Study Report and Strategic Playbook
What behavioral science teaches us about the innate and contagious power of fear and anxiety.
And tips for how to quell them.
As someone recently pointed out, USA now stands for the United States of Anxiety. If all forecasts are true, each of us is likely to feel even more anxious as we wait to see how our economy revs up again, amidst COVID-19. In the meantime, a sense of danger for our loved ones, incomes, and way of life are all understandable — but for a reason you may not realize. Each and every person on the planet today is here precisely because, over millennia, our genes have been optimized to sense danger and react to it in often irrational ways. This is evolution’s “survival of the fittest” kicking in with you right now.
So go ahead, be afraid. It will increase your odds. But don’t be afraid at the expense of being wise.
Anxiety brings with it its own danger to your health. Unmanaged, fear and melancholy can easily “go viral” and endanger the well-being of others, the marketplace and world order. John Maynard Keynes was the first to allude to these “animal spirits” within us which have such impact on others and the economy. Writing about them in March 2020, Robert Shiller, the Nobel prize-winning economist observed: What we have now is really two epidemics. One is the coronavirus, but the other is an epidemic of fear driven by “narratives” we tell ourselves and others. He warns that emotions carried by the narratives have more influence on thoughts and behaviors than scientific reality may justify.
What’s more, in a world where the marketplace is one big conversation moving at the speed of light, apocalyptic narratives can infect people’s spirits much faster than employers, consumers and governments can react. Flattening the curve of fear’s contagiousness is important lest it create even more danger ahead.
And while earnest Facebook posts of tiny concerts, evening news reports on acts of kindness and “we’re in this together” on everyone’s lips are all wonderful things, they will be insufficient to fight fear and do little to speed our recovery from mass melancholy.
What would help? A science lesson. And based on it, a hygiene protocol we’re all asked to follow.
Just as treating COVID-19 requires teaching everyone the why (science) and how (protocol) to rigorously wash hands, disinfect and sneeze into our elbows, so too does fighting fear and melancholy require teaching everyone good mental hygiene (the protocol) and the science (why) behind it. The science is behavioral science. This is the body of evidence and insight born of psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience quantitative psychology — which concerns itself with the statistical modeling of behavioral data — and marketing, which is now rich with statistical evidence on what moves people’s attitudes and behaviors.
For over 40 years I’ve been a scholar and professional practitioner of behavioral science in application to what drives commerce, culture and consumption; habits; the stories we tell ourselves and each other; marketing and brand strategy; leadership dynamics in the boardroom and the C-Suite.
My expertise is the subconscious and conscious drivers of people’s attitudes, decision-making and behaviors.
From this vantage point I’m convinced that if everyone in the country had a better understanding of the science behind fear and anxiety an, directly related to it, suggestions for quelling them, the societal benefits right now would be significant. What’s more, the return on educating everyone now would pay off for decades to come.
So here’s a short course. Despite the length, it still represents only select highlights from the body of knowledge that exists. But in it you’ll realize learning that’s useful today but also, learning that’s helpful outside of crises. So even if you pass it along now to family, friends, co-workers, your boss, investors and board, consider saving and resending it again a year from now. The more everyone knows about the science of how we humans tick, the stronger we’ll be at handling today, tomorrow and the day after.
#1 AS HUMANS, OUR NATURAL DEFAULT PROGRAM IS 😱
As Bill Bryson pointed out so eloquently: “Consider the fact that, for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans…not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”
This means that your genes truly are optimized to read and react to real and imagined danger from a time before brains as we know them today developed. It is in the “evolutionary ancient central amygdala” that innate fears reside, explains Robert Sapolsky, the globally-revered expert in evolutionary biology and professor of neurological science at Stanford University. In his masterwork Behave, he details how the central amygdala is home to complex circuits of excitation. Even today it innately senses danger and drives a lot of our more complex brain functions. It’s surrounded by the also primitive basolateral amygdala which learns new things to fear, then informs the central amygdala to immediately respond with stress hormones and a mobilization of the sympathetic nervous system. So, just like rats that receive a shock accompanied by a tone then learn to expect the shock just from hearing the tone, our own amygdala is so conditioned to danger we read it into situations even where it doesn’t exist.
What’s more, we’re over-conditioned to expect danger and react dramatically to it. Jason Zweig (author of Your Money and Your Brain) explains, it’s because of the degree of surprise and bad outcomes experienced from something truly dangerous. While good things are also memorable, they’re not so critical to survival so our brains never attune to them as strongly as danger.
Of course, there’s more to our brains than the amygdala. Later areas that evolved are said to be the most mammalian and especially in primates, home to cognition, memory, storage, and abstract thought. Sapolsky describes the neocortex as, “the gleaming, logical, analytical crown jewel where info from the other parts of the brain goes to be decoded.” When one consciously thinks about something, such as weighing whether a danger is real or not, this is where the processing takes place and sends signals to the more primitive parts of the brain to “calm down.”
