Risk Minimizers and Risk Balancers

(cw: virus) (streamlined medium post version)

Here’s a story about a slow, relaxed zombie outbreak in a town with big houses and expensive rent. It’s also a story about two types of people.

Zombie virus risk (Z-risk) behaves according to some rules:

  1. Z-Risk is additively transferable within a set of people
  2. The risk transfer factor t is the degree of risk that is added when two sets of people interact. t is between 0 and 1. The exact value of t depends on the degree of connectedness between those sets of people.

This means that if total shut-in A has a Z-risk of functionally zero, but they accept a gift of banana muffins from person B with a risk of .01, the risk transfer from A->B is 0*t, 0. The risk transfer from B->A is .01*t, making A’s new risk .01*t. Possibly, if B had the zombie virus and licked the trojan muffins before giving them, A could get zombified.

From A’s point of view, any risk is too much! Especially since they have no good way of knowing what the value of B’s Z-risk or t are. No banana muffins for them.

Adding interactions with another person will only ever increase Z-risk (though that increase might be negligible).

So let’s describe two types of people:

The Risk Minimizer (“Minnie”) is seeking to reduce Z-risk all the way. No amount of Z-risk is okay, and they’re willing to sacrifice a lot to keep it this way. This is only for Z-risk, because by reducing risk for one thing they are raising another type of risk (like eye strain from playing too many video games). Minnies value safety, stability, and predictability, as it lets them keep their Z-risk down with minimal effort.

The Risk Balancer (“Bally”) recognizes that becoming a zombie would be terrible, and won’t do things that increase the Z-risk if it’s not well worth it. But they don’t want to lose out other things in life just because they’re avoiding this one bad thing. So they will weigh and balance the risks of becoming a zombie in order to continue working or see their loved ones.

Though their actions will appear the same in the short term, there are subtypes of Risk Balancers:

  1. Diehard Bally. Their experience of life in small group isolation is just not worth the lack of risk.
  2. Ballys that are lacking a specific crucial something. They’re trading Z-risk to avoid other terrible things: depression, bankruptcy, job loss, and other ill health for example. If these Ballys get what they need, like a loved one living with them or a well-paying government stipend, they might act more like a Minnie.
  3. Ballys that value a specific thing very much. This for example could mean supporting and caring for others, including close friends that might be at different risk levels (or even close friends that have the Z-virus itself!). They take on the risk to do what feels right.

The majority of people are flexible and will end up doing what the people closest to them do.

So When a Minnie and Bally life in the same household, it can get tense fast.

Minnies can’t minimize Z-risk if there are any non-Minnies around. They want everyone else to be a Minnie. Minnies sees Ballys as dangerous defectors. After all, Ballys are increasing the risk for everyone they are in contact with! And they won’t change their behavior to be safer? Unreasonable.

Ballys don’t necessarily mind their pool having either Minnies or Ballys, but when a Minnie starts to put limits on their behavior, they will resist it or feel stifled and controlled. A Bally accepts that increase in risk as not only okay but expected. And Ballys see Minnies as cowardly and controlling. After all, risk is an inherent part of life and the only thing to do is manage how much and what type of it you have.

Hoo, boy. How do we lower the ante?

Mediated conversation. These two groups often don’t understand why the other is the way they are. Get a non-Bally and non-Minnie friend that’s understanding of both sides to help them explain the goals and values that are driving their feelings and behaviors.

Trying to change the behavior and feelings of others will breed resentment in the long term. However, if two people understand each other’s needs on a deep level, they might change their behavior of their own volition, or at least become more forgiving of the ways the other people are.

Split up the pool. This is tough in group houses with shared common spaces where each bedroom costs big bucks. There’s a joke that the bay area is finally experimenting with monogamy. Well, they’re also experimenting with non-group house living situations as the Minnies that can afford it depopulate into airbnbs, RVs, or homes elsewhere in the country.

Collaborate. It’s easier to sort out conflict when you can see that you are on the same side. This happens best if it’s part of an established routine. That way, when conflict arises, there will be built-in periods where you’re all working together.

