A Note About Choice, An Observation About Fear, and Parental Decisions   5 comments

It’s a great scene, but you can skip to 2:45 for the purposes of this post.

The scene is from 2007’s No Country For Old Men.  For anyone not into contemporary American cinema, Javier Bardem (the guy with the haircut) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Anton Chigurh, “an emotionless, compassionless killing machine. His inability to comprehend human life is matched only by his ability to take it, as he does with ruthless abandon throughout the running of No Country For Old Men… As for the victims who don’t have some sort of reason to be dead behind them, he flips a coin to decide their fate.”

Here’s the question.  What do you think he’s going to do if the gas station owner doesn’t call that coin?

You see, the character of Anton considers himself some sort of instrument of fate, almost a force of nature.  Once he decides to pull out that coin, there are two possible results; you call the toss correctly and you live, or you call it incorrectly and you die.  You could refuse to call the coin toss.  Nobody does this in the movie, but my guess is that Anton would probably start torturing you until you make a call; since he doesn’t believe that it’s fair for him to call the toss, he’d force you to do it.

I’m writing this to illustrate a point.  In some ways, your environment is like Anton.  Your environment will occasionally force you to make a choice, and many people refuse to acknowledge this.

When you wake up in the morning, sitting next to your bed on the nightstand is a metaphorical revolver with 1 “bullet” and somewhere around 100,000 empty chambers.  When you decide to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, you spin the chamber in a game of Russian Roulette and pull the trigger.  If you’ve picked the chamber with the bullet in it, somewhere between your bed and the bathroom you trip and fall and give yourself a fatal head injury.  When you get to the bathroom, there’s another metaphorical revolver with 1 bullet and about 100,000 empty chambers, you get to play again.  If you fail, you drown in the bathtub (note: for the morbidly statistically inclined, the chamber is about half that size if you’re a woman). Of course, some days you don’t even get to choose to get out of bed.  The alarm clock itself is a revolver and if you have a weak heart, there’s a small but statistically present chance that your clock will give you a heart attack.  Bang.  You’re dead.

It’s a game we all play, every day.  You can’t opt-out of making these choices, there is no way to not play the game. Oh, and sooner or later you’re going to lose.  Happy Friday!

I’ve been reading a lot of the “vaccination” posts out on the Internet over the last few days and an observation has bubbled up into my forebrain.  Many people don’t understand that there really is no difference between making some of these choices yourself, and allowing them to be made for you by the environment.  I’ve seen posts on more than one comment thread that boils down to, “I’m just not comfortable taking the risk of injecting my child, I think the risk of the disease is less.”  Many, many of these people have offered this observation *after* being shown that no, actually, the quantifiable risk of vaccinations is not only less than the risk of disease, but they’re not even on the same scale.  Some people have commented that this is plainly irrational (I’ve been thinking it myself, but I’m trying to stay smooth in these hot-button “debates”).

The problem is that for these people, the thought that they might harm their child is so mindnumbingly horrifying that they are including that in their analysis, but only on one side.  The line of thinking, I’m imagining, goes something like this… “If I choose to give my child a shot, and something happens, it will be my fault, because I decided to okay the shot.”  Conversely, however, if they choose *not* to give their child a shot, and the child gets the disease and suffers, it’s something else’s fault… random chance, the will of God, some grand conspiracy, etc… “I can pretend like they my child got the measles and died because fate decided that my child was going to get the measles, instead of acknowledging the fact that my child got the measles because I refused to vaccinate them.”  Consciously or subconsciously, they’re punting.  They’re assigning *more* pejorative value to their action than they are to the pejorative value of their inaction.  They’re pretending like they can ignore old Anton.

While this might give you the opportunity to retain your sanity if (God forbid) something should happen to your child, let’s be honest about what’s going on here.  You’re afraid.  You realize that the world is unsafe, and you’re assigned the responsibility of making decisions for this little person that you love more than your own life, and the cold reality that they are mortal scares the beejesus out of you.  It scares you so much that you’re allowing a sense of time to overcome your ability to think clearly: “If I vaccinate my child and something happens, it’s my fault because it happened right after the decision.  If I don’t vaccinate my child and they get a disesase three years from now, that’s three years from now and it’s so far away and I just don’t want to think about it that’s so morbid and oh God I’ll just stick my head over here in the corner and decide later.”

Bruce talks about this on his site.  The part on Prospect Theory details exactly what I’m talking about here:

The authors of this study explained this difference by developing something called “prospect theory.” Unlike utility theory, prospect theory recognizes that people have subjective values for gains and losses. In fact, humans have evolved a pair of heuristics that they apply in these sorts of trade-offs. The first is that a sure gain is better than a chance at a greater gain. (“A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.”) And the second is that a sure loss is worse than a chance at a greater loss. Of course, these are not rigid rules–given a choice between a sure $100 and a 50% chance at $1,000,000, only a fool would take the $100–but all things being equal, they do affect how we make trade-offs.

You can see how this applies to the thought process I’m talking about above.  For someone who discounts their own “choice” as being relevant to the risk, a vaccination is a sure gain (reduced susceptibility to disease) and therefore better than a chance at a greater gain (passing on the vaccination and avoiding any possible risk *and* getting lucky and not getting sick anyway).  For someone who includes their own “choice” as being relevant to the risk, a vacciantion is a sure loss (a chance to directly inflict harm upon my child) which is worse than a chance at a greater loss (passing on the vaccination and having my child get sick and dying).

Is it still irrational?  Well, from the view of utility theory, absolutely.  But humans aren’t necessarily wired that way, and consequences are measured not just in death and horrible side effects, but in the emotional damage those consequences do to the participants involved.  Five years ago I’d be calling people who refused to vaccinate their child criminally negligent and horrible people.  Now I just see them as humans.  Scared humans making bad decisions, but humans nonetheless.

Recognize your fear, and overcome it, everybody.  Here’s one time where “do it for the children” actually applies.  It’s not about you and your fear, it’s about doing what’s best for them.  Unfortunately, that’s not always so clear-cut, and sometimes you’ll do the right thing and your child will suffer for it.  Kids get trapped in burning cars and die because of their car seats.  Far, far, far more children are saved because of them.  Even if vaccinations were as dangerous as some people (erroneously) claim they are, they’re still better than disease.

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Posted April 24, 2009 by padraic2112 in parenting, security

5 responses to “A Note About Choice, An Observation About Fear, and Parental Decisions

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  1. I agree with you. And I am reminded that Liam needs a Hep jab soon…

  2. Very elegantly put … here’s hoping it makes a difference, no matter how small.

  3. A nice, well-written analysis of the thought processes behind the Vaccinate/Don’t Vaccinate debate.

    Facing the fear is all well and good, but I reckon that the people who have the wits to do that have the wits to see the Anti-Vaccine crusade for what it is: ignorance posing as wisdom. The only way I see to get rid of the fear completely (statistically speaking) is to deliver a knockout blow to the Anti-Vaxxers. That may be legal(fines) or social (public ridicule) – but it really needs to happen sooner rather than later.

  4. Fantastic post, and something I’ve often thought myself but never expressed in such a lucid manner: one’s inaction has consequences, too.

  5. This is brilliant and captures so much of the angst of parenting, no matter the topic. Thanks for writing it.

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