Constructive paranoia and why we need it

SEPTEMBER 10 — “You will never fully convince someone that he is wrong; only reality can.” — Nicholas Taleb

I have a relative who, if forced to make an unexpected stop while on the road, will immediately turn on his car’s emergency signal.

I know of a father who, whenever his daughter wants to go out with her friends, will get her to list down the names and contact numbers of all the pals she’ll be out gallivanting with.

An uncle I have has this habit of always closing the bathroom window each time it rains while he’s taking a shower, for fear of a lightning strike.

Another aunt always keeps a minimum of US$400 (RM1,660) in her wallet each time she goes abroad.

An ex-boss of mine never accepts free gifts from third-party “big shots” above a certain amount.

An ex-teacher never does anything irreversible within 24 hours whenever she’s angry.

A grand-uncle refuses to perform banking transactions online.

Another friend refuses to eat raw seafood.

And the list goes on.

The above are examples I can think of which fit the category of “constructive paranoia.” This is a term coined by anthropologist Jared Diamond.

On one of his many trips to New Guinea, he noticed that the local guides refused to sleep under a tree if it was dead. At first Diamond felt that their behaviour verged on over-reaction but then it occurred to him that a) every day he could hear trees falling somewhere in the forest and b) given how often the New Guineans slept under trees, it was entirely rational to avoid sleeping under a dead tree because one never knows when it would fall (see Note 1).

The bottomline is that such “paranoia” is essential for surviving in certain conditions. If the New Guinean had listened to smart-ass “scientific” folks overly full of their Probability Studies telling them “not to worry”, these orang asli would be dead eventually and the academics will, as usual, be finding excuses as to why they’re still correct.

Risk expert Nick Taleb (see Note 2) latched on to Diamond’s concept and explained that we must never discount any kind of behaviour ─ no matter how “irrational” or “superstitious” they may seem ─ if such behaviour facilitated survival.

We moderns, with our know-it-all mentality, often think we’re smarter than traditional folks who, as the Chinese say, have eaten more salt than we’ve eaten rice.

But for Taleb, Diamond and the New Guineans, rationality equals survival. Period. It doesn’t matter how smart or rich or connected you are.

If you ruin yourself i.e. if you get into a high-impact irreversible shit-storm as a result of actions you could’ve avoided, it’s probably because you took actions you believed were rational but were really the opposite.

Consider these examples:

  • The victim of every Ponzi scheme who didn’t question their far-above-average monthly returns from that amazing fund they were putting their money in. 
  • Parents who pressure their kids non-stop 24/7 to get 10As or die trying, brushing aside every news report of teenage depression and suicide. 
  • Wannabe NASCAR drivers flying at 180km/hour from Penang to KL who believe car crashes only happen in newspapers.
  • Heavy margin traders who are one bad stock away from bankruptcy. 
  • The fat dude who chomps down nasi lemak and fried chicken by the bucket because he thinks his heart is stronger than 99 per cent of other people’s. 
  • The corporate director who works 12 hours a day because as long as he’s making crap-loads of money, what possible impact could there be to his health and family?

For the folks above, it’s a tragedy that only reality will persuade them of the folly of their actions.

A few months ago, I even had a 16-year old student tell me that I should take more risks in life, that I will never succeed in my career because I’m such a scaredy-cat, that she believes life is an adventure and that we must “seize the day” and not be afraid to “take the leap”, etc.

Behold, here you have the Malaysian equivalent of someone who’s not concerned about sleeping under dead trees because it’s “irrational and paranoid” to worry.

Recommended paranoias

So here’s a list of “paranoias” I propose you should think about:

Be paranoid about your professional skills suddenly being irrelevant. Keep learning.

Be paranoid about an unexpected event wiping out your investments. Diversify, hedge, leverage.

Be paranoid about your children suddenly suffering a nervous breakdown or turning mentally unstable. Keep your anger and lofty standards in check. Seize every chance to show them your love.

Be paranoid about your health suddenly deteriorating. Exercise.

Be paranoid about the possibility of moral punishment (whether here and now or in the after-life). Don’t keep doing stuff you need to continually justify.

Be paranoid about sexually-transmitted disease. You know what I mean.

Be paranoid about extremism in Malaysia. Keep educating. Keep fighting.

Put simply, if your grandmother has a practice of always looking at the doorway mirror before leaving the house, don’t mock. Remember, she’s lasted longer than you have?

* Note 1: Check out the entire chapter 7 of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? (New York: Viking, 2013)

** Note 2: One of 2018’s books of the year, Taleb’s Skin In The Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (New York: Random House, 2018) is a must-read for anyone aged two and above.

*** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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