The Shock of Homeostasis


risk homeostasisHomeostasis doesn’t just apply to risk (; ), it is a dynamic of human being. Homeostasis is really about a fundamental drive in the human psyche to regulate. Homeostasis is about how the human unconscious regulates everything from perception, experience and suffering to resilience, empathy and indifference.

No matter what humans experience in life there is a response or affect. How our unconscious regulates our response to life experiences is homeostasis. In most cases our experiences are new to us. They may have happened to someone else before but they are new to us. And until something happens to you, you will never be able to predict how you will respond. This is the joy of homeostasis.

At the foundation of homeostasis is the nature of human feeling and emotion. Our emotions, experienced through feelings, are often surprising and new. Most of what we feel in response to experience is NOT consciously regulated. We have so little control over our feelings and emotions because they operate unconsciously ( ). Some people experience pain and get angry, others experience pain and are exhilarated. Some even get addicted to the exhilaration of pain and harm and others unconsciously self-harm sometimes even destroying relationships and social connection. The idea that humans can consciously regulate feelings and emotions is completely contradicted by all we know about homeostasis. Damasio’s recent book ‘The Strange Order of Things, Life, Feeling and Making of Culture’ (2018) is a good place to start in understanding the dynamic of homeostasis.

Damasio (p. 25) describes Homeostasis as an evolutionary force that is: ‘powerful, unthought, unspoken imperative, whose discharge implies, for every living organism, small or large, nothing less than enduring and prevailing’.

It seems the force of homeostasis is discovered most in the will for preservation, sustainability, survival and the need to flourish. Often homeostasis seeks the reduction of suffering and harm but is host to hundreds of unconscious cognitive and social biases of which we are mostly unaware, until the outburst of feeling and emotion surfaces.

There are varieties of homeostasis too. For example, seeking food and drink when hungry or thirsty is one such homeostatic drive. This is a very different drive to seeking pleasure through a culinary experience. Many human experiences occur in such a way for example, the drive for sex as a necessity or pleasure is evidence of two different forms of homeostasis. What is important to remember is that homeostasis is not something one controls cognitively. As much as one might think emotions and feelings can be controlled cognitively, human will power is not enough. Self-regulation as a form of cognitive control is a delusion.

When each of my parents died my response was very different. My Dad died of esophagus cancer and it was a long drawn out series of goodbyes and bedside vigils. My Mum had dementia for the last 10 years of her life and in many ways she had died relationally long before her physical death. You never really know how you will respond to death until it happens and in my case the circumstances brought about two very different emotional responses. It is also very different when your parents die than conducting a funeral when someone else’s parent dies and being drawn into the feelings and emotions of their experience of their parent’s death.

When my Dad died it was both sad and a relief that he was in no more pain and suffering, for my Mum it was like someone I didn’t know and who didn’t know me had died. To say I was indifferent would be a mistake but the feeling and emotions of each death were not the same. Homeostasis also differed between each family member, other of my siblings were exhausted and relived and others grieved much more heavily than I. So much of homeostasis is built on the social influences of context, history, unconscious values, culture and depth of relationship. I have mapped these influences previously (

The idea of controlled self-regulation in the risk and safety industry is one of the myths of a mechanistic worldview that attributes the human mind as some kind of computer run by behaviourist algorithms. The human mind is not the brain, and the brain plays such little part in the responses we experience through feelings and emotions to those life experiences. In many ways every neural network in our body is the human mind. I discuss the nature of the human mind in my latest book The Social Psychology of Risk – i-thou ( ).

One of the characteristics of dumb down safety is judgmentalism. There is nothing more terrifying than Safety on a ‘crusade for cause’, armed with the delusion that ‘every accident can be prevented’, ‘safety is a choice you make’ and the denial of fallibility. This delusion is sustained by a simplistic binary mechanistic worldview that has no idea of the dynamic of homeostasis. Nothing could be less helpful.

Next time when you experience a surprise and those unknown emotions and feelings burst into reality and take over your being, just ask the question: ‘What is my unconscious telling me?’ The shock of homeostasis is sometimes a big wake up call for people, even life changing. Homeostasis sometimes brings those deep and hidden things to the surface, sometimes things denied for years and then when the surfacing is over, you are left with unanswered questions that don’t fit a neat paradigms of control and self-regulation. When homeostasis teaches you these lessons you will know that Risk Makes Sense.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “The Shock of Homeostasis”

  1. Response from an Academic on Linkedin:

    David, it’s interesting and important to consider the role that social and psychological responses to risk play. Can we please stop perpetuating the urban legend of risk homeostasis though? It’s not a thing. It’s a fringe theory resulting from cherry-picking evidence. No, your car is not actually equally safe with a spike in the steering wheel or an airbag. That’s what risk homeostasis predicts, and it’s simply not true.

    The true and valuable point is that putting in the airbag won’t automatically make the car as safe as the engineers might think. It’s going to influence how the driver thinks about driving. Some of those changes may make the driver more safety conscious. Some of those changes make make the driver more reckless. It’s very hard to predict without measuring it. There’s no homeostasis mechanism whereby it’s going to neatly return to the previous amount of risk.

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