Look before you leap
The desire to avoid unpleasant things is incredibly strong. Nobody likes being dirty, diseased, distressed or disappointed. We dislike these sensations so much that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid them.
While avoiding unpleasant things is adaptive in a lot of situations (that’s obviously why we evolved to seek the release of it), there are times and places where is does more harm good.
The thing is, avoidance often only offers a temporary solution. No matter how terrified you are of the dentist’s chair, you can only put sitting in one off for so long. Sooner or later (barring an early death) a problem will arise that is so painful and/or debilitating that the discomfort it causes will over-ride your fear. And instead of a simple check up and cleaning you’ll end up having your fear reinforced.
Avoidance doesn’t just feed our anxiety and drive us to procrastination, there is also a large body of data demonstrating that the things we learn through escape and avoidance are extremely resistant to extinction. Because escape and avoidance evolved to help us survive in situations like those shown in the video below, lessons acquired through these drives can be extremely difficult to unlearn.
To avoid falling into the trap of maladaptive avoidance behavior you need to realize that unless you are in a near miss situation where immediate action is required to escape disaster, you should use your higher mental processes to assess a situation before chasing after the immediate gratification offered by simple avoidance.
The trap of avoidance is easy to all into and, unfortunately, avoidance reactions can inadvertently set off complex chain reactions that lead to unexpected problems. This happens in a broad range of situations as illustrated in a couple of recent news items.
First, in Scientific American blogs, Rob Dunn writes about how our desire to avoid sickness though widespread use of antibacterial soaps, wipes and surface treatments appears to be making us sicker instead of healthier. Dunn writes:
…Allison Aiello, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently surveyed all of the experimental or quasi-experimental studies published in English between 1980 and 2006 on the effectiveness of different hand washing strategies . Aiello focused on studies that compared different strategies, for example the use of normal soap versus the use of antibiotic soap, in terms of their effect on the probability of developing gastrointestinal or respiratory illness. Our intuition is that antibiotic soaps and wipes should make everyone healthier. Aiello’s results were something else entirely.
Aiello’s first result was fine enough, but it set the stage for the trouble to come. She found “the use of nonantibacterial soap with hand hygiene education interventions is efficacious for preventing both gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.” In other words, if you wash your hands with soap (and are educated about washing your hands with soap) you are less likely to get sick. Score one for intuition and grandma’s admonitions. But then things went terribly wrong.
Aiello next considered the antibiotic soaps and wipes now used, in one form or another, by 75% of American households. Odds are that you use them. Go check your labels. Sadly, Aiello and colleagues found that antibiotic soaps and wipes with triclosan were no more likely than good old-fashioned soap to prevent gastrointestinal or respiratory illness. In Aiello’s words, “There was little evidence for an additional impact of new products, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers or antibacterial soaps compared with nonantibacterial soaps, for reducing either gastrointestinal or respiratory infectious illness symptoms.”
Dunn cites studies that indicate that chronically ill people who used antibiotic soaps actually suffered from an increased susceptibility to coughs, colds and infections when compared to those who used regular soaps. He also discusses how, triclosan, the active ingredient in most of these products, is spreading it through the environment where it appears to be creating an ugly chain of unintended consequences.
In an interesting parallel, Lori Gottlieb’s How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, published in the July/August edition of The Atlantic illustrates how our desire to help those we care about avoid unpleasant feelings can actually turn them into chronically unhappy and unfulfilled people (bold emphasis is mine).
Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA … believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.
Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.
Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”
“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”
The mental systems you rely on to cope with stress, like those that make up your immune system, need regular challenges to stay fit and healthy. If a child is taught that every effort he makes will be treated as a success and that child never gets any kind of negative feedback on his performance, he’ll never learn to cope with adversity or limits. (And the same applies to your dog.)
But — putting efforts into helping your child or your dog avoid discomfort in the short term is a lot easier than making and implementing a plan to teach them how to avoid and cope with it on their own in the long term.
While avoidance motivation can help us figure out that a problem needs to be solved, outside of near miss situations, avoidance-based decision making is only adaptive when we use it to choose a specific goal and a course of action to achieve it. And that’s not easy to do.
Our avoidance drives aren’t specific. When you’re in avoidance mode you’re only focused on feeling good (or at least less bad) in the moment and all other goals are pushed aside.
If you’re a gazelle living living on the African savanna, avoidance reactions keep you alive. A gazelle’s only long term goals are to survive and reproduce, and avoidance reactions suit this kind of life well. A human with a job and a mortgage lives in a far more complex world and has a very different set of goals. We need to be able to select and maintain our focus on goals that can require years or even decades of effort to achieve. And that’s hard to do, because every day avoidance sets enticing little traps to divert us.