The Risk of Risk: LeDoux on How the Scene Implies Danger

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In my last post I mentioned that Bowlby pulls from ethology when he tells us that humans and many higher order animals have certain innate fears:

  • darkness
  • sudden large changes of stimulus level including:
    • loud noises
    • sudden movement
    • strange people (or strange animals)
    • strange things

“The explanation of why individuals should so regularly respond to these situations with fear,” writes Bowlby in Affectional Bonds, “is held to be that, whilst none of the situations is intrinsically dangerous, each carries with it an increased risk [emphasis in original] of danger.” Bowlby tells us that there is risk—for example, taking on a risky situation like a steep mountain trail—and the risk of risk—for example, am I able to import help or aid into my overall system if in taking on risk I exceed my abilities. Suffice it to say that the risk of risk is largely about implied forms of risk. As Bowlby talks about in Affectional Bonds, a large segment of the psychological community discounts at best and denies at worst the importance of implied risk or Bowlby’s risk of risk.

I’m a fan of work by neurobiologist Joseph LeDoux. Why? Well, for two reasons: 1) LeDoux often pulls from Bowlby’s work, and, 2) LeDoux is no stranger to the world of ethology. (1) As an example, LeDoux, writing in his 1996 book entitled The Emotional Brain, uses the following quote by Bowlby (pulled from Bowlby’s first book in his trilogy on attachment):

The basic structure of man’s behavioral equipment resembles that of infrahuman species but has in the course of evolution undergone special modifications that permit the same ends to be reached by a much greater diversity of means. … The early form is not superseded: it is modified, elaborated, and augmented but it still determines the overall pattern. … Instinctive behavior in humans … is assumed to derive from some prototypes that are common to other animal species.

Both Bowlby and LeDoux (in using Bowlby’s quote) are trying to make a simple but controversial point: if we observe certain instinctive behaviors in higher order animals, we should expect to see these same behaviors—“modified, elaborated, and augmented” (quoting Bowlby)—in humans. (This point is controversial because some believe that animal models say very little if anything about human models.) This is why Bowlby feels justified in placing animal and human fear reactions on the same continuum. In this post I’d like to briefly mention how LeDoux takes Bowlby’s idea of innate fear reactions to a higher level: how an entire scene can imply danger not only for higher order animals but also for us humans. I find this to be an important point because those who only believe in actual, real, fear-producing events (like literally being chased by a predator) also tend to overlook the possibility that implications can trigger a fear response.

The ability to assess for and react to implied danger is one of those evolutionary adaptations that increases an organism’s chances for survival. Humans, as you would expect, are masters at assessing for and reacting to implied danger. (2) Let me give you an example of how a scene could imply danger. As LeDoux points out in Emotional Brain, “From the point of view of survival, it is better to respond to potentially dangerous events [like coming upon a curled stick in the woods and taking it for a snake] than to fail to respond. The cost of treating a stick as a snake is less, in the long run, than the cost of treating a snake as a stick.”

Here’s the scene. Imagine you are an antelope. (Feel free to imagine that you are playing with some deer.) You come upon a small pond. It’s late in the afternoon during the summer months. You’re thirsty after all that playing. That small body of water looks mighty tempting. But you freeze and ultimately decide to run away from the pond. Why? Well, the scene implied danger, and you experienced implied fear. Here are the implications that you encountered:

  • the wind is to your back, therefore you are not able to smell potential predators.
  • you approach the pond from the east and the sun is in your eyes
  • there are several large rocks and dense bushes at the water’s edge

Taken as a whole the above implies to you the likely presence of a predator behind each rock or bush. Your desire to stay alive trumps your desire for a quenching drink and you move away. You did not actually see a predator, but the scene implied the likely presence of a predator. Many higher order animals, especially prey animals (like deer and antelope), depend on their abilities to assess for and react to implied danger. And, yes, we can see these abilities developed in humans.

Crime scene investigators depend on their abilities to assess for what a scene implies as far as who might have committed a crime. Law enforcement agents who work out in the field depend on their abilities to sense the implications of a scene. They develop certain intuitions born from years of experience. If a scene implies a possible ambush, law enforcement agents working in the field may pull back or call for reinforcements.