However, for all the marvels science has discovered about the power of these more recently evolved parts of our brain, there’s this irony: While our brains have the capability to weigh matters (such as whether or not a danger is real, and smart strategies in the face of it), apparently our brains also evolved to avoid this kind of sifting and winnowing!
As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of the seminal work Thinking Fast and Slow explains: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; we can do it, but we’d prefer not to.”
That single bit of science makes all the difference in the discussion of mental hygiene. Optimized as we are to sense danger, not only are vulnerable to sensing it even where it doesn’t exist, we also tend to avoid thinking through if the danger is real to the extent we believe it to be.
Even if provided lots of data, detail and advice on why we should feel less anxious than we do, we’re not likely to study it and draw proper conclusions: Our brains are not wired to sort complex info. In a now famous grocery store experiment, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes there were six flavors to choose from, at other times, 24. While shoppers were more likely to stop at the table with more flavors, they were 10 times more likely to buy jam at the table with fewer choices. Having more options made it harder to think things through, and behave as those marketing jam would want.
Think of what this means when trying to lead people to undertake behaviors needed for good physical or mental health. Even when the stakes are high, people are unlikely to sort thru complex or conflicting info. At best, we’ll look for easy-to-read patterns in what we see and hear, then consciously or subconsciously be guided most by those.
#2 EVOLUTION FAVORED THOSE REALLY GOOD AT PERCEIVING PATTERNS.
Imagine walking down the savannah. You observe the shape of a berry that once made you sick so you avoid it. The body shape of that male? It’s similar to those who are successful at protecting mothers with babies, so you sidle up to him. Even at a cellular level our immune system is coded to recognize patterns such as invading bacteria and viruses. Each of your cells has an “identity” tag on its surface that marks it as a part of your body and no one else’s. What’s more, in responding to perceived danger we developed patterns of behavior, essentially decision-making shortcuts. That virus invading my body? FIGHT! That rustling sound in the tall grass? RUN!
#3 WE EVOLVED TO ACT FIRST, THINK LATER. AND MOST OF THE TIME, NOT THINK AT ALL.
People and civilizations advanced because trivial and frequent decisions and activities came to be done without our having to think much about them. It’s still true today. The brain processes an estimated 35,000 decisions a day, and the only way we get through them is shortcuts. Consciously and rationally weighing which toothpaste to buy or what to eat or which route to take to work could each take hours. No wonder, as Kahneman and the jam experiment point out, we humans prefer not to think. Rather, we evolved to favor mental shortcuts that make it easy to immediately decide, immediately act, move on.
Examples of this in real life are endless. Take the profession of marketing, where the whole point is to create and mobilize mental shortcuts in a brand’s favor. These include engraining in a consumer’s memory patterns (like brand names, logos, taglines) which, when a need arises in life, provide a decision-making short cut. Research and experience have found that people tend to automatically prefer brands they’ve heard of — or who’s logo and packaging they recognize — even if they’ve never experienced them. Irrationally but reliably, people equate brand visibility with brand leadership, quality, success and more, even before the actual product comes into play.
This is a perfect example of a human decision-making shortcut based on little or no conscious thought. Just based on one factor (like recall or recognition) we jump to all kind of conclusions about a brand or product. It’s irrational, but truly how the brain works. The other interesting thing about this is that recalling a brand’s name or recognizing it’s logo of packaging is usually learned implicitly.
It’s estimated that 80–95% of the info that drives our shortcuts is learned implicitly. So it’s not just the decision-making shortcuts that are below our consciousness, it’s how we came to them. Among the worst shortcuts are those prompt erroneous conclusions and irrational judgements based solely on a person’s gender, sexual identity, color, geographic origin, position on an issue or candidate or political party affiliation.
Yet many shortcuts are godsends. Imagine grocery shopping if, to make a decision, you had to read and compare every single package in a category. Instead, the shortcut you call upon is buying the same brand as last time. You look for a familiar logo or pattern on a package. Many decision-making shortcuts manifest themselves in daily habits that save us time. In fact, we defer to decision-making shortcuts most of the time.
Kahneman refers to this “fast” decision-making as System 1 thinking, a process that is intuitive, experience-based and generally below our level of cognition because of its rapidity. Of course, the speed and automaticity of it this skill is exactly what increased the odds of our ancestor’s survival. Probably in many ways ours, too.
Kahneman refers to a human’s alternative processing method as System 2. It’s more reflective, deliberative and seeks to double check or reconsider System 1 presumptions and decisions. It’s work, and as Kahneman stresses, we prefer to avoid it. So shortcuts — and the evolutionary conditioning behind them –still drive the majority of our decision-making.
When the thinking shortcut is behavioral, it’s called a habit. Some are famously unhealthy. Others, like rigorous handwashing when leaving a bathroom, bus or grocery store provide untold health benefits to individuals and society. Of course, in the face of COVID-19, the entire nation is now being taught, encouraged and habituated to better handwashing and sneezing techniques. So certainly we’re also capable of — en masse — teaching, encouraging and habituating other healthy protocols like those that improve our mental health. (see next article).
Now, when we humans do think, it’s not what you probably imagine…
#4 THE BRAIN DOESN’T ACTUALLY THINK AS WE THINK IT THINKS.
