Even if you're a doomer.
You're Not a Fearmonger. You Have Sentinel Intelligence.
Some of us can 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 her. 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 warns everyone about the Trojan Horse. Once again, nobody listens. They start calling her names. She tries to smash the horse open with an axe and gets dragged away screaming.
You know the rest.
Many of us have been identifying strongly with Cassandra over the last few years. We watch the media downplay and dismiss one threat after another. We endure endless opinion pieces about everything from climate alarmism to coronaphobia. Influencers accuse us of hurting everyone’s mental health. Strangers call us doomers and fearmongers. Our friends and family treat us like we’re paranoid. When we share dozens or even hundreds of studies, they refuse to look at them. They say, “I don’t want to read anything that’ll bring me down.”
“I’m trying to stay positive.”
Americans and Westerners in general are suffering from a pandemic of denial, wishful thinking, and toxic positivity. It impedes us at every turn, on almost every serious issue. It exacerbates our existing anxiety and contributes to our sense of despair about the future of the planet. Here’s the thing:
You’re not a fearmonger.
You have sentinel intelligence.
Sentinel intelligence refers to a special cognitive ability 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.
If you have sentinel intelligence, 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 some ways, it’s a superpower.
Research on sensitive individuals confirms how sentinels and Cassandras think. Social psychologist Tsachi Ein-Dor writes that some of us "are chronically hypervigilant and constantly alert to potential threats and dangers. Other individuals, once alerted to a threat, are self-reliant and likely to take protective actions rapidly and effectively." In other words, we're hardwired alarm systems. Groups are more likely to survive when they have a mix of people who are skilled at detecting, communicating, and acting on threats to their survival.
Some of us can identify threats just by knowing that something's off. One study in Nature Scientific Reports describes this ability as scene gist. As they explain, "Scene gist extracted rapidly from the environment may help people detect threats." The shapes and contours of a landscape can trigger our threat brains even before we know the details of what we're looking at. The findings suggest that scene gist extends beyond scanning your surroundings for patterns. It could apply to evaluating other types of input.
If you have sentinel intelligence, you probably know what it feels like to always have your threat brain on. You know how it feels when you're assessing and analyzing information and something feels odd, even before you can articulate exactly what it is.
That's scene gist.
There's an avenue of research in psychology called threat sensitivity theory, where researchers study how individuals identify and respond to danger. As Samantha Denefrio explains, some individuals show an "exaggerated threat sensitivity." On the one hand, it can be maladaptive. On the other, it could save you from a deadly virus or a climate disaster.
Threat sensitivity lives on a spectrum.
As Stephen Ristvedt writes in Heliyon, "People on one end... are dispositionally hypersensitive to possible threat and thus more prone to anxiety and avoidance. Those on the other end... are relatively insensitive to threats and thus more likely... to take unnecessary risks."
Some research describes sentinels as flowers. A study in Translational Psychiatry looked at how college students respond to their environment. They found that around 30 percent react strongly to external stimuli, 40 percent show a moderate reaction, and about 30 percent show a weak reaction. They describe the low-sensitivity group as dandelions and the moderate-sensitivity group as tulips.
They call the high-sensitivity group orchids.
Orchids experience more intense reactions to art and music. They pay more attention to detail. They feel more overwhelmed by too much stimulus, but they simultaneously hyperfocus for long periods of time. They also tend to be quiet introverts. They’re more likely to feel self-conscious, and they’re more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
It all fits.
These terms like orchid and sentinel describe the same overall group, and we find them throughout history. Psychologists sometimes describe them as highly sensitive. They’re often ignored, even persecuted for speaking truth to power. Our culture dumps a lot of judgment on them, along with anyone who falls somewhere on the neurodivergence spectrum. We’re called weak and emotional, and we’re attacked for feeling too much. The actual data suggests that it’s not a weakness at all.
It’s a strength.
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. According to Clarke and Eddy, someone with sentinel intelligence “may at times appear obsessive and even socially abrasive.”
We’ve seen a lot of that lately.
This research also explains why so many people wait until there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating a threat before doing anything. Dandelions and tulips don’t respond as strongly to their environments.
They miss the warning signs.
If you have sentinel intelligence, it probably bewilders you how the vast majority of people can’t or won’t connect all the dots and threads. It’s why you’re often confused with your arch-enemy, the conspiracy theorist.
There’s a big difference.
Sentinels care about people and want to keep them safe, even strangers. They’re 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.
Conspiracy theorists do the opposite.
If sentinels display more compassion, conspiracy theorists show higher levels of narcissism and psychopathy. They’re less in tune with their surroundings. They show much less compassion. They place a great deal of importance on their own personal rights and freedoms. They 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 with no internal consistency. These narratives often arrive at violence toward institutions and marginalized groups.
Sentinels usually advocate for simple measures, while conspiracy theorists push for violent interventions or radical solutions, like suspending the constitution or kidnapping governors.
Finally, conspiracy theorists are prone to trivialize and dismiss actual threats like corporate monopolies and disaster capitalism. When the Trojans ignored Cassandra, they indulged in a range of fallacies.
Here’s how Trojan brains think:
- 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.
- Everything’s fine.
- I’m trying to stay positive.
- It’s not my fault.
- It’s yours.
Psychologists also have a name for the tendency to shrug off warnings. 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.”
Jack W. Brehm introduced this idea in his 1966 book, A Theory of Psychological Reactance. His work inspired nearly 60 years of research on how individuals and groups shrug off warnings until it's too late.
Then they panic.
Our survival depends on our ability to overcome these psychological hangups. We also have to get better at listening to sentinels instead of pathologizing them and talking about their social anxiety.
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.
Combine all of these psychological hazards, and you arrive at the current state of affairs, a Western society that remains largely unwilling to recognize threats and face them with simple solutions.
I don’t think the answer lies in softening our words or coddling fragile egos. That never helps. We just need a little confidence and reassurance that we’re doing the right thing. When minimizers call us hysterical doomers, we can lean on the psychology that says otherwise.
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.
Focus on the ones in the middle who might listen.
With enough effort, we can get through to the 40 percent of people out there who show some willingness to pay attention. They can fall prey to Trojan brain, but they’ll listen to sentinels. It’s worth trying.
Maybe this last part sounds optimistic.
If you have sentinel intelligence, maybe it takes all you’ve got just to protect yourself and endure everyone’s ridicule. Some of us are tired, and we need a break from the role of Cassandra. That’s fine.
Just remember, you’re not a fearmonger.
You have a gift from the gods.
You can hear the future.
OK Doomer offers an escape from wishful thinking. If you appreciate my work, consider subscribing or buying me a coffee. Paid memberships start at $9 a year. If you can't subscribe, you can share. Thank you to all the readers who support this site. It makes a difference.