You woke up late, you’re out of toothpaste, you missed the bus, you spilled your lunch on your shirt, and you accidentally let out a fart when you sneezed in a meeting. You feel like this is the worst day ever! Of course, you can’t objectively compare all of your bad days but at this moment, you feel like today is the worst. You feel this way because your brain has a natural tendency to go to extremes when synapsing a neural path.
Let’s jump into the brain of an ancestor walking through the forest when you hear a rustle in the bushes. You recognize this auditory stimulus and a few synapses along a neural path leads you to believe that there is an animal in those rustling bushes. If your neural path anticipates a rodent to be responsible for the noise, you’ll probably let your guard down.
If that neural path, instead, anticipates a large predator, you’ll stimulate stress in order to prepare for an attack. Regardless of what made the noise, the individual that prepared for the worst possible fate was more likely to survive. The tendency became solidified and automated over generations.
We tend to follow neural paths to the most extreme possible scenario as a means of completing that path. An extreme is inherently something that cannot be surpassed so taking neural paths to extremes is a good way to end them. If you do poorly on a math test, you can anticipate getting a C or D but eventually all of those universes will fade to the most extreme one where you get an F.
Every mother can relate to the feeling of hearing the phone ring at night and immediately thinking their child is in danger. For a parent, a child in danger is the worst possible scenario so their brains anticipate the worst, ignoring anything less than extreme.
If you are about to go on a date, you’ll probably anticipate two possible neural paths: one where you find the love of your life, and one where you get locked away in a dungeon. Not to say you’ll think exactly that, but you’ll probably come up with a best and worst case scenario.
We often disregard the middle ground of the spectrum of possibilities because we over-prepare for the extreme cases. If you’re ready to say yes to a first-date-proposal, you’re probably ready to receive a compliment. Likewise, if you’re prepared to survive a dungeon, you’ll definitely be prepared for a boring conversation. This helps your preparation by getting you ready for two possible extremes, making everything in between seem less scary by comparison.
When competition is mixed in with extremes, the result is a burning desire to be the “best” and a horrible fear of being the “worst.” Our organization leads us to rank contenders and a solidified expectation of becoming the best leads us to believe that anything less the best is the same as the worst. “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” If we only focus on being best, then we will lose every time we are not the best.
Spoiler alert, you’re not going to be the best very often! It’s important to have an informed perspective to counteract the effects of extremes. Seeing the relative importance of a race or grade let’s you accept yourself and see the realistic effects of the ranking.
Thinking in extremes can lead to habituation, leading to more extremes. We see this all the time in the media: just think about the growing sex appeal over the last 30 years in advertising, or the amount of violence allowed on television. Everyone’s the World’s Greatest at whatever they do, which cannot be possible by the definition of the word!
The things that were once special have become commonplace in our language. When we see the extreme as normal, we make our normal more extreme. Remember to keep an outside perspective to stay grounded, it’s easy to get lost in the extremes.