For centuries it was believed that people first carefully process what they’re seeing around them and how to behave in light of it; what they need and want and because of that, what they’ll buy and how much they’re willing to “pay.” But science now reveals such causality goes exactly the opposite way: The processing of information takes place beneath our cognition. When the need for action is triggered, a decision made by our subconscious rises to our conscious mind which rationalizes it after the fact with whatever tidbits that are handy, even though they’re likely to have little to do with the root of the actual decision. (Again, this is true even in what many presume to be their most thoughtful, rational and “executive-like” decisions.) The real driver of the decision comes from subconscious factors, implicit learning and shortcuts we don’t even realize.
The “aha” of many scientists (especially those in quantitative psych) is that people are conscious of what they want to buy or do buy only after they’ve chosen it.
For those dealing with fear and anxiety, what’s important to realize about this is not just that the brain doesn’t think as we think it thinks because it jumps to decisions which only come to our conscious mind later. It’s also that what drives our fear and anxiety doesn’t come to our conscious mind until after the subconscious has used it to drive decision-making shortcuts and behaviors. When you pair this with the conclusion of scientists that negative experiences sear themselves into the subconscious more than positive ones, it’s easy to see that the reason we are the way we are today (fearful and anxious) is because over millions of years danger and negative outcomes have conditioned our genes to just expect the worst. We’re not that different than aforementioned rats who were conditioned to expect the worst just from hearing a bell.
#5 WE EVOLVED TO HAVE A FUNDAMENTAL IMBALANCE IN FAVOR OF SEEING THINGS NEGATIVELY.
Scientists call this expectation “negativity bias.” It includes the tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. “We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.”
Of the human tendency to expect the worst, social psychologists at Case Western University looked for situations in which bad events didn’t have such a strong impact on people. They hoped to identify patterns that would enable them to develop an elaborate, complex and nuanced theory about when bad is stronger versus when good is stronger. Despite scouring the research literature in psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and other disciplines, they couldn’t find compelling counter examples of good being more influential.8
Negativity bias is easy to recognize in ourselves if you know where to look. It turns out that a bad first impression is much more influential that a good first impression. Again, from Daniel Kahneman (and his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky) thought of a financial loss (say, losing $1,000) has a larger impact on people’s behaviors than the thought of saving the same amount. (It’s irrational but true.)
Rory Sutherland, a long-revered practitioner of effective advertising, has written that the subconscious driving our behaviors is not a calculating machine but an inference machine. It does not decide, but rather places bets. It’s more preoccupied with avoiding disaster than obtaining perfection. “Human behavior makes much more sense when viewed from this standpoint of fears rather than desires. Why is it so difficult to encourage people to move their bank accounts? Not because it’s a bad decision overall but because it has a small but pertinent possibility of being catastrophically bad. Why do people follow the herd? Not because it’s the best thing to do but because it has a low chance of being egregiously awful. If a lot of people do something awful it is a fair assumption that it’s at least okay most of the time.”
You’ll recognize the latter as the panic induced over-buying and hoarding of bathroom tissue that came with COVID-19. It was anxiety induced and irrational like so much of our behavior. But as so many behavioral economists have proven, while our thinking may be irrational, it is irrational in highly predictable ways. (It’s the very predictability of some common irrational tendencies we all have that makes it exciting to think of the good that mass teaching of mental health tips to mitigate them could provide.)
Clearly, negative expectations hold great power over how we interpret the world, and why much of our anxiety is irrational: Researchers find that anxious individuals tend to allocate excess attention to threat and there is evidence that this cognitive bias causally contributes to the development and maintenance of even more anxiety. Said another way: Fear and anxiety distort the perception of risk. Perception of risk increases fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety over what might happen overshadows rational thinking about what probably will happen. Whatever our level of thinking, it’s all very emotional, isn’t it?
#6: HUMAN DECISION-MAKING STARTS AND ENDS WITH EMOTIONS.
For centuries it was believed that that thinking and feeling were located in separate parts of the brain, and functioned separately. The first to point out this error was Neurologist Antonio Damasio of USC. Among his revelations is that the function of emotion and reasoning are fully integrated throughout the brain.
Among his many fascinating examples are those of people who, because of severe brain injuries, are unable to experience emotions. They can’t make decisions. They can’t shop. They’ve lost the ability to read and connect patterns and memories that inform expectations, judgements and decision-making shortcuts.
It turns out the brain’s decision-making software is powered by the emotions. This means — in the tug-of-war of what to prefer or what to choose — emotions dominate rational thinking. Emotion almost always wins. You could say emotion is the language of the brain. However, as Damasio would point out, fear, joy and sorrow are simply labels the most recently developed part of the brain gives to physical signals the brain reads in the body.
#7 YOUR BRAIN BOTH CONCLUDES AND CREATES WHAT THE REST OF YOUR BODY SENSES.
Protoplasm progressed only because it developed receptors that could “read danger” long before the human brain had sophisticated cognitive processing and labels to express it.
