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How does our Collective Pain Tolerance affect our Decision Making?  

Joe Valachi
July 7, 2020 11:55 AM

Has 2020 been a painful year?


It would be surprising if you said no.  Society has a lot of problems right now.  Some are new and some we haven’t seen in many years.  Either way, one thing they have in common is that they all hurt.  Yet, even more dangerous than the pain is our attempt to avoid it.



It’s Natural to want to Avoid Pain.


Millions of years of evolution have taught us that if something hurts then your first priority should be to stop the pain.  If not, you could die.  You can see the same kind of aversion in society as well.  Governments, institutions, and voters are all very unwilling to endure pain.    


On top of that, pain has become kind of an unnatural thing, at least in the West.  After all, we as a society have overcome many of the things that cause it.  Almost none of us have seen a big war, economic depression, or massive disease. In fact, most Westerners born after WW2 have never experienced anything but general prosperity.  


Unfortunately, however, that also means we have no frame of reference for how common painful things have been throughout history.  War, disease, and economic strife happened every generation until about 100 years ago.  


Yet now here we are, experiencing deep pain as a society for the first time in living memory, and our natural instinct is to end it as quickly as possible.  As the saying goes, “A healthy man wants a thousand things, but a sick man wants only one.”


However, we should be prudent in how we deal with pain for one important reason.  



Desperate Decisions can make Problems Worse.


It starts with a problem. That problem then causes pain.  If that pain is big enough or lasts long enough, people get desperate.  


However, what they forget is that the desperation is not caused directly by the problem.  The desperation comes as a result of the pain itself.  And the things that stop the pain aren’t always the ones that solve the problem.


So, we as a society have to make sure that our solution to the pain is also a solution for the problem. Otherwise you run the risk of making the problem worse or even causing new ones.    


A good analogy is burning your hand on a hot stove, but instead of taking it off you just pour liquid nitrogen on it.  You definitely don’t feel pain anymore but now you’ve got a much bigger problem, plus your hand is still on the stove.  


While this thought process seems ridiculous, society makes those types of mistakes all the time.  2008 was a great example.  



The Financial Crisis was the Ultimate Game of Kick the Can Down the Road.


The main problem in 2008 came from the banks taking too much risk because the cost of borrowing money was so cheap.  The potential pain was that a lot of large financial institutions were going to fail, and the country/world was going to go through a depression.  


In our attempt to avoid that pain we did two things that made the problem worse:

  1. We made even more money available and at cheaper rates.
  2. We told the banks they were too big to fail, which made them take even more risk.   


It sounds bizarre that anyone would think to treat such a big problem with such an obviously bad solution.  However, no one was trying to treat the problem.  We just wanted to avoid the pain.  


The result was a financial system that was not fixed.  Rather, it was made worse and a lot of people are having to deal with those consequences to this day.


However, all of this could have been avoided if we had just taken our medicine then and there instead of running from the issue.  In the end, there’s one thing we have to do to keep from making these same mistakes again.  


We need to expand our pain tolerance.  


Currently, society acts as if it should never have to endure pain.  We’ve been free from big problems for so long that we run from them as soon as they appear.  However, the sad truth is that painful things happen which we can’t control.  


It’s also important to know that the best solution isn’t always the least painful.  Sometimes an extra year of misery now will save you five more down the road.  Trying to avoid the symptoms without treating the problem almost guarantees a worse version of both in the future.  


Accepting these facts would go a long way towards helping us adopt better solutions.  

Should society work to expand its pain tolerance?

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