Why We Do Dangerous Things and How to Stop

Have you ever done something in the heat of the moment, and regret it later? In the cold light of the day, what you did last night seemed completely stupid, something that you would never do – but the fact remains, you did. And quite possibly, if placed in that situation, you might do it again. What is happening inside our heads when this happens, and more importantly, how can we stop?

There is important psychological research a professor of mine is involved in – he has found that by simply educating people on how our minds work at such times, many people reduce their risky actions quite drastically. While his research focuses on casual unprotected sex and HIV/AIDS transmission, I think it’s very important and applicable to other areas – ranging from overspending, to picking fights and temper tantrums. This post provides an overview of his findings, and the suggestions for what we can do are some of my ideas on how we can apply it in our lives.

So, full credits go to Ron Gold and his colleagues for the research presented here. Let’s begin, shall we? First, think of something that you do or have done “in the heat of the moment”, and keep it in mind while we go through this material.

Offline and Online Thinking

Gold, in his research, found that many people who perform these risky behaviours know very well what the consequences are. For instance, many people know that having unprotected sex increases the chances of them getting a disease. So why do we still do it?

The difference lies in “offline” and “online” cognitions. Offline cognitions are thoughts, beliefs, judgments, and values that we have in the cold light of the day. I’m sitting in front of the computer now, with a cup of coffee – the way I think about sex or violence or drugs is “offline”, wiser, and more rational.

However, my cognitions go “online” when I am in or close to the situation, whatever it is for me, and my thinking changes quite drastically. Jay might think that violence is never the answer, but if someone slaps him in the face in a bar, that belief goes out the window and Jay suddenly feels like punching the other guy back.

Sounds very common sense at this stage, right? And it is – the tricky part is catching ourselves when our thinking goes online, for that is when we start justifying our actions internally. We know we shouldn’t, but we really want to do it, so we begin to change our existing cognitions – or even make new ones – to allow ourselves to do so.

The good news is, once we know how our minds work in times like these, our justifications become far easier to catch – and more importantly, stop.

What Happens In Online Thinking

Here are some of the major things that happen when our cognitions go online, and I’ve also added some of my thoughts on what we can do to reduce their impact.

1. Arousal

This is the most obvious – in the heat of the moment, our thinking tends to become “hot” and full of emotions. Two things happen first, it now becomes vitally important for us to satisfy our anger, or our pride, or our lust. Second, the opposite happens with the negative consequences of our actions. They fade into the background, and seem very far away and less important. Sitting here in front of the computer, I think it’s stupid to risk unprotected sex if there is a chance of getting HIV, but when I am going to have sex, oh, the disease just doesn’t seem so important anymore.

How we can apply this: We can make a list of negative consequences of whatever behaviour we are trying to avoid. Most of these we already know anyway, but I’ve found that taking the time to write them down and think about them properly increases commitment and makes these things much more solid in our minds, rather than something floating in the back of our skull.

Side Note: Is there resistance to doing this small exercise? Have you thought about why? The answer can be quite revealing, but I’ll leave it at that.

2. Motivated Reasoning

The second change, motivated reasoning, is self-justification at its purest. We change our cognitions or even create new ones to allow ourselves to do what we want to do. It is important to note that this may not be conscious! In other words, we might not even know we are doing it.

Some examples of changing old cognitions:
– “Maybe he doesn’t have a disease.”
– “Many people do it and nothing bad has happened.”

Some examples of creating new cognitions:
– “I am naturally immune to AIDS.”
– “They will find a cure soon anyway.”

These are real justifications frequently found during interviews – when I first read them, especially the last two, I thought to myself: That can’t be real! Who would risk catching HIV on the chance that there will be a cure soon?

Remember – online thinking is very irrational. These sorts of thoughts seem absurd because you are “offline” while reading this – but they can happen to everyone when online, so be extra careful and don’t discard this section, believing that you will never think this way.

How we can apply this: A useful exercise here is to visualise yourself in the situation, and trying to catch the thoughts that go through your head as you do. This makes them easier to recognise when you are really in that situation. This might be hard for some people who can’t visualise well, though.

3. Mood and State

Other studies have shown that whatever we learn is better remembered when we are in a mood similar to the mood we were in when we first learnt it. In other words, when we learnt about the consequences of HIV, or violence, or illegal drugs, we were most likely put into a slightly gloomy mood by it. This information will be easier to remember in a similar, slightly gloomy mood – but when we are “online”, the mood will probably be very different, making it much harder to remember.

How we can apply this: It is for this reason that some safe sex education posters can have quite erotic images on them – it helps in putting viewers in a similar state to what they would be in during sex. How can you apply this? Easy – get yourself into the right mood, perhaps with more visualisation, then read over the list you made in Change 1, above! Don’t worry if it changes your mood, just get into the right mood again, and repeat until you’re confident.

4. Physical Judgements

I put this one last because it might only be applicable to the unprotected sex / HIV research, and not so much other stuff – well, maybe if you like picking fights, I guess. In this last change, we judge a person based on their physical appearance, and tie them in with beliefs that will seem quite stupid offline.

For example, we look at a casual sex partner, a total stranger, and think that he looks so well-educated that he must always have safe sex and therefore be uninfected with HIV. Offline, we might realise that he’s about to have unprotected sex with you! (This example is again drawn from interviews conducted by Gold and his colleagues – if it seems silly, it just shows the drastic change between offline and online thinking! Don’t discard it!)

How we can apply this: Perhaps the same visualisation exercise, suggested in Change 2, will help you catch some of your judgements. Remember, the more aware of your cognitive changes you are, the easier it is to catch yourself the next time you go online!

5. Preparedness

Many times, people make the decision to set limits when they are offline, and just indulge a little bit. Let’s use a less risqué example here – I’ve gone out drinking, and decide that I’m only going to have two drinks. But as we all know, such limits are very easily broken “online”, and we end up completely drunk at the end of the night.

How we can apply this: This isn’t part of the research, but in my own life, I’ve found that setting very hard limits works well when compared to relaxed limits. Instead of allowing myself “just a couple of drinks”, I set a rule of “no drinks at all, no matter what” before I go out – and that makes it much easier for me to keep to it. I’m not sure if this works for everyone, though.

Closing Thoughts

There is another way of dealing with such situations, with the Core Practice of Welcoming and Releasing Emotions. Visualise the action, or the events leading to it, and release the feelings and desires that come with it. Then, and this is important, imagine not being able to do it ever again, and release the emotions and desires that come from that as well.

And in closing, here’s something to think about – as soon as it is over, whatever we did, whatever we had – no matter how amazing or satisfying it is – is just a memory, just a thought.

How much is a thought worth? What can you do with a memory? Do you even know it exists? Did it even happen? What’s the difference between a memory and a dream, or a detailed fantasy? How long can you hold on to it for?

What would you sacrifice for it?

Important Notice

It is very important to note that many things contribute to risky behaviour – online and offline cognitions are just a part of it. While these might help, please don’t be misled into thinking that doing these exercises will keep you “safe”, they only address one part of it. The safest thing to do is simply not to put yourself in a risky situation, or as my professor said, “just don’t go there”.