Many behavioral scientists refer to our gastrointestinal system as our “second brain”, citing the primal connection between the two. “We often talk about a ‘gut feeling’ when we meet someone for the first time. We’re told to ‘trust our gut instinct’ when making a difficult decision or that it’s ‘gut check time’ when faced with a situation that tests our nerve and determination. This mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical. Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and what many refer to as a superhighway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback about how hungry we are, whether or not we’re experiencing stress, or if we’ve ingested a disease-causing microbe.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett, the distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University, argues that, “the main purpose of the brain is simply to read the body and regulate the body budget.” If your body “senses” danger, the brain reads it and, conditioned to expect the worst, signals your heart to beat faster and your lungs to breathe faster. Over time, the same sensations and physiological changes are recognized as a pattern, so a shortcut response develops to deal with them. The modern brain puts a label (like “fear”) to the sensations and physiological changes. The label in and of itself is a processing shortcut, because when we label what we sense as “fear,” that alone alters what you expect to see and feel next, influencing your perception of reality.
Proof of this is eye-opening. If offered two glasses of wine (both the same white wine but one in a glass colored red with a tasteless, odorless food coloring) people will taste and rate them far differently. If offered an orange-flavored drink that is colored red, people taste it as cherry. As a shortcut, color alone changes our perception of reality.
As Barrett argues in her book How Emotions are Made, you might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around!
The reality is that, by expecting the worst or the best of things, each of us lives in a virtual reality of our own creation. What we expect becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if we perceive a child, a date, a teacher, an elected official, an older person or a product to be a stupid or ineffectual, we’ll then will see it confirmed at every turn, even though it may not be at all true.
#8 REALITY ISN’T ALWAYS WHAT OUR BRAIN SEES AND CONCLUDES,
LEADING US TO FEEL AND ACT IRRATIONALLY.
The tendency is to seek out evidence that supports what we expect to find, hope to find, what we already believe to be true is what behavioral economists refer to as “confirmation bias.” Even if employing System 2 thinking, we tend to see in a mound of evidence what we want to see. (No wonder, in a recent article about people searching for info on COVID-19, the author referred to the search for statistics and predictions as doomsurfing.) Confirmation bias means that even if presented with alternative data, we tend to discount it, or discount its source, because it takes a lot of mental effort (System 2 thinking) to reprogram what our brain already is sure to be true — that reality of our own creation.
Remember what Kahneman said? We humans are capable or thinking, but we’d prefer not to. That’s because it’s so much easier to read patterns and just jump to conclusions. Take “availability bias,” which is the human tendency to think that whatever we’ve heard about most recently, or most frequently, is more common, popular, powerful or more effective than it actually is. It leads people to believe things are true or trending when that may not be the case at all. Because hearing the same thing over and over the brain processes — irrationally — as truth.
Availability bias explains the power of taglines that have been seared into our memory, like “Fox News, fair and balanced.” Is it? Even if reams of evidence were laid before you, as noted previously your brain would not sift and winnow them well; any of your preconceived expectations of Fox newscasts would color your assessment of the evidence. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (the noted social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business) explains: We are often exasperated, wondering why others don’t see what we see or don’t listen to our reasoning. It’s because we were never designed to see or listen to anything other than what supports our own conclusions. We evolved not so much to learn, as to try and gain advantage in influencing others to our point of view.
What we see we want others to see. We’re driven to persuade others to see and believe what we think is needed to survive and thrive. Ahhh, “tribalism,” the human tendency to form and belong to social groups with other like-minded individuals.
The tragedy, loss of lives and economic impact of COVID-19 aside — all of which are truly awful and deservedly anxiety provoking — in most other cases confirmation bias, availability bias and tribalism would mean that the world may not be as bad as your caveman-like brain tells you. “Ever wonder why people’s perception of the incidence of crime, terrorism, kidnapping and other violent acts is often much higher than reality? A big part of the answer, according to experts in social science, psychology and computer science, is that the biases that were once useful to our primitive forebears have become — like the craving for sweet foods — detriments in our modern world. Instincts that may once have saved us from real dangers have now, thanks to global instantaneous communication, turned us all into chicken littles.”
Yet, those signals we process irrationally as negative, and the confirmation we feel that the sky is falling, don’t just come from our own brain reading our own bodies or Google search results. It’s our brains reading what other’s bodies give off. It’s fear and panic others are radiating that is infecting us.
#9 FEAR, ANXIETY AND JOY OUR BODIES RADIATE ARE NOT ONLY SENSED AND READ BY OUR OWN BRAIN, BUT BY OTHER’S BRAINS, TOO.
Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in others. Again, it’s implicit learning (including non-verbal) and believed to happen easily in person but also via communications like phone calls and emails. In this primitive, and unconscious way we “read” what another is feeling, then mimic it, feed it back and pass it on.
It’s primal, and the telegraphy is real. Evolution again perfected this skill of which we are not conscious. Day in and day out, we’re all scanning others and the situations we find ourselves in, assessing and picking up other’s anxiety. It’s our autonomic nervous system at work. This subconscious skill at detecting and assessing threat or safety has a name: Neuroception. “It explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger; why a toddler enjoys a parent’s embrace but views a hug from a stranger as an assault.”
