Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Roller Coaster Fallacy

I'm neither a prude nor a Boy Scout, but I suppose that many people who know me think my brain was put in upside-down. My priorities don't match up with most people's priorities. I have never been predominantly motivated by money. I have no desire to keep up with the Joneses. I do still come to a full-stop at stop signs, just like my Drivers' Ed. instructor demanded of me as I drove him to the liquor store every day to pick up his lunch.

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted something that got my upside-down brain thinking.

It was a paraphrase of the climactic line from the 1989 Ron Howard movie Parenthood, written by the powerhouse screenwriting duo of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

Here's the line, and the exchange leading up to it -- at least, according to IMDB:

[GIL has been complaining about his complicated life; GRANDMA wanders into the room]

GRANDMA: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.

GIL: Oh?

GRANDMA: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!

GIL: What a great story.

GRANDMA: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

Clever, but it's a false sense of risk.

On the roller coaster, you just let the world happen to you -- feels risky but is really very safe. YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE THIS RIDE. If you are larger than the safety harness can accommodate, you are not allowed to ride. Only a person who falls into a broadly defined average may ride.

Even though the roller coaster may make a rider queasy enough to barf into the back of somebody else's hair, it is a finite ride of manufactured, nonexistent danger. Like the merry-go-round, the roller coaster just goes around in a circle. Granted, it's a more stress-inducing circle, but a circle nonetheless. You wind up right back where you started, and only make a single trip around the track.

The merry-go-round has become so sanitized that it is easy to forget its older incarnation; the old-fashioned merry-go-round is still out there, but it takes some effort to find one. Riding an old-fashioned merry-go-round requires you to stretch to your limits to reach for the brass ring -- looks safe but is actually pretty risky. That's why old-fashioned merry-go-rounds are difficult to find: so many riders underestimated the dangers of reaching for that brass ring that they fell off the innocuous-looking ride.

If you are at a point in your life where you cannot bring yourself to reach for the brass ring, the merry-go-round still has a strong advantage over the roller coaster: aesthetics. A roller coaster is a ride in a glorified mine cart; a traditional merry-go-round is a baroque sculpture garden of intricately carved animals, a parade of fine carriages, and a gallery of ornate paintings and embellishments. A roller coaster creates false panic, survival of which a rider counts as an accomplishment; a merry-go-round provides a beautiful and stable base from which to test one's limits, the riding of which may be a waiting game for opportunity, or strategizing about how to re-approach that brass ring after a near miss.

I'll take my chances to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round while those on the roller coaster who have not even tried to accomplish anything brag about overcoming risk they never truly took.

Or maybe my brain was put in upside-down.