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Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D.
Shlomo Breznitz Ph.D.

Cry Wolf: When Experience Becomes Fateful

Our brains are incapable of not learning from experience.

In my previous blog, I argued that experience, once it leads to automatic routines, can be detrimental. The fast and efficient reactions become out of our control and prevent us from making the necessary adjustments in slightly altered circumstances. In this blog I wish to discuss yet another potential danger of prior experience.

We are all familiar with the story of the shepherd who cried wolf and subsequently paid for it dearly. In one form or another, this story appears in most, if not all, cultures. The universality of this theme clearly suggests its deep rooted wisdom. Here it is not the frequent repetition that leads to an established routine, but rather a single, but emotionally meaningful experience, that dramatically reduces our reaction to similar subsequent threats. Laboratory research suggests that a single false alarm reduces the fear reaction to the next threat by close to fifty percent. (Shlomo Breznitz: "Cry Wolf: The psychology of false alarms." Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984).

The main problem seems to be that our brains are incapable of not learning from experience. The ensuing loss of credibility that follows a false alarm is thus practically inevitable. Furthermore, the more frightening the initial alarm, the greater the credibility loss following the realization that it was a false one. Needless to say, frequent exposure to threats of hurricanes, floods, and other types of dangers, all tend to desensitize us to future threats.

Not long ago, people knew about an approaching hurricane when it was practically upon them. Consequently, the number of false alarms was much smaller. These days, with sophisticated satellite pictures, even distant, low probability events, are easily detected and reported in the media. However, only a very tiny number of detected hurricanes actually hit a particular area, thus producing a large number of false alarms. The willingness of people to take precautionary measures is much reduced by these repetitive false threats.

The ways to reduce the negative impact of false alarms, whether in the context of natural disasters, or in medical threats, are quite complex. Some of them are reported in the forthcoming book by Breznitz and Hemingway: "Maximum brainpower: Challenging the brain for health and wisdom". (Ballantine, June 2012).

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About the Author
Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D.

Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., is a psychologist specializing in stress and cognition.

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