Neuroception also explains why fear can be so contagious. And how people can inadvertently create a pandemic of fear. If a person senses a high degree of anxiety in a lot of others, the brain reads an elevation of danger to the point of panic. Do we pause and search for objective data so as to rationally weigh if what we sense as panic is justified? And do we weigh the best course of action? If you’ve read this far, you know the answer. What’s more, you’ll immediately understand Robert Schiller’s concern about the risks of negative narratives we tell ourselves and others; why they make us all the more vulnerable to being infected with fear that leads to irrational behaviors which lead to more fear.
Speaking of fear, here’s something of which we all should be afraid:
#10 OUR CULTURE IS NOW RIFE WITH FORCE MULTIPLIERS OF FEAR.
These in particular can easily feed and magnify perceptions of danger and fuel a contagion of fear:
Echo Chambers: To create cohesion and increase odds of survival, early tribes would tell the same stories over and over. This is no different today. However, thanks to email, social media and other forms of technology that gather data on people’s behaviors and preferences, the repetition and retelling are easier. The repetition and retelling are easily scaled. In the process, more and more data is gathered, which machine learning analyzes to determine who likes what stores and what emotional tenor. As a result, people who fall prey to stories of economic hopelessness find algorithms serving up even more of them. Machine learning and AI are just echoing back to us our own fears and anxieties, confirming them, deepening them.
Thought viruses: What’s also scary is the number of nefarious types and sick minds that work to infect our minds and moods with fake or falsified info.
“Extremity bias:” This is the tendency of humans to love telling stories dramatically, and answering questions with the most colorful language. It’s done to get attention and elevate one’s importance. Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton explains what happens: “A positive story becomes absolutely glowing, a negative one turns horrific, like the tall tales of ancient oral tradition.”17 The power of “extremifying” was well known by town criers in the middle ages talking to 20 people. But today it’s known and practiced by everyone. It’s become common on social media, in content marketing and digital marketing.
Around the globe, businesses, brands, legitimate media, community organizations and political parties have revenue models that depend on getting and keeping people’s attention: The competition is fierce. So extremification comes into play. Unfortunately, throughout history “good news” has never been much of a draw. So what we tend to end up with are ever more “surprising” claims, the “scariest” stats; frightful forecasts of disasters; doom and gloom and “breaking” news 24/7.
Force multiplication: In and of itself, each of the above forces has great potential to increase the anxiety people already feel. Remember, we evolved to easily sense and take on the emotions of others. Our tendency is not to pause, and with System 2 thinking, double-check the rationality of what we’re sensing. It’s more likely that our System 1 thinking (with its confirmation bias, availability bias and more) will assume that what we’re sensing is credible.
But here’s the thing to be really concerned about: Each of these anxiety-fueling forces operates concurrently with the others, creating a huge multiplier effect. Increase the speed of multiplication with a world-wide-web operating at the speed of light and not even the highly contagiousness of COVID- 19 can match the virality of fear and anxiety that can be created if we’re not careful.
Robert Schiller, and others like David Brooks (in his Opinion piece in the New York Times) are right to be concerned about a pandemic of fear. It also turns out FDR was right when, during another time of great anxiety, he pointed out that the real danger to fear is fear itself. From behavioral science we now know fear drives irrational behavior and irrational thinking. It increases anxiety and serious mental health issues, that often lead to increases in physical health issues, which create even more anxiety for everyone for years to come.
HOW DO WE FIGHT FEAR AND ANXIETY?
We leverage what we know to be true:
When we all act together in service to the same cause, we perform miracles. If we’ve learned anything from the fight against COVID-19, it’s that if we all engage in the same proven protocols to mitigate the spread of the contagion, we can flatten the curve of the illness’ impact and weaken the hold it has on our lives and economy. In the same way, we can lessen the damage of anxiety and melancholy to ourselves, our families, communities, and nation if we band together to fight it en masse. What do we fight it with?
Knowledge based on sound science is always a gamechanger. Take this article. It’s a short course explaining some of the drivers of fear and anxiety and drawn from research in psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and neuroscience. This same behavioral science also informs us on how to lessen fear and anxiety. In fact, ten quick tips can be found here. LINK. Will you consider practicing them? You’ll find each as easy as other health protocols you’ve been working to habituate (washing hands vigorously, sneezing into your elbow). One of the mental hygiene tips is guaranteed to make you laugh. (Consider sharing it to give others a laugh, along with a jumpstart toward better mental health.)
Sharing and caring are powerful and persuasive. You’ve seen the result of people, using the same health tips, to stem the tide of COVID-19. But it took thousands of individuals like you modeling them to inspire others to adopt them. It took thousands passing along to their family, friends and co-workers the why (the science) behind the behaviors. So if there’s someone who’s spirits you’d like to lift, pass along the knowledge and tips you’ve gained here. Modeling them yourself for others to see. And please don’t wait. Even after the immediate threat of COVID-19 declines, we’ll find ourselves worrying about whether or not it’s really gone. And then there are the many other fears and anxieties on the horizon that are subject to today’s force multipliers: A deep recession? Climate change? A terrorist attack? Another pandemic? What worries you about your family, your life, your future?
