You're Not a Fearmonger. You Have Sentinel Intelligence.
Some of us are cursed to hear the future.
You’ve probably heard about Helen of Troy. She’s blamed for starting the Trojan War. Not many people remember Cassandra.
She predicted it.
In Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon, you get Cassandra’s full story. In some ways, the Trojan War is really about a bunch of dudes who don’t listen to a woman, and it leads straight to the collapse of their civilization.
In later retellings, they ignore her twice.
Cassandra doesn’t exactly ask for the gift of prophecy. The Greek god Apollo falls in love with her. He puts her under a spell in one of his temples. Then he tells his pet snakes to go lick her ears. When she wakes up, she can hear the future. Apollo tries to seduce Cassandra, but she’s just not that into him. He has a meltdown. Zeus tells him no backsies on divine gifts, so he finds a loophole.
He curses her.
Now when Cassandra hears the future, nobody believes it. If you want to drive someone insane, that’s a good start.
Now get this:
Not only does Cassandra predict the Trojan war, but she also scoops everyone on the Trojan horse. She tries to warn the city that a bunch of Greek soldiers are hiding inside it, waiting to sneak out and unlock the gates after they go to bed. Once again, nobody listens to her. They start calling her names. She tries to smash the horse open with an axe and gets dragged away screaming. A giant wooden horse full of our enemies? What nonsense!
You know the rest.
The most interesting thing about Cassandra is that she doesn’t use her gift to simply benefit herself. That never even occurs to her. After all, it doesn’t matter if anyone believes you if you’re simply out for yourself.
Cassandra’s real curse is that she cares about people.
She would’ve run a helluva hedge fund.
The deeper we sink into this decade, the more I believe there was a historical version of Cassandra. It fits with everything we’ve seen lately. Cassandra didn’t wake up hearing the future, but she had a gift.
Turns out, there’s a name for Cassandra’s talent.
It’s called sentinel intelligence.
Sentinel intelligence refers to a special cognitive capacity that allows someone to detect threats before anyone else. Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy talk about this trait in their book, Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. They review a number of natural and economic disasters throughout history. As they write, “in each instance a Cassandra was pounding the table and warning us precisely about the disasters that came as promised.” Not only were they ignored, but “the people with the power to respond often put more effort into discounting the Cassandra than saving lives and resources.” It just keeps happening.
Maybe you can relate.
If you have sentinel intelligence, then your brain can aggregate and sift through extraordinary amounts of information in a very short period of time, especially when it comes to seeing latent or hidden dangers. You don’t get stymied by what Clarke and Eddy call the “magnitude of overload.”
In a lot of ways, it’s a superpower.
Psychologists and neurologists already know that our unconscious minds can act like supercomputers. It knows things well ahead of our ability to process and communicate them. Someone with sentinel intelligence is well attuned to their unconscious mind. They’re highly intuitive.
Unfortunately, it’s also a curse.
It’s not easy to convince someone to take a threat seriously when you’re the only one who sees it. Your mind has pieced together hundreds or even thousands of different data points from research, but also from prior experience and observations. You’ll have trouble unpacking all of that. Someone with sentinel intelligence “may at times appear obsessive and even socially abrasive.”
We’ve seen that movie.
To make things worse, psychologists have found that most people don’t do a great job of distinguishing bad news from the one delivering it. They literally want to shoot the Cassandra, or just discredit her.
This is why so many people wait until there’s an overwhelming amount of obvious evidence indicating a threat.
By then, it’s usually too late.
If you have sentinel intelligence, it probably infuriates you how the vast majority of people can’t or won’t connect all the threads. It’s why you’re often confused with your arch-enemy, the conspiracy theorist.
To be clear, there’s a difference.
Research in psychology has associated sentinel intelligence with higher levels of empathy, compassion, and overall intelligence. Sentinels care about people and want to keep them safe, even strangers. They’re naturally inclined to think about the greater good, and they’re more willing to put up with inconveniences for the sake of protecting their group. They’re also more willing to risk the alienation and sometimes embarrassment of being wrong. They would rather be wrong than risk someone else’s life. It’s why we talk about precaution so much.
Conspiracy theorists do the opposite.
If sentinels display more compassion, conspiracy theorists show higher levels of narcissism and psychopathy. They place a great deal of importance on their own personal rights and freedoms. They usually elevate themselves or give themselves a special role in revealing the truth. While they portray themselves as highly-informed and rational, they tend to string together random facts and observations into narratives that aren’t even internally consistent. These narratives often arrive at violence toward institutions and marginalized groups.
