Exposure Anxiety: When “Strong” Isn’t Smart
By Heath Shive
Exposure anxiety is the fear of looking weak. It is also a “cognition trap” – a mind-set (belief, personal philosophy) that limits your ability to think and act.
Maybe everyone has felt this way. But when very powerful people are afraid to look weak, the results are disastrous and large-scale.
Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs. He is also the author of a book entitled “Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.”
It’s a great read, and his chapter on exposure anxiety is the first “cognition trap” he tackles.
To the history of exposure anxiety!
Orwell and His Mad Elephant
When he was young, the future-author George Orwell had been a police officer in Burma. A local elephant had broken free and gone on a rampage. When Orwell finally found the elephant, the elephant’s rage was gone and it was calmly eating grass. But the entire town had come out to watch Orwell deal with the elephant.
Everyone expected a show. Orwell didn’t want to shoot – but if he didn’t do something "strong," how could the Burmese respect his authority?
Orwell shot the elephant repeatedly…but it wouldn’t die quickly. In frustration, Orwell just left. The elephant died a half hour later.
Orwell didn’t look very powerful. He didn’t impress. He felt a fool. Even though Orwell did not want to shoot the animal, he did not want to look weak to his audience.
Greeks and the Price of Overkill
In the 5th century B.C.E, the Greek island of Mytilene had revolted against the city of Athens. In retaliation, Athens sent a war party to the island with these orders: kill every man, enslave every woman and child.
However, some Athenians had second thoughts. So they had a debate. The Athenian Cleon argued that if Athens showed mercy, it would look weak and there would more revolts in the future.
But the Athenian Diodotus argued for mercy. He pointed out that not all the Mytilenians had revolted. Many of the rebels had surrendered their arms. But – Diodotus argued – if other cities knew that there would be no mercy, new revolts would be better planned and the rebels would fight to the death. There would be no incentive for surrender.
Cleon’s show of strength actually would make future revolts more ferocious and implacable.
Athens sided with Diodotus and a fast ship was sent to stop the war party in Mytilene.
Abu Ghraib and the Need for Morale
The abuses at the prison of Abu Ghraib made international headlines. Many Americans did not see the big deal – the victims were enemy soldiers. Sergeant Ivan Frederick was court-martialed for his part in the crimes. In the closing statement, the prosecutor Major Michael Holley said that treating enemy soldiers to basic dignity was essential for long-term warfare. Because if the “prisoner – or an enemy, rather – believes that he will be humiliated…why wouldn’t he continue to fight to his last breath?”
If surrender wasn’t incentivized, then the fighting would be more intense and more soldiers’ lives lost.
Exposure anxiety leads its victims to overreact, but the aftermath usually leaves them less secure than before the conflict began.
Anxiety warps our feelings and imagination. Anxieties create a chain of fears. Anxieties cripple our ability to get what we want, because we fear how we look.
It is important to not act on fear. Act in your interest. Then you can win.
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Shore, Zachary. Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Bloomsbury, 2008.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.