With the same amazing commitment, rigor and science with which we’ve all mobilized to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, let’s now mobilize to fight our fear and melancholy. As the corona virus is reminding us, the USA can pretty much overcome anything if we pledge our hearts, minds and behaviors in service to it. So will you work to mitigate your own anxiety so it doesn’t infect your siblings, husband, child, parents, cousins, co-workers, neighbors, and friends.
WHAT BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE TEACHES US ABOUT THE BEST WAY TO QUELL THE CONTAGIOUS POWER OF FEAR AND ANXIETY
THERE IS SO MUCH TO WORRY ABOUT THESE DAYS!
It’s impacting our physical health, our mental health and prompting worrisome behaviors. During the days the earth stood ill, cases of domestic abuse in France increased a third. (And those were only the cases reported.)
Without a doubt more threats to our physical and mental health are coming. While the impact of coronavirus on human lives and the economy already seem more than we can bear, many scientists are now saying COVID-19 may never be fully eradicated. We’re all projecting that many of the things we treasured in the past (going to concerts and events, traveling, hugging each other) will be forever changed. Economists are saying it will take months and months for millions of people to get jobs again; it will take years for the marketplace and our investment portfolios to recover.
IT COULD TAKE YEARS BEFORE OUR ANXIETY WANES AND OUR MENTAL HEALTH IMPROVES.
“The economic and social-science literature is replete with studies that document the harm to people from recessions and economic hardship — including higher rates of suicide, opioid abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence…a 2019 study in Clinical Psychological Science found individuals who had experienced even a single financial, job-related or housing impact during The Great Recession (2008+) still had higher odds of symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety panic and problematic substance abuse three or four years after the recession had ended.”
Even if projections of more danger and melancholy ahead are exaggerated in the media and social networks –even if they ultimately don’t come true — the mere expectation of them increases anxiety and alters our nervous systems, putting us on high alert. This increases the odds we’ll perceive even more things as threatening, even if they aren’t, because evolution has hypersensitized us to see danger at every turn and then react quickly irrationally and unhealthily to it.
If everyone in the country had a better understanding of these scientific underpinnings of our emotions and, based on the same science, how to better quell fear and anxiety, then the societal benefits would be significant. The return on lowering anxiety now would pay off for decades to come. That’s because people who are anxious have weakened immune systems. They’re all the more prone to viruses, along with many other illnesses and mental health problems. They’re prone to the infectiousness of other people’s anxiety.
RESEARCH REVEALS THAT THE ANXIETY EACH OF US FEELS IS CONTAGIOUS TO OTHERS.
No wonder a New York Times advice column concerning itself with the Coronavirus outbreak points out that, just like we owe it to our family, friends and society to wear masks so as not to infect others, we owe it to our family, friends and society to keep ourselves mentally healthy and not infect them with our anxiety.
STOPPING THE SPREAD OF ANXIETY AND PROTECTING OUR OWN MENTAL HEALTH REQUIRES THE SAME KIND OF DAILY ATTENTION REQUIRED FOR PHYSICAL HEALTH.
In the same way that just saying, “I need to eat better and exercise more,” doesn’t work, mental health requires more than just telling ourselves to “get a grip” when we’re anxious. “The rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.” For some, better mental health requires regular counseling by a professional. But everyone can benefit from some simple mental health behaviors that are easily done every day.
The ten suggested are as simple as the physical health behaviors (like rigorous handwashing) we’ve all pledged to do because of COVID-19. Now to be clear, I’m not a mental health clinician. But my 40 years of scholarship and professional application of behavioral science have given me insight and experience on what works to influence people’s attitudes and behaviors. Earlier, I provided a “short course” on some of the psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience behind the fear and anxiety we feel. The ten mental health tips offered address them specifically.
Pause. Breathe. Call on what Daniel Kahneman describes as your System 2 thinking capability. Ask yourself, “Are things really as bad or as hopeless as they seem?” We all live in a virtual reality of our own making. So double check your impressions and the potential for confirmation bias. Search out credible sources that can paint a different picture. Without calling on this System 2 thinking, your System 1 thinking will be free to drive fear and anxiety that may not be justified, and the irrational decisions and behaviors that result will ultimately make you feel even worse.
Give other people permission to remind you to do #1. When, uninvited, people challenge our thinking, we usually don’t listen to them. So this tip is one of the smartest things you can do for your own mental health (and that of those around you who suffer when you aren’t at your best): On a day you’re certain you’d never need another to remind you to do tip #1, recruit three different people to watch for your future need of #1 and whenever “it’s time,” invite you to do some System 2 thinking, even help show you the way.
Argue the opposite is true. Work to prove yourself wrong. This is a technique used by debate teams to prepare to counter arguments their competition might make. It’s also productively used in the business arena: When someone is forced to argue a compelling case for the other side’s point of view, they invariably have to research, face and internalize new evidence. Then, any prior confidence their point of view is the right one is then softened because they see things in a new light.