As you would expect, military science is full of lessons on how being able to sense the implications of a scene confers certain military advantages. As an example, the Imperial Japanese Navy planned their attack on Pearl Harbor to bring about the highest level of surprise: begin the attack on a Sunday morning so that the largest number of American service men and women are either eating breakfast or attending church services. Who would have thought that “early morning” and “Sunday” would imply danger, but they did. In general, military personnel are trained to look for implied danger: a bucolic field may be filled with landmines, or an innocent looking civilian vehicle may contain a suicide bomber. Once a soldier returns from war, “From the point of view of survival, it is better to respond to potentially dangerous events [like hearing a car backfire] than to fail to respond. The cost of treating a backfire as gunfire is less, in the long run, than the cost of treating gunfire as backfire” (paraphrasing LeDoux from above). (3)

Fighting fires is all about being able to assess for and react to implied danger. Firefighters are trained to “get inside the mind” of a fire, to know what it’s doing, and will do, as it remains largely hidden from view behind closed doors, ceilings, floors, and walls. For a great cinematographic example, see director Ron Howard’s 1991 movie Backdraft.

This is a good place to mention preliminary but intriguing research data that suggests that insecurely attached persons are better at assessing for signs of danger. Researchers gather a group of people for some trumped-up reason and put them in a room. They then pump harmless smoke under the door where the group has assembled. As it turns out, it is the insecurely attached people who not only recognize the implied danger—where there’s smoke there’s fire—but also come up with a plan of escape: through a window or a door at the back of the room. In contrast, the securely attached people tend to not recognize the potential danger, and once they do, they take a “wait and see” attitude: clearly the researchers know we are in here and will bring help. This type of research reminds me of all the various disaster movies—The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Alien (1979), Deep Blue Sea (1999)—where there is a group of “wait for help” people who get picked off one by one, and a single person or very small group who is/are able to “out smart” the danger by being able to assess for and react to implied danger. (4) Sorry securely attached people but at least in the movies, you’re so much chum for the implied danger du jour. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. That may be true, but if you wish to increase your odds of getting out of that foxhole alive, pray that there are a couple of insecurely attached people in there with you.

Some call the ability to react to implied danger as having “street smarts.” During a trip I made to the Ukraine, I asked my interpreter friend, “How is it that everyone seems to know I’m a foreigner?” She replied, “You smile too much and are willing to make eye contact.” She continued, “To do so during the German occupation could have gotten you detained, even killed. Those habits do not go away easily. They keep their distance from you because you are attracting attention to yourself.” (5) Trust me, I curtailed my smiling out in public after that lesson.

So, psychologists may “poo poo” our ability to assess for and react to implied danger, but, trust me, it is these same psychologists who avoid going to the “bad part of town” late at night alone. Why? Too much implied danger causing too much implied fear.


(1) – It doesn’t hurt that LeDoux also pulls from other researchers, such as brain researchers Antonio Damasio and Steven Pinker, who are favorites of mine.

(2) – Sadly, this is not true for persons who fall on the autism spectrum. Such persons typically have a hard time with implication of any sort. This begs the question, “Why would evolution change its course on the ability to deal with implied danger?” LeDoux gives us one possible answer: Man is now playing an active role in creating situations that potentially cause fear. As LeDoux puts it in Emotional Brain, “[I]n our quest to conquer nature we have created new forms of danger. Automobiles, airplanes, weapons, and nuclear energy give us a step up in the world, but each is also a potential source of harm.” It may well be that persons on the autism spectrum are better suited to ferret out dangers endemic to the digital world, like computer viruses.

(3) – Military personnel often have a hard time returning to civilian life because they find themselves regularly reacting as if they were still on the battlefield. Military personnel experiencing PTSD have an even tougher time because they can go through “reliving experiences”—experiencing a past war event as if it were happening today in the here-and-now.

(4) – I would suggest that you can see these themes reflected in a movie like The Hunger Games (2012). And I could draw a parallel between Aliens (1986) and The Hunger Games. The main character in both movies is called upon to use her maternal instincts to ferret out danger and protect a child. In The Hunger Games, danger comes from both the natural as well as digital worlds. The Hunger Games, then, may be looked at as a crossover movie transitioning us from so-called analog dangers to digital dangers. Crossover movies are nothing new. I would point to Blade Runner (1982) as a crossover movie. Maybe these crossover movies are challenging us to ask the following question: “Will biologically based humans have what it takes to out smart creatures with artificial intelligence?” Truly, AI ups the implied danger game. Already I’m constantly scanning my email for scammers, phisers, and spoofers. Welcome to The AI Danger Games.

(5) – Children who grow up in alcoholic families tend to be good at sensing implied danger. They know intuitively that to draw unwanted attention is to risk being verbally and physically abused. These unfortunate kids get the implications associated with abuse, however, they tend to gloss over the implications associated with love and care.