But if your normal household routine isn’t possible right now, there might be new things you could do together or for each other. If you can, as a household, take time to cook dinner. Eat together. Show affection. Sit together quietly.

If those aren’t working either, then brainstorming new ideas together is a good starting place for collaboration. Perhaps you can make a household chatroom and update it with good things every day. Or co-watch a movie or workout video, even if in different rooms. Order in food and eat it on the floor through a doorway.

Keep the pool small when possible. For example, here’s a house with two Ballys: Bally A is best friends with C and D, and Bally B is best friends with C and E. If each Bally wants one best friend around to feel satisfied, they can add just C, keeping the pool relatively small.

Certified Zombie-Proof friends. Some people have been exposed to Z-virus and have developed anti-bodies! This means Ballys and Minnies alike can interact with any amount of Z-proof people without increasing Z-risk. If Ballys can adjust to interact with more Z-proof people and less non-Z-proof people, that means not increasing the pooled risk as much as before. If Ballys can interact with only Z-proof people, most Minnies will be happier. (Let’s go science, make us Z-proof certification pronto!)

If this pattern has been happening within your pool of people, you are not alone. Which means that in the short term, we can look forward to blog posts and essays describing more ways of working out this clash of risk management. Please write them, if you have ideas!

In the long term, I’m hoping for cozy zombie movies to come out 5 years, featuring a shotgun idly propped up against the door and forgotten as everyone frantically bakes bread together with their dear, chosen families.

The Rose Garden Effect

When we want to know how well we’re doing, a natural place to look are the people around, above, and below us. This seems harmless, after all, you’re collecting evidence by looking around at the world!

But performing that comparison has some issues with selection bias. We each have a complex context. And there are a lot of people out there. Who do you choose to compare yourself to? Are you controlling for education? Opportunities? Age?

So here’s the secret: You don’t need to compare yourself to anything to figure out how well you’re doing. How well you’re doing is immediately and constantly accessible as sensations from your experience of being alive.

If you can’t access these immediate sensations, the natural place to look are at outside indicators and other metrics, like cleanliness of cars, noisiness of pets, obedience of children, number of roses in the garden, and gratitude of people that came to your parlor for lunch when you made a casserole.

I must be doing well, look at these babies!

Something I’ve noticed is that the times when it’s harder to access our immediate sensations are the times when things are in fact awful. Looking at pain straight on is difficult. So we become numb more often when our lives suck. And then we start to look outside of ourselves instead, either to solidify our narrative that things are bad or to try to convince ourselves otherwise.

It’s tempting to start rummaging through reality for a metric that makes it look like you’re doing well. Perhaps you can make yourself feel good in the moment by feeling proud of how you’re better (for your age) compared to those people you used to know in high school (if you look at it a certain way).

Only a third-rate journal would publish that finding.

Yet I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t do this at least sometimes.

I’d like to propose an exercise: When you notice a desire to look outside to figure out how well you’re doing, take that as a cue to look inside. Whether you’re using these comparisons to boost yourself up or down doesn’t matter. The important thing is to look inside to figure out what’s really going on in your experience as a conscious being!

The next temptation might be to cherry pick parts of your inner experience to pay attention to. It’s all there, for better or for worse. Appreciations of the things that are nice is a plus, as long as you don’t use that to selectively avoid seeing the things that are bad.

All this is easier said than done. I can vouch that from the inside this feels sort of like taking away a comforting stuffed animal and replacing it with porcupine. But messing around with beloved narratives what this blog is supposedly about.

Personally, it’s a relief to peg “how I’m doing” to something as stable and honest as the full spectrum of my internal experience. Nothing external can take that away from me. Even if it means “how I’m doing” is bad in the interim, it’s easier to improve from there. It’s not the fragility of a floating number we use as a salve. And it’s not the duplicity of using others to buttress our own faulty narratives.

It’s knowable here, right now. But if you haven’t been looking inward lately, you might have some weeding to do.