Stop fueling your fear and anxiety by feeding more of it to yourself. This is something mental health experts universally advise: Tune into news and social networks less often. Some days, avoid them altogether. Unsubscribe from push notifications. What one seasoned investment advisor has experienced actually applies to everyone and in all situations: There’s absolutely no benefit in putting yourself on high alert with every little move the world makes. Wait until tomorrow or the day after to check into the world again.
Whenever you do seek news and information, “disinfect” it before consumption: Limit yourself to sources of trusted journalism. Don’t fall prey to tabloid news and conspiracy theories. (They might be tempting for entertainment value. But implicit learning being as powerful as it is, once in your brain the pathogens from trash can infect your thoughts in ways you’ll not realize.) From the start consume only what’s healthy. Make sure the facts and statistics you ingest are good quality.
Put things in a bigger context. Actively construct a larger perspective. This is where history is helpful. “Every age thinks it’s ‘the Age of Anxiety,’ warns Joseph LeDoux, who is one of the foremost experts on the neuroscience of fear. But history holds plenty of evidence of times of fear greater than what we face now.” Chaos, death, suffering and hopelessness have been around forever, as have been evidence of people’s resilience, resourcefulness and recovery in the face of it.
Another source of a perspective comes from bigger data sets. For example: What’s missing from COVID-19 reports that would lessen anxiety are stats that the majority who contract the virus experience only mild cases, or are asymptomatic and never suffer.
Often the way journalists try to present perspective is in the form of stories of individual people; anecdotes. As a result, we can come away with the impression something is a big, serious, universal problem without stopping to think that a few examples are not the equivalent of a statistically significant sample. Also, we often forget to guard ourselves against reading causation into what is merely coincidence — or seeing causation in correlation. For example, just because 100% of the people who eat mashed potatoes eventually die is not a reason to fear eating them.
Good mental hygiene also requires us to fight our availability bias. This is the tendency to take what we hear most recently and most frequently and process it as trending or as truth. Shark attacks make headlines. So of course, shark attacks are top of mind in the set of fears we have when at an ocean beach. But a larger data set reveals that shark attacks are statistically rare; that people are more likely to drown at the beach. “People fear terrorism, even though the odds they will die in a plane crash are far higher…”
So many people would find their anxiety lessened by looking at a bigger picture such as good science provides.
Consider brain science. From it we know that we’re hypersensitized to anticipate danger, and in response we can become obsessed anticipating the worst that can happen. But nine in ten things people most frequently worry about never come to pass. Says Jack Nitschke, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and a practicing psychotherapist, “Anxiety is about being concerned about something that might happen.” In most cases what we worry about is largely unpredictable, irrational and turns out to be a waste of time.
A short course on brain science also teaches us that the fear and anxiety we express in our thoughts and behavior are a self-fulfilling prophecy: William James, the father of psychology in the U.S., concluded a century ago that, “The behaviors we choose can radically alter our inner landscape… Panic is increased by flight… Sobbing makes sorrow more acute.” Neuroscience has now proved him right: Giving way to our own anxiety actually produces more of the very anxiety we’re trying to quell! It’s as if we’re re-infecting ourselves with it. So what James prescribed in the 1800s is recommended by many psychologists today: Refusing to express your anxiety is considered the first step in getting it to go away. Rather, work to “stay in the moment.” It keeps you from catastrophizing.
To stay in the moment, state-of-the-art psychiatry advises, “Put down your cellphone, turn off the cable news… Take a walk. Listen for birds. Concentrate on the warmth of the sun or wind on your face.” It’s called practicing mindfulness.
Practice mindfulness. Though a technique that’s thousands of years old, mindfulness is now well-proven to be a potent tool to help people manage overwhelming fears about the future. Information on best practices, tools and techniques are available for free from a scientific research institute named Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. Their mission? “Cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind.”
Founded by world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the center’s findings are the result of years of study, most famously on Buddhist monks whose lives are devoted to meditation. Surprisingly, Davidson finds that as little as five minutes of meditation a day for a couple weeks can start to rewire anyone’s brain for greater calm, happiness and health. This is so simple and accessible a technique for the common man that Davidson says, “I envision a day when mental exercise will be as much a part of our daily lives as physical exercise and personal hygiene.”
Another mental hygiene practice that works –
Accepting the inevitability of anxiety as a part of everyday life. Humans will always carry some degree of anxiety. Even before COVID-19, in the heyday of the economy, we all found plenty to be anxious about. In a New York Times Article Laura Turner reports that what she and many others have found to help mitigate anxiety is accepting that, like seasonal weather, it’s useless to think you can avoid it. She advises treating anxiety as if it were a well-meaning friend who you can expect to visit but on occasion will stay too long, at which point you tell him or her, “time to go; I now need to focus my energy on other things.”
