Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/466

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VII.—Subjective Difficulties—Emotional.

THAT passion perverts judgment, is an observation sufficiently trite; but the more general observation of which it should form part, that emotion of every kind and degree disturbs the intellectual balance, is not trite, and, even where recognized, is not duly taken into account. Stated in full, the truth is that no propositions, save those which are absolutely indifferent to us, immediately and remotely, can be contemplated without likings and repugnances affecting the opinions we form about them. There are two modes in which our conclusions are thus falsified. Excited feelings make us wrongly estimate probability, and also make us wrongly estimate importance. Some cases will show this.

All, who are old enough, remember the murder committed by Müller on the North London Railway some years ago; for, even after reaching that stage at which accounts of crime lose their interest, and police-reports become unreadable, it is impossible to avoid gathering from gossip some knowledge of startling tragedies. Most persons, too, will remember that for some time afterward there was universally displayed a dislike to travelling by railway in company with a single other passenger—supposing him to be unknown. Though, up to the date of the murder in question, almost innumerable journeys had been made by two strangers together in the same compartment without evil being suffered by either—though, after the death of Mr. Briggs, the probabilities were immense against the occurrence of a similar fate to another person similarly placed—yet there was habitually roused a fear that would have been appropriate only had the danger been considerable. The amount of feeling excited was quite incommensurate with the risk. Though the chance was a million to one against evil, the anticipation of evil was as strong as though the chance had been a thousand to one or a hundred to one. The emotion of dread destroyed the balance of judgment, and a true estimate of likelihood became impossible; or, rather, any rational estimate of likelihood that might be formed was wholly inoperative on conduct.

Another instance was thrust on my attention during the small-pox epidemic, which a while since so unaccountably spread, after twenty years of compulsory vaccination. A lady living in London, sharing in the general trepidation, was expressing her fears to me. I asked her whether, if she lived in a town of 20,000 inhabitants, and heard of one person dying of small-pox in the course of a week, she would be much alarmed. Naturally she answered, "No;" and her fears