I walked into a small mall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently and the fire alarm was sounding. The were flashing lights, klaxons blaring, and an automated message authoritatively repeating the instruction: “A fire has been detected. Evacuate the building immediately”.
It seemed strange that I’d been able to walk in without being stopped. There was a guy with ‘Security’ emblazoned across his shirt, intermittently holding a two-way radio to his ear, but he didn’t stop me – indeed, he barely seemed interested. And yet the most bizarre thing by far was that all the shops, bars and restaurants in this mall were full of people. No one was paying any attention whatsoever to the lights, klaxons or verbal messages. Instead, they were holding their place in the queues (sorry, ‘lines’) for the check-outs, deliberating over menus and returning from lunch breaks. I began to wonder if it was only me who could see and hear what was going on. It certainly seemed that way. Perhaps it was a false alarm? Fire alarms don’t actually go off for real, do they? It must be a mistake.
On reflection, this is no surprise. As human beings we are reluctant to recognise what is happening if it doesn’t fit with the normal pattern. We go into denial. We’ve made sense of our immediate world and we don’t want anyone spoiling that ordered reality, thank you very much.
In fact, we’re biologically wired to act this way. We are visual animals – we are stimulated into action when we see something. If flames had been licking up around the counters most people would have decided that it was time to leave – the alarms might just be right. The flashing lights do their best to spur us into action, but it’s only when we see real danger that cortisol is released into our bodies and the flight response kicks in. A little flashing light just doesn’t cut it – that’s no threat at all.
Encouragingly, as a pilot we were trained to respond to flashing lights and klaxons in a somewhat more immediate fashion. It’s amazing how a little red light and bells indicating that an engine is on fire can get the cortisol surging through the body very quickly indeed. Then it’s a matter of learning to control that visceral reaction and directing the energy into a calm and measured response. I never felt the need to climb out onto the wing to check first that the engine was actually on fire.
The biology has even transitioned into our everyday expression. How many times have we heard advertisements claiming “Massive sale now on! Must be seen to be believed!” – as if recognising that it’s only by actually seeing what they’ve already told us will we finally be convinced. Sadly, that’s also usually when we see the small print and realise it’s not such a blindingly good deal after all.
At an evolutionary level our biology doesn’t realise that we’re no longer on the open plains facing threats such as those from wild animals as we were 50,000 years ago. We respond at a basic level to visual stimuli. What’s more, we all recogise that feeling as we snap up a bargain pair of sunglasses, causing a nice hit of dopamine to be released into our brains. It feels good.
And that’s just got to be worth it – even if the building is actually burning down around us.