Social and psychological forces are combining to make the sharing and believing of misinformation an endemic problem with no easy solution.
Published May 7, 2021; Updated May 13, 2021
There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.
All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.
We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.
“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”
Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.
This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.
Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.
“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.
Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.
In an email, Dr. Nyhan said it could be methodologically difficult to nail down the precise relationship between overall polarization in society and overall misinformation, but there is abundant evidence that an individual with more polarized views becomes more prone to believing falsehoods.
The second driver of the misinformation era is the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation. After all, an atmosphere of all-out political conflict often benefits those leaders, at least in the short term, by rallying people behind them.
Then there is the third factor — a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.
“Media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behavior,” said William J. Brady, a Yale University social psychologist.
“When you post things, you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares,” Dr. Brady said. So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.
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“Depending on the platform, especially, humans are very sensitive to social reward,” he said. Research demonstrates that people who get positive feedback for posting inflammatory or false statements become much more likely to do so again in the future. “You are affected by that.”
In 2016, the media scholars Jieun Shin and Kjerstin Thorson analyzed a data set of 300 million tweets from the 2012 election. Twitter users, they found, “selectively share fact-checking messages that cheerlead their own candidate and denigrate the opposing party’s candidate.” And when users encountered a fact-check that revealed their candidate had gotten something wrong, their response wasn’t to get mad at the politician for lying. It was to attack the fact checkers.
“We have found that Twitter users tend to retweet to show approval, argue, gain attention and entertain,” researcher Jon-Patrick Allem wrote last year, summarizing a study he had co-authored. “Truthfulness of a post or accuracy of a claim was not an identified motivation for retweeting.”
In another study, published last month in Nature, a team of psychologists tracked thousands of users interacting with false information. Republican test subjects who were shown a false headline about migrants trying to enter the United States (“Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests”) mostly identified it as false; only 16 percent called it accurate. But if the experimenters instead asked the subjects to decide whether to share the headline, 51 percent said they would.
“Most people do not want to spread misinformation,” the study’s authors wrote. “But the social media context focuses their attention on factors other than truth and accuracy.”
In a highly polarized society like today’s United States — or, for that matter, India or parts of Europe — those incentives pull heavily toward ingroup solidarity and outgroup derogation. They do not much favor consensus reality or abstract ideals of accuracy.
As people become more prone to misinformation, opportunists and charlatans are also getting better at exploiting this. That can mean tear-it-all-down populists who rise on promises to smash the establishment and control minorities. It can also mean government agencies or freelance hacker groups stirring up social divisions abroad for their benefit. But the roots of the crisis go deeper.
“The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. “It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”
In an ecosystem where that sense of identity conflict is all-consuming, she wrote, “belonging is stronger than facts.”
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook, was apologizing to his audience.
It was March 23, 2018, just days after the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, had surreptitiously siphoned the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence how they voted. It was the biggest privacy breach in Facebook’s history, and Quiñonero had been previously scheduled to speak at a conference on, among other things, “the intersection of AI, ethics, and privacy” at the company. He considered canceling, but after debating it with his communications director, he’d kept his allotted time.
As he stepped up to face the room, he began with an admission. “I’ve just had the hardest five days in my tenure at Facebook,” he remembers saying. “If there’s criticism, I’ll accept it.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal would kick off Facebook’s largest publicity crisis ever. It compounded fears that the algorithms that determine what people see on the platform were amplifying fake news and hate speech, and that Russian hackers had weaponized them to try to sway the election in Trump’s favor. Millions began deleting the app; employees left in protest; the company’s market capitalization plunged by more than $100 billion after its July earnings call.
In the ensuing months, Mark Zuckerberg began his own apologizing. He apologized for not taking “a broad enough view” of Facebook’s responsibilities, and for his mistakes as a CEO. Internally, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, kicked off a two-year civil rights audit to recommend ways the company could prevent the use of its platform to undermine democracy.
Finally, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, asked Quiñonero to start a team with a directive that was a little vague: to examine the societal impact of the company’s algorithms. The group named itself the Society and AI Lab (SAIL); last year it combined with another team working on issues of data privacy to form Responsible AI.
