Assistant Professor Evan Preisser, a University of Rhode Island ecologist, and Assistant Professor Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas-Austin reported in PLoS ONE last June that fire ants over-react to a species of parasitoid fly.  When a fire ant is exposed to this fly which kills them by incubating eggs inside them, the entire ant colony stays underground for an extended period. “This can lead to a lower body mass, reduced reproduction rates, fewer offspring, and a lower rate of survival.” Likewise, Professor Oswald Schmitz at Yale University has demonstrated that grasshoppers would rather starve to death than risk the bite of a wolf spider.

 This over-reaction by fire ants and grasshoppers to a threat stimulus is related to a fascinating area of human study called behavioral (or economic) psychology.

 On the one hand, overreaction may have a short-term adaptive advantage until the threat is neutralized or better understood, as in the FAA grounding of aircraft following the 9/11 attacks. On the other, an inappropriate response may exact an excessive  psychological or economic toll.

Let’s look at some examples:

Event

Same-Level Reaction

Response at a Higher Level

9/11

Intensively screen all passengers except crew, ban liquids exceeding three ounces and a host of other products, reinforce cockpit doors, secure airport facilities, maintain an expansive do-not-fly list, and allow pilots to carry concealed firearms.

 

Reinforce our borders and domestic “high value” targets, and selected U.S. embassies.

 

Invade Iraq.

Allow individuals to forego some privacy by permitting fingerprinting, a police background check and an annual fee; in exchange for access to an express line at airport security.

 

Increase military and intelligence cooperation with foreign governments facing an identical global terrorism threat.

 

Develop approaches that are less place and event-specific and more systemic.

 

Adverse drug reactions. (Assume, for example, that 3 million people would have their lives extended by a new drug but one in a million will die from it.

Ban the drug.

Make it available based upon an informed choice with full disclosure of the risk.

 

Criminals.

Increase prison terms and fines.

 

Build more prisons.

 

Make them “pay”.

Address the cause rather than the symptoms. For example, increase school and job opportunities for those who otherwise might be tempted by crime.

Drunk driving.

Ban alcohol. (We did this during Prohibition.)

 

Raise the minimum drinking age on the theory that fewer people will drink and drive if it is illegal. (But isn’t it illegal anyway, regardless of age?

Confront the higher level of motivation, rather than the lower level of punishment.

 

Offer to exchange part of an individual’s right of privacy for advance consent to a breathalyzer test — and a driver license. (Most states already do this.)

 

Use peer pressure to modify behavior.

Increasing oil prices.

Find more oil.

Address the higher level of sustainable sources of energy — instead the lower (quantitative) level of petroleum availability.

 

Auction credits to polluting industries, and use the revenue to reduce pollution, clean up the environment, and develop wind, solar, nuclear and hydro-electric power.

Controversial subjects.

Ban publication.

Encourage a free press and the open exchange of ideas.

Same-sex marriage.

Prohibit it.

Permit it (or a domestic partnership) on a conceptual rather than sex-specific basis. In other words, qualify people to marry or enter into a civil union based on their love for each other and their commitment to share their lives for better or worse.