Those with sentinel intelligence are usually advocating for very simple measures, while conspiracy theorists are usually arguing for massive interventions or radical steps, like suspending the constitution or kidnapping governors. Finally, conspiracy theorists are prone to trivialize and dismiss actual threats like corporate monopolies and disaster capitalism. They’re too mundane.
That’s the difference.
If you have sentinel intelligence, you can think of the minimizers you deal with as trojan brains. It’s a special kind of logic.
It goes like this:
That will never happen.
Okay, it’s happening.
It’s not that bad.
Okay, it’s bad.
It won’t last long.
Okay, it will never end.
What’s your solution?
That won’t work.
It’s too late to do anything.
Everyone’s worn out.
There’s no way we could’ve known.
We should just let it happen.
Everyone’s on their own.
It’s not my fault.
These are the 15 levels of trojan brain that I know about. They’re the excuses that minimizers throw out when reality proves them wrong. It doesn’t matter how many times we go through this process. It keeps happening.
Trojan brains reject precaution, almost out of habit. When they hear about a possible threat, their first impulse is to dismiss it.
They seem to get a kick out of it.
This kind of thinking has gotten popular over the last few years. It’s trendy to call someone a fearmonger or a doomsayer. No matter how many times the Cassandras are right, they never get an apology. They can never build up enough trust or social credit to get the majority of their peers to listen. Americans in particular do a terrible job of respecting their sentinels.
As it turns out, psychologists also have a name for this tendency to shrug off sentinels. It’s called reactance. Paul Ratner talks about it in Big Think. As he writes, “not many are big fans of being told what to do.” On the other hand, “persisting in your obstinance can feel pretty satisfying.” Studies show how ignoring warnings can boost someone’s self-esteem and sense of control.
Psychology also explains why trojan brains never learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, our brains don’t just reward us for ignoring warnings, they also reward us for refusing to apologize.
Researchers even published an article in the European Journal of Social Psychology titled, “Refusing to Apologize can have Psychological Benefits.” Just like reactance, it makes them feel powerful and important. Unfortunately, nobody can learn from their mistakes unless they admit them.
Carol Tavris talks about this problem in her book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). Humans hate having to admit they’re wrong. It damages their self-esteem. It invites guilt, and it makes them look bad. Instead of learning how to deal with those emotions, most people look for excuses to save face.
It doesn’t matter how lame the excuse sounds.
They’ll try anything.
Kathryn Schulz goes even deeper in her book, Being Wrong. She explores error and denial in a number of industries and professions, including healthcare. Even when they’re confronted with obvious evidence of fatal mistakes, smart educated people will still cling to the idea that they’re right and they did nothing wrong. Their responses include “evasion, obfuscation, minimization, defensiveness, and denial.” We’re seeing a lot of that right now.
It always makes everything worse.
If you’re wondering how far an institution will go to avoid admitting a mistake, you can look at the case of Christine Collins, a single mom who the L.A. police committed to a psychiatric ward after trying to pass off a runaway kid as her missing son. The city government was more willing to destroy her life than listen to her. That happened a hundred years ago. Not much has changed.
It needs to.
At this point, our survival depends on our ability to overcome these psychological hangups. As a group, we have to resist the dopamine hit that comes from dismissing warnings and minimizing threats. We also have to get much better at admitting when we’re wrong, and fixing our mistakes.
If you’re a sentinel, it often feels like the slightest suggestion of a threat sets off a cascade of denial and wishful thinking.
Now we know why.
I don’t think the answer lies in softening our words or coddling fragile egos. That never helps. We can refrain from showing visible panic and anxiety around threats. Many of us already do that. When minimizers call us hysterical anyway, we can get better at how we respond. If you see a threat, there’s nothing wrong with speaking up. Someone’s always going to feed their own self-esteem by dismissing you. However, you can minimize the effect. You don’t have to indulge their egos by debating them for hours. (I’m guilty of this.)
Starve their pride.
We can save ourselves a lot of anguish by anticipating reactance. Calling attention to someone’s biases might prompt them to reflect a little. It’s worth a shot. Maybe this last part sounds optimistic. If you have sentinel intelligence, maybe you simply have to protect yourself the best you can, while preparing to get ridiculed and shamed. It’s worth it. For many of us, silence is not an option.
Remember, you’re not a fearmonger.
You have a gift from the gods.
You can hear the future.
You’re also cursed.
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