Quiñonero was a natural pick for the job. He, as much as anybody, was the one responsible for Facebook’s position as an AI powerhouse. In his six years at Facebook, he’d created some of the first algorithms for targeting users with content precisely tailored to their interests, and then he’d diffused those algorithms across the company. Now his mandate would be to make them less harmful.
Facebook has consistently pointed to the efforts by Quiñonero and others as it seeks to repair its reputation. It regularly trots out various leaders to speak to the media about the ongoing reforms. In May of 2019, it granted a series of interviews with Schroepfer to the New York Times, which rewarded the company with a humanizing profile of a sensitive, well-intentioned executive striving to overcome the technical challenges of filtering out misinformation and hate speech from a stream of content that amounted to billions of pieces a day. These challenges are so hard that it makes Schroepfer emotional, wrote the Times: “Sometimes that brings him to tears.”
In the spring of 2020, it was apparently my turn. Ari Entin, Facebook’s AI communications director, asked in an email if I wanted to take a deeper look at the company’s AI work. After talking to several of its AI leaders, I decided to focus on Quiñonero. Entin happily obliged. As not only the leader of the Responsible AI team but also the man who had made Facebook into an AI-driven company, Quiñonero was a solid choice to use as a poster boy.
He seemed a natural choice of subject to me, too. In the years since he’d formed his team following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns about the spread of lies and hate speech on Facebook had only grown. In late 2018 the company admitted that this activity had helped fuel a genocidal anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar for several years. In 2020 Facebook started belatedly taking action against Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, and the conspiracy movement QAnon. All these dangerous falsehoods were metastasizing thanks to the AI capabilities Quiñonero had helped build. The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by. Fixing this problem, to me, seemed like core Responsible AI territory.
I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?
But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.
By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.
The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.
In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.
“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.
“They always do just enough to be able to put the press release out. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think it’s actually translated into better policies. They’re never really dealing with the fundamental problems.”
In March of 2012, Quiñonero visited a friend in the Bay Area. At the time, he was a manager in Microsoft Research’s UK office, leading a team using machine learning to get more visitors to click on ads displayed by the company’s search engine, Bing. His expertise was rare, and the team was less than a year old. Machine learning, a subset of AI, had yet to prove itself as a solution to large-scale industry problems. Few tech giants had invested in the technology.
Quiñonero’s friend wanted to show off his new employer, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley: Facebook, then eight years old and already with close to a billion monthly active users (i.e., those who have logged in at least once in the past 30 days). As Quiñonero walked around its Menlo Park headquarters, he watched a lone engineer make a major update to the website, something that would have involved significant red tape at Microsoft. It was a memorable introduction to Zuckerberg’s “Move fast and break things” ethos. Quiñonero was awestruck by the possibilities. Within a week, he had been through interviews and signed an offer to join the company.
His arrival couldn’t have been better timed. Facebook’s ads service was in the middle of a rapid expansion as the company was preparing for its May IPO. The goal was to increase revenue and take on Google, which had the lion’s share of the online advertising market. Machine learning, which could predict which ads would resonate best with which users and thus make them more effective, could be the perfect tool. Shortly after starting, Quiñonero was promoted to managing a team similar to the one he’d led at Microsoft.
Unlike traditional algorithms, which are hard-coded by engineers, machine-learning algorithms “train” on input data to learn the correlations within it. The trained algorithm, known as a machine-learning model, can then automate future decisions. An algorithm trained on ad click data, for example, might learn that women click on ads for yoga leggings more often than men. The resultant model will then serve more of those ads to women. Today at an AI-based company like Facebook, engineers generate countless models with slight variations to see which one performs best on a given problem.
Facebook’s massive amounts of user data gave Quiñonero a big advantage. His team could develop models that learned to infer the existence not only of broad categories like “women” and “men,” but of very fine-grained categories like “women between 25 and 34 who liked Facebook pages related to yoga,” and targeted ads to them. The finer-grained the targeting, the better the chance of a click, which would give advertisers more bang for their buck.
Within a year his team had developed these models, as well as the tools for designing and deploying new ones faster. Before, it had taken Quiñonero’s engineers six to eight weeks to build, train, and test a new model. Now it took only one.
