Taking a Chance

Evolution is often thought to be a process of trial and error. In fact, it’s the other way round: evolution proceeds by error and trial. Every cell in your body contains your DNA, which is replicated whenever a cell divides. Inevitably, in the countless divisions there will be occasional errors in transcription – mutations. Those errors are then ‘tested’ to find out whether or not they confer an advantage over the unmutated form.

For the most part, advantage here means being better at attracting mates or defending a scarce food supply, which is why there’s a debate about whether human animals are still evolving. After all, as we’ve said in an earlier blog (Blog 52, ‘Be a Bonobo’) you don’t normally have to fight off other shoppers for things on supermarket shelves, or beat up rivals to gain a partner! Despite these arguments, we can’t not evolve. One simple example: the seasonal colds and flu that most of us easily survive would once have been as deadly as Covid-19, but or immune systems have adapted and evolved to deal with those particular viruses.

What mutations incur is risk. Over time and generations some will prove adaptive and be retained, but within a lifetime others might be the starting point for cancer. While we have no control over the process of mutation, the way we decide to behave does make a direct contribution. Cigarette smoking, for example, significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Personality differences are also involved: some people are clearly more risk-averse than others. Extraverts are known to be far greater risk-takers than introverts, which is explained by a synonym for extraversion, stimulus-seeking.

Extraversion is one of the measures of personality that has a relatively strong biogenetic basis, which in turn means that it is resistant to change. What the research has shown is that seeking stimulation is a consequence of having relatively low levels of resting brain arousal. The extent to which our brains are aroused by stimulation varies, with extraverts requiring a greater degree of stimulation than introverts – hence their need to seek out stimulation, and their tendency to act impulsively.

A digression into the model that explains these differences (stimulus intensity modulation) is beyond the scope of this blog; suffice to say that the evidence for it from procedures likes anaesthetic susceptibility is substantial. However, the extraversion-introversion dimension is distributed as a bell-curve rather than a simple dichotomy – in fact, most people are in the middle, neither strongly extraverted nor introverted.

The scales comprising the pre-training Challenge of Change Profile are similarly bell-curved, so most people would tend to cluster around the mid-score of 5 in the 10-point range. Unlike extraversion, though, they are primarily habits, and can therefore be changed by implementing the Challenge of Change Resilience Training programme. There is also a preferred direction for these scales: the higher your score on rumination for example, the greater the sustained demand on your cardiovascular and immune systems. Churning over upsets will also make you feel miserable, and hence the lower the score the better.

Apart from the physiological effects, rumination will also compromise our response to risk. We often think of risk in the context of danger and seek to minimise it, but life always incurs risk because of uncertainty. Uncertain situations involve the risk that they could go either way, and life is certainly uncertain! Planning and drawing on experience help to mitigate the risk, but deciding how to act can all too often be dictated by overwhelming emotion rather than reason. It isn’t possible to be emotionless, and sensitivity to emotion is an important part of resilience, but only if it is moderated by being able to maintain perspective.

This is the reason for combining the measures of sensitivity and detached coping in the Challenge of Change programme: individuals with high scores on both are described as having detached compassion, which ensures that they can empathise with how others feel but can nonetheless maintain their perspective and not be drawn into negative emotion. Risk always involves making judgements about costs and benefits, and the more we can keep issues in perspective and avoid ruminating the fewer costs we’re likely to incur.


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