across the planet and if I might be forgiven a political opinion, leaders in the west have failed to offer true leadership, relying instead on blunt solutions such as lockdowns, mask mandates and curfews.
I’m not here to debate the efficacy of these measures (though I think the results can now be measured by comparing different approaches between similar nations) but it’s worth noting that many western governments deliberately employed fear as a tactic to control their people in a situation where fear was already a dangerous factor.
As a form of manipulation, amplifying existing emotions is right out of the con artists’ playbook and can be all too effective in the short term.
I was therefore appalled to see countries grind to a halt based on wild prophecies of doom (aka “modelling”) that ramped-up an existing atmosphere of fear instead of calming those fears or helping people think rationally instead of emotionally.
Fear was literally the weapon of choice used by supposedly democratic nations to control millions of their own people and it worked all too well.
That fear has now grown deep roots and any return to “normality” will be hampered by a stark increase in caution caused by a culture of mixed messages, negative media and dire warnings instead of calm, focused leadership.
Con artists around the world have learned a terrific lesson from this scenario and continue to take advantage of this atmosphere of fear to target millions with scams that promise comfort, safety and certainty.
As human beings we are all too pliable and easy to manipulate when our emotions are high and as H.P. Lovecraft observed, fear can cause us to make choices we might never even consider in the cold light of day.
As individuals we should develop tools for making decisions in the face of uncertainty; understanding the odds and applying the principles of advantage play can at least guarantee we make the best decisions with whatever information is available.