As one psychologist explains in Psychology Today, embracing anxiety as a part of life is a form of courage. It’s actually a badge of honor to strive to live fully in the face of all the uncertainty we each face every day. Certainly that is what our ancestors must have done, too: It could only be by living fully in the face of uncertainty and risk that their genes made it to today, alive in each of us.
But is there a secret to living fully in the face of the inevitable anxiety that life presents? It turns out there is widespread agreement on one of the factors –
Laugh more. Universally, laughter is one of the most sought-after states humans seek. It’s not that the brain is hard-wired for it, but research shows the brain IS hard-wired for what humor provides that all brains crave — connectedness to others. It’s why humor is most successful when crafted to exploit a common understanding we all share. It’s why a funny video gets rapidly passed along. It seems that, almost more than anything else, we are predisposed to bond by sharing humor.
That’s a good thing, because the positive immune and metabolic changes laughter creates are suspected of playing a big role in survival of the fittest. The boost to immunity that laughter can provide is great anytime, but never so much as when faced with two global pandemics: the coronavirus and high anxiety.
As one medical doctor advocated decades ago: Laughter is the best medicine. Over 100 years ago, “laugh more” was William James’s prescription to anyone with high anxiety. His rationale as a psychologist? “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”27 Neuroscience has now proved him right. As Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in her book How Emotions are Made, you might think things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around! It turns out that when we smile, our body physically changes in response. If we laugh, we’ll see whatever comes next in a different light, and our body will “see” it too.
For some, it may seem that now is not the time to crack jokes. The great researcher and behaviorist Dr. Jane Goodall would disagree. On March 25, 2020, when she herself was frustrated from days of self-isolation advised, “During all of this we have to keep a sense of humor.”
One day of laughing a bit more, followed by another day of laughing a bit more, and then another and — voila! — it adds up to week, a month, a life of less anxiety and living more fully. And not just for you, but because of the contagious nature of emotions, it creates a happier life for others in your sphere; and in the larger sphere we share called planet Earth.
THESE TEN TIPS FOR BETTER MENTAL HYGIENE ARE STEEPED
IN GOOD SCIENCE AND THE ADVICE OF CREDIBLE EXPERTS.
But who will preach and teach them to the nation? Who will be the Dr. Anthony Fauci of the country’s mental health? Right now, no one seems to have the calling, the platform, the funding or the time. So it turns out the one to preach and teach them to you — is you. What you have before you in this article and its prior one are essentially self-directed study. They’re things you’ll enjoy learning because they work. They’re also a responsible way to prevent your own anxiety from infecting others.
BUT IF YOU ALSO WANT TO DO YOUR PART TO IMPROVE THE MENTAL HEALTH OF THE NATION…
Share these mental health tips with those you don’t want infecting you or others with their anxiety. Family, friends, co-workers and your boss are likely to welcome any learning that could help them feel better. Besides, unlike the inconvenient handwashing protocol called for in the fight against COVID-19, the leading mental health protocol here is easy. It’s fun. It’s laughing! Who can’t love that as a requirement? So laugh vigorously. Laugh multiple times a day. Repeat this today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
If you laugh more it will improve not just your mental and physical health, it will also improve others, because behavioral science tells us laughter is contagious. So while you faithfully and concertedly work to prevent the spread of any germs you have, would you faithfully and concertedly pledge to infect the world with a little more laughter?
Marsha Lindsay researches, analyzes and forecasts future marketplace dynamics to help C-Suites, Boards and marketers prepare now for what’s next and strategically best for advantage and accelerated growth. She’s widely published. Founder of Lindsay Foresight & Stratagem, her speaking engagements and consulting clients span the Fortune 100, multinationals, VC-infused startups and universities around the globe. All her work is grounded on decades of scholarship in the behavioral sciences — the universal and timeless tenets that drive human motivation, decision-making and business transactions, as well as employee and corporate dynamics.
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2 Behind Lindsay Foresight & Stratagem. https://www.lfands.com/our-founder/
3 Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books; 1st edition. 14 September 2004.
4 Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Press. 2017 May 02.
5 Zweig, Jason. Mr. Market Just Got Inside Your Head. Don’t Let Him Mess With You. The Wall Street Journal, Markets, The Intelligent Investor. 2019 May 17.
7 NOTE: This is why we dare not put too much stock in what people state in surveys or media interviews as their intended behaviors. More predictable are insights from ethnographies, psychological tests with control groups or sufficient quantitative data. As for the why of the behaviors? Again, they are unlikely to ever be conscious. The best we can hope for are insights, professionally assessed from the subconscious, on what really motivates and incents people, irrational though they may seem.
8 Tierney, John and Baumeister, Roy F. For the New Year, Say No to Negativity. The Wall Street Journal, Ideas, The Saturday Essay. 2019 December 27. https://www.wsj.com/articles/for-the-new-year-say-no-to-negativity-11577464413
9 Southgate, Nick and Sutherland, Rory. Behavioral Economics in Action: Strategies and Insights from the IPA Effectiveness Awards. IPA. https://ipa.co.uk/knowledge/publications-reports/behavioural-economics-in-action-strategies-and-insights-from-the-ipa-effectiveness-awards
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