My friends and family call me "risk tolerant". I wasn't always this way. It is the result of a 3-year-long scientific experiment.

You must do everything that frightens you…Everything. I’m not talking about risking your life, but everything else. Think about fear, decide right now how you’re doing to deal with fear, because fear is going to be the great issue of your life, I promise you. Fear will be the fuel for all your success, and the root cause of all your failures, and the underlying dilemma in every story you tell yourself about yourself. And the only chance you’ll have against fear? Follow it. Steer by it. Don’t think of fear as the villain. Think of fear as your guide, your pathfinder.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

When I was 18 I discovered a useful heuristic. Whenever I didn't know what to do I would pick whatever not-obviously-stupid[1] option frightened me the most.

My indecisions always centered around choosing between a scary unpredictable option and a comfortable predictable option. Since the comfortable option was always predictable, I always knew what the counterfactual would have been whenever I chose the scary option. If I chose the scary option then I could weigh the value of both timelines after the fact.

As an experiment, I resolved to choose the scarier option whenever I was undecided about what to do. I observed the results. Then I recorded whether the decision was big or little and whether doing what scared me more was the right choice in retrospect. I repeated the procedure 30-ish times for small decisions and 6-ish times for big decisions. If I were properly calibrated then picking the scary option would result in the correct choice 50% of the time.

Results:

  • For my 30-ish small decisions, picking the scary option was correct 90% of the time.
  • For my 6-ish big decisions, picking the scary option was correct 100% of the time.

The above results underestimate the utility of my fear heuristic. My conundrums were overwhelming social. The upsides earned me substantial value. The downsides cost me trivial embarrassments.

I terminated the experiment when my fear evaporated. The only things I still feared were obviously stupid activities like jumping off of buildings and unimportant activities like handling large arthropods. I had deconditioned myself out of fear.

I didn't lose the signal. I had just recalibrated myself.


  1. "Stupid" includes anything that risks death or permanent injury. ↩︎

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14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:54 PM

This post would be strongly improved by 3 examples of decisions you made differently due to this heuristic.

Seconding this, examples would be extremely helpful here (they could be anonymized if you don't want to share personal details)

I agree. Someone else should replicate my experiment. I give prior advance permission to self-promote the results in this comments section.

I also had this heuristic for a while. It helped me a lot and gave me a lot of growth. However, it also made me make some bad social moves that didnt turn out well for me.

Eventually I stopped using this heuristic, and instead started viewing things that I feared as things to process and integrate instead of face.

How does your new approach compare with the "fear heuristic" method you used previously?

How do you make the difference between something you fear and something you suspect will be detrimental? Like, say, befriending someone who freaks you out, or entering a shady scheme?

Befriending someone who freaks me out and entering a shady scheme are both obviously stupid. If something is obviously stupid then this heuristic is overruled.

I use this heuristic only for marginal cases where my calculated expected value is equal for both options. (The net expected detriment of either choice compared to the other is zero.) Only if the previous condition is satisfied do I then check which of the two options triggers greater fear. Fear is an emotion. I imagine both futures and observe my emotional reaction.

I think you should make this explanation part of the article. It's crucial.

I'm exploring a practice of what I'll call "peer preview," trying to assess the value a post provides to its audience, what other valuable projects could emerge from it, and how it might be viewed a year from now.

There's a lot of advice and vivid descriptions of anxiety out there, and the benefits of overcoming it. But it's rare to get a quantitative perspective like this. The documentation seems like a lightweight technique with real potential benefits. I wonder if it's a common prescription.

It makes me wonder how many people who don't perceive themselves as neurotically timid or anxious have actually just managed to shield themselves from ever encountering anxious triggers. I can think of several things that seem anxiety-provoking, that might be a happy addition to my life, and which don't actually cause me anxiety because I so thoroughly avoid them. I can also see how a tacit part of many relationships is identifying what makes each other anxious, and securing tacit agreements that you will avoid those anxious triggers forever.

I'd be interested in writing about relationships that delves into the nuances of how to cultivate friendships and romantic relationships in which there's a conscious mutual understanding of that "anxiety avoidance" dynamic, and an explicit agreement to find ways to shift into a "do what scares us" paradigm.

Note: In response to feedback, I'm removing a portion of this comment that might not be constructive.

I find your logic quite valuable. Months after the first time I read it, it still amazes me. And I have seen other people saying different things that had the same underlying logic. ** Choosing the harder/scarier option has better outcomes. ** Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am trying to incorporate this idea into my life and choices. I hope I can inform you of my results. And I also would like to ask for your permission to translate and publish this post on my blog. It is going to be translated into Persian/Farsi. My blog is completely non-profit. No ads, no paid content. Just for fun and learning. I have already shared the link to your post in my blog. But I know many Iranians (my readers) can't read English. It would be an honor if you let me do it. If you don't give me your permission, I respect your choice and won't use your content. I would just keep quoting you and referring to this post.

I'm glad this post is useful to you. You are welcome to translate it onto your blog. All I ask is that you include a link to the original.

The translated post is here. You can check it out. I have read other people's thoughts on similar ideas (choosing the harder option), but reading and translating your post took my understanding to another level. Thanks again for writing this post and letting me share it with Persian speakers.

I know your rules about contacting and I don't expect any replies for this. But I would appreciate it if you (or some other native English speaker) explained a couple of the words you used. I have read dozens of dictionary definitions but they didn't exactly fit in this context. heuristic: If I get it right, by "heuristic" in this post you meant something like "shortcut" or "mental shortcut". Something that helps you quickly make a decision. calibrate and recalibrate: The context of these two words didn't help me with comprehension. I know dictionary definitions but none felt like they fit here.

Yes, heuristic means a method to estimate things without too much effort.

"If I were properly calibrated then [...] correct choice 50% of the time." points out that if lsusr was correct to be undecided about something, then it should be the case that both options were roughly equally good, so there should be a 50% chance that the first or second is the best.  If that were the case, we could say that he is calibrated, like a measurement device that has been adjusted to give results as close to reality as possible.

"I didn't lose the signal. I had just recalibrated myself." means that lsusr has not lost the fear "signal", but has adjusted the perception of fear to only occur when it is more appropriate (such as jumping off buildings).  In that sense lsusr's fear occurs at the right time, it is better calibrated.

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