I love the Santa Monica Co-Op, but the parking lot there is a geometric nightmare. It’s a vortex of chaos.
The lot has two small entrances directly facing each other, which means when cars enter at the same time it feels like the buildup to a medieval joust; Who can race to the space first!? The spaces themselves are crammed and entering/exiting is made complicated by the jousting cars running in opposite directions.
The other day I was waiting at one end for a space. A woman exited with her groceries and I put my blinker on, waiting as she loaded her car. As she pulled out, a silver Prius entered from the opposite end. The woman drove off and as I went to park in the spot, the Prius also edged forward toward the spot; He probably had no idea I’d been waiting five minutes.
I could see he was visibly agitated, slamming on his breaks and gesticulating something to me as I parked. He drove past my spot and waited idly for another space. As I walked across the jousting strip, he suddenly reversed his car toward me! I jumped out of the way at the last second — no doubt avoiding minor injury — and then my false alarm went off.
We all have a complex fear-response system that’s ready to switch into “fight-or-flight” to protect our survival at any moment. It’s well rooted in our evolutionary success: See a stranger hunting near us, and we don’t know if his intentions are malevolent or not. Sound the alarm! Better safe than sorry.
Only today the rules are different. My amygdala, however, is not…which leads to a false alarm mismatch. This kind of scenario could probably not occur in the environment that shaped my fear-responses.
“What the hell man!” I said in a forceful voice, my arms up in the air as I walked toward the Prius. He rolled down his window without making eye contact, focused on parking in his new spot.
“What!?” he snapped.
“C’mon! You think I take your spot that I’ve been waiting at, so you try and HIT ME with your car?”
“I didn’t see you! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he quickly said.
Now, for this to be possible, he would have had to have been reversing down the narrow jousting strip without looking in his rear-view mirrors.
“What the — ”
STOP. What is happening here?
Clearly my alarm bells have gone off. My heart-rate is starting to increase as I prepare for battle. I’m reacting, not responding… and all my sensory inputs are telling me there is a threat in front of me: first someone tried to “steal my spot,” then he gestured in anger, then he attempted a low-speed vehicular assault, and now he’s lying. This man is a threat!
THIS IS A FALSE ALARM.
Our defense systems are so sensitive and so fast to sound a red-alert so we could quickly handle legitimate threats in our species history. It errs on the side of caution for good reason — if the rustling in the bushes was just the wind and not a snake, we’ll simply have a quick scare and return to building the fire.
Only today there are dire consequences for false alarms. If the alarm escalates, the best-case scenario for me is that I’ve made a solid enemy at my quaint neighborhood grocery store. Maybe I damage my image slightly. Worst case scenarios ranges from going to jail to him killing me. This makes identifying your false alarms — your evolutionarily-misfirings — an important skill.
Consider three outcomes here:
- Think the alarm is not false. Fight to the death.
- Think the alarm is not false. Send a dishonest signal saying I will fight to the death, but walk away if he fights.
- Think the alarm is false. Walk away.
The first option presents a terrible outcome. The second a marginally damaging outcome. The third allows me to…just keep on living my life! The middle-aged Co-Op shopper, even feeling spurned by the loss of a parking space, is incredibly unlikely to be a threat to me in any way…especially since I’ll probably never see him again. How do we know this? Well, he’s sending signals of his own to me:
- “I live in your community too”
- “I have a car and don’t need yours”
- “I drive a Prius so I care about others…or what they think of me…or about saving on gas”
And so on. All of these signal that he’s not going to hunt me down in the store over a parking space. Walking away — an option that might not have existed 10,000 years ago while fighting over a lone food source — is such an infinitely better option it needs little convincing.
But it takes a lot of convincing to recognize this in the moment. Plan in advance — remind yourself regularly that few things are worth battling over in modern society, especially with strangers you’ll never see again. Not engaging and simply walking away might feel unjust or hard on the ego, but it’s a brilliant strategy in modern society.