My Fear Heuristic

My friends and family call me “risk tolerant”. I wasn’t always this way. It is the result of a 3-year-long scientific experiment.

You must do everything that frightens you…Everything. I’m not talking about risking your life, but everything else. Think about fear, decide right now how you’re doing to deal with fear, because fear is going to be the great issue of your life, I promise you. Fear will be the fuel for all your success, and the root cause of all your failures, and the underlying dilemma in every story you tell yourself about yourself. And the only chance you’ll have against fear? Follow it. Steer by it. Don’t think of fear as the villain. Think of fear as your guide, your pathfinder.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

When I was 18 I discovered a useful heuristic. Whenever I didn’t know what to do I would pick whatever not-obviously-stupid[1] option frightened me the most.

My indecisions always centered around choosing between a scary unpredictable option and a comfortable predictable option. Since the comfortable option was always predictable, I always knew what the counterfactual would have been whenever I chose the scary option. If I chose the scary option then I could weigh the value of both timelines after the fact.

As an experiment, I resolved to choose the scarier option whenever I was undecided about what to do. I observed the results. Then I recorded whether the decision was big or little and whether doing what scared me more was the right choice in retrospect. I repeated the procedure 30-ish times for small decisions and 6-ish times for big decisions. If I were properly calibrated then picking the scary option would result in the correct choice 50% of the time.


  • For my 30-ish small decisions, picking the scary option was correct 90% of the time.

  • For my 6-ish big decisions, picking the scary option was correct 100% of the time.

The above results underestimate the utility of my fear heuristic. My conundrums were overwhelming social. The upsides earned me substantial value. The downsides cost me trivial embarrassments.

I terminated the experiment when my fear evaporated. The only things I still feared were obviously stupid activities like jumping off of buildings and unimportant activities like handling large arthropods. I had deconditioned myself out of fear.

I didn’t lose the signal. I had just recalibrated myself.

  1. “Stupid” includes anything that risks death or permanent injury. ↩︎