Uta Frith

Are we all doomed?

Uta Frith

We all love doomsday stories: they allow us to play out catastrophic events in our imagination. We are social animals and learn by observation, which includes watching disaster movies. This learning could help us to do the right thing when the situation is becoming serious, for example, with overpopulation.

We learn through rewards. Research shows that we find it hard to resist the temptation to take the marshmallow that's in front of us, even when waiting just five minutes would get us two. It is much easier to wait when we can be confident that conditions are stable. Otherwise, why not grab the reward now, however little compared to an uncertain future reward?

In our social lives, we are torn between selfish desire and altruism. Here, too, we must decide between immediate and long-term rewards. To solve a big problem, we need co-operation. What drives this? We are highly motivated by getting a good reputation and reassuring others that we are trustworthy partners. Co-operation is a long-term reward. Stable conditions help us to forgo instant, selfish rewards. Here lies the best hope of postponing doomsday.


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This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?