March 6, 2016

Kierkegaard on the Psychology of a Risk-Averse Society

Kierkegaard, in The Present Age:

“If the jewel which every one desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while, closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daringand enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all ‘something must be done.’

“The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, and with the eyes of connoisseurs appraise the accomplished skater who could skate almost to the very edge (i.e. as far as the ice was still safe and the danger had not yet begun) and then turn back. The most accomplished skater would manage to go out to the furthermost point and then perform a still more dangerous-looking run, so as to make the spectators hold their breath and say: ‘Ye Gods! How mad; he is risking his life.’

“But look, and you will see that his skill was so astonishing that he managed to turn back just in time, while the ice was perfectly safe and there was still no danger. As at the theatre, the crowd would applaud and acclaim him, surge homeward with the heroic artist in their midst, to honour him with a magnificent banquet. For intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick, and reality into a play.”

What strikes me most about this passage isn’t that he longs for an older, more courageous era. It’s that he offers what seems like an accurate psychology of the spectators and the society of people who play it safe.

The truth is no one wants to say they’re playing it safe. But more than that, they will construct a whole new romantic mythology about the skill of turning back on the ice at the last second before it thins. Risk aversion is the new bold; skill at being tentative, a virtue, praised as daring. In this twisted logic of a risk averse society, courage is proclaimed everywhere, all are told to follow their passions to the edge of the ice — but no one reaches for what’s good beyond it.

To the edge of the thin ice — I can’t help but think of the people in our present age who are praised as risk-takers because, out of the Ivy League, they became hedge fund analysts or investment bankers. Based on their braggadocio, you would think they’re swashbucklers. I particularly enjoyed “risk” models for supposedly safe assets like mortgage-backed securities filled with subprime mortgages, or “value at risk” models that fooled banks into expecting future safety from a long period of prior calm. Even now in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, I think of those who call themselves disruptive entrepreneurs and party like rock stars, but whose innovations are quite incremental and over time fizzle and grow stale like pop songs.

The tech industry has its members who claim they are changing the world or seeking “world domination,” but the actual ambition and risks undertaken are not higher than skateboarding without a helmet. Consider the World Domination Summit: “In 2014, nearly 3,000 people descended on Portland, Oregon…It was an adventure like no other, complete with Bollywood dancing, hammock races, non-stop meet-ups, and our very own world record for the largest yoga chain.”

By contrast, in the 1960s, pilots in the U.S. Navy faced a 23 percent chance of dying in an accident in their career (which does not include combat deaths and, at the time of the Vietnam War, these were quite high). Could you imagine a startup whose description for a job opening included that grim nugget? And beyond being willing to join, would you be delighted (as some were)?

Safety can be dangerous. In complex systems, too much concern for safety for the parts can create a dangerous fragility in the whole. Thus, trying to save every single tree from potential fires makes the forest as a whole denser and even more combustible in the long run. Periodic small fires clear out the brush, preventing a build up of fuel. And the reverse action is also at play in these systems: resilience in the whole depends upon experiments and adaptability for the parts. For example, the U.S. economy churns individual companies in and out of the S&P 500, but our standards of living continue to rise. Normally.

As Kierkegaard warns, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we are more courageous in business than the facts warrant. The current fragile macro conditions in the economy and weak productivity growth imply our micro-foundations are less experimental and bold than all the tech-founder-dent-in-the-universe-hype would have you believe. The proportion of young people under thirty starting new companies is at a 24 year low. The consensus among economists is that innovation, outside of information technologies and oil and gas extraction, has stagnated since 1973.Unemployment is back to below five percent for the first time since the 2007 financial crisis, but the main issues of the presidential election are xenophobia, protectionism, belligerence, and vengefulness — fearful themes more correlated with economic contraction than prosperity.Americans change jobs less frequently than they used to; they also move across the country to new cities less often. Demographics say our future is Florida: a slightly warmer place full of old timid people waiting it out.

In the late 20th century, we also learned wealth and health produced obese suburbanites. Indeed, suburban boredom became a genre of serious literature and art: for example, Revolutionary Road, Rabbit Run, the Bell Jar, Stepford Wives, anything by John Cheever, American Beauty, Mad Men, etc — and all adventure was left to low status genres: science fiction, comic book heroes, and fantasy.

Lacking any backbone, universities have given up on their nobler purposes of character formation, debate, and educating a citizenry for democracy. They preach the value of diversity, charge a higher price than ever, but then act so as to level differences of opinion and thought. Orwellian safe spaces have overtaken the public sphere on campus, lest someone somewhere hear an idea they are disgusted by. Controversial speakers and even not-so-controversial speakers are routinely disinvited from speaking to students. Students support speech restrictions when they arrive on campus as freshmen. Standup comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld fear the wrath and avoid gigs at colleges. We are left with the best that has been thought and said — so long as it offends no one — which pretty much leaves poststructuralist interpretations of Mr. Happy, Mr. Topsy-Turvy and Little Miss Helpful for graduate English Lit seminars.

Again, the health of the whole depends on the ability of the parts to adapt and withstand stress. There can be no safety without dangerous ideas.Censoring speech atrophies the mind, for without dissent, groups polarize to even more extremes, limiting their ability to home in on the truth. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote an excellent piece on how measures like trigger warnings are backfiring on campuses, making mental health worse and students even more thin-skinned. Like zoo animals who are released into the wild and find it difficult to cope, coddled university students are ill prepared for anything requiring a commitment to truth.

But just the same, as Kierkegaard would predict, you don’t hear anything about playing it safe and inculcating hypersensitivity when it comes to debates on the importance of college. Instead you hear a lot about how the liberal arts are necessary because they dare students to challenge their old assumptions and to think critically. Given recent events, it is hard not to notice we are on very thin ice indeed.

What fun Kierkegaard would have if he were alive to write about our society. All this bluster about heroes, American dreams, visionaries, and passion, and yet we have to question who’s taking meaningful risks at all.

Further Reading:

The Anatomy of Courage by Lord Moran

The Mystery of Courage by William Ian Miller

Searching for Safety by Aaron Wildavsky

Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein

Originally published on March 6, 2016 on the 1517 Medium.