News of the success spread quickly. The team that worked on determining which posts individual Facebook users would see on their personal news feeds wanted to apply the same techniques. Just as algorithms could be trained to predict who would click what ad, they could also be trained to predict who would like or share what post, and then give those posts more prominence. If the model determined that a person really liked dogs, for instance, friends’ posts about dogs would appear higher up on that user’s news feed.
Quiñonero’s success with the news feed—coupled with impressive new AI research being conducted outside the company—caught the attention of Zuckerberg and Schroepfer. Facebook now had just over 1 billion users, making it more than eight times larger than any other social network, but they wanted to know how to continue that growth. The executives decided to invest heavily in AI, internet connectivity, and virtual reality.
They created two AI teams. One was FAIR, a fundamental research lab that would advance the technology’s state-of-the-art capabilities. The other, Applied Machine Learning (AML), would integrate those capabilities into Facebook’s products and services. In December 2013, after months of courting and persuasion, the executives recruited Yann LeCun, one of the biggest names in the field, to lead FAIR. Three months later, Quiñonero was promoted again, this time to lead AML. (It was later renamed FAIAR, pronounced “fire.”)
“That’s how you know what’s on his mind. I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela
In his new role, Quiñonero built a new model-development platform for anyone at Facebook to access. Called FBLearner Flow, it allowed engineers with little AI experience to train and deploy machine-learning models within days. By mid-2016, it was in use by more than a quarter of Facebook’s engineering team and had already been used to train over a million models, including models for image recognition, ad targeting, and content moderation.
Zuckerberg’s obsession with getting the whole world to use Facebook had found a powerful new weapon. Teams had previously used design tactics, like experimenting with the content and frequency of notifications, to try to hook users more effectively. Their goal, among other things, was to increase a metric called L6/7, the fraction of people who logged in to Facebook six of the previous seven days. L6/7 is just one of myriad ways in which Facebook has measured “engagement”—the propensity of people to use its platform in any way, whether it’s by posting things, commenting on them, liking or sharing them, or just looking at them. Now every user interaction once analyzed by engineers was being analyzed by algorithms. Those algorithms were creating much faster, more personalized feedback loops for tweaking and tailoring each user’s news feed to keep nudging up engagement numbers.
Zuckerberg, who sat in the center of Building 20, the main office at the Menlo Park headquarters, placed the new FAIR and AML teams beside him. Many of the original AI hires were so close that his desk and theirs were practically touching. It was “the inner sanctum,” says a former leader in the AI org (the branch of Facebook that contains all its AI teams), who recalls the CEO shuffling people in and out of his vicinity as they gained or lost his favor. “That’s how you know what’s on his mind,” says Quiñonero. “I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
With new machine-learning models coming online daily, the company created a new system to track their impact and maximize user engagement. The process is still the same today. Teams train up a new machine-learning model on FBLearner, whether to change the ranking order of posts or to better catch content that violates Facebook’s community standards (its rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the platform). Then they test the new model on a small subset of Facebook’s users to measure how it changes engagement metrics, such as the number of likes, comments, and shares, says Krishna Gade, who served as the engineering manager for news feed from 2016 to 2018.
If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored. On Twitter, Gade explained that his engineers would get notifications every few days when metrics such as likes or comments were down. Then they’d decipher what had caused the problem and whether any models needed retraining.
But this approach soon caused issues. The models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff. Sometimes this inflames existing political tensions. The most devastating example to date is the case of Myanmar, where viral fake news and hate speech about the Rohingya Muslim minority escalated the country’s religious conflict into a full-blown genocide. Facebook admitted in 2018, after years of downplaying its role, that it had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
While Facebook may have been oblivious to these consequences in the beginning, it was studying them by 2016. In an internal presentation from that year, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a company researcher, Monica Lee, found that Facebook was not only hosting a large number of extremist groups but also promoting them to its users: “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the presentation said, predominantly thanks to the models behind the “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features.
“The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?”
A former AI researcher who joined in 2018
In 2017, Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer, formed a new task force to understand whether maximizing user engagement on Facebook was contributing to political polarization. It found that there was indeed a correlation, and that reducing polarization would mean taking a hit on engagement. In a mid-2018 document reviewed by the Journal, the task force proposed several potential fixes, such as tweaking the recommendation algorithms to suggest a more diverse range of groups for people to join. But it acknowledged that some of the ideas were “antigrowth.” Most of the proposals didn’t move forward, and the task force disbanded.
Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.
The researcher’s team also found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health. The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers. (A Facebook spokesperson said she could not find documentation for this proposal.)
But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down.
One such project heavily pushed by company leaders involved predicting whether a user might be at risk for something several people had already done: livestreaming their own suicide on Facebook Live. The task involved building a model to analyze the comments that other users were posting on a video after it had gone live, and bringing at-risk users to the attention of trained Facebook community reviewers who could call local emergency responders to perform a wellness check. It didn’t require any changes to content-ranking models, had negligible impact on engagement, and effectively fended off negative press. It was also nearly impossible, says the researcher: “It’s more of a PR stunt. The efficacy of trying to determine if somebody is going to kill themselves in the next 30 seconds, based on the first 10 seconds of video analysis—you’re not going to be very effective.”
Facebook disputes this characterization, saying the team that worked on this effort has since successfully predicted which users were at risk and increased the number of wellness checks performed. But the company does not release data on the accuracy of its predictions or how many wellness checks turned out to be real emergencies.
That former employee, meanwhile, no longer lets his daughter use Facebook.
Quiñonero should have been perfectly placed to tackle these problems when he created the SAIL (later Responsible AI) team in April 2018. His time as the director of Applied Machine Learning had made him intimately familiar with the company’s algorithms, especially the ones used for recommending posts, ads, and other content to users.
It also seemed that Facebook was ready to take these problems seriously. Whereas previous efforts to work on them had been scattered across the company, Quiñonero was now being granted a centralized team with leeway in his mandate to work on whatever he saw fit at the intersection of AI and society.
At the time, Quiñonero was engaging in his own reeducation about how to be a responsible technologist. The field of AI research was paying growing attention to problems of AI bias and accountability in the wake of high-profile studies showing that, for example, an algorithm was scoring Black defendants as more likely to be rearrested than white defendants who’d been arrested for the same or a more serious offense. Quiñonero began studying the scientific literature on algorithmic fairness, reading books on ethical engineering and the history of technology, and speaking with civil rights experts and moral philosophers.
Over the many hours I spent with him, I could tell he took this seriously. He had joined Facebook amid the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions against oppressive Middle Eastern regimes. Experts had lauded social media for spreading the information that fueled the uprisings and giving people tools to organize. Born in Spain but raised in Morocco, where he’d seen the suppression of free speech firsthand, Quiñonero felt an intense connection to Facebook’s potential as a force for good.
Six years later, Cambridge Analytica had threatened to overturn this promise. The controversy forced him to confront his faith in the company and examine what staying would mean for his integrity. “I think what happens to most people who work at Facebook—and definitely has been my story—is that there’s no boundary between Facebook and me,” he says. “It’s extremely personal.” But he chose to stay, and to head SAIL, because he believed he could do more for the world by helping turn the company around than by leaving it behind.
“I think if you’re at a company like Facebook, especially over the last few years, you really realize the impact that your products have on people’s lives—on what they think, how they communicate, how they interact with each other,” says Quiñonero’s longtime friend Zoubin Ghahramani, who helps lead the Google Brain team. “I know Joaquin cares deeply about all aspects of this. As somebody who strives to achieve better and improve things, he sees the important role that he can have in shaping both the thinking and the policies around responsible AI.”
At first, SAIL had only five people, who came from different parts of the company but were all interested in the societal impact of algorithms. One founding member, Isabel Kloumann, a research scientist who’d come from the company’s core data science team, brought with her an initial version of a tool to measure the bias in AI models.
The team also brainstormed many other ideas for projects. The former leader in the AI org, who was present for some of the early meetings of SAIL, recalls one proposal for combating polarization. It involved using sentiment analysis, a form of machine learning that interprets opinion in bits of text, to better identify comments that expressed extreme points of view. These comments wouldn’t be deleted, but they would be hidden by default with an option to reveal them, thus limiting the number of people who saw them.
And there were discussions about what role SAIL could play within Facebook and how it should evolve over time. The sentiment was that the team would first produce responsible-AI guidelines to tell the product teams what they should or should not do. But the hope was that it would ultimately serve as the company’s central hub for evaluating AI projects and stopping those that didn’t follow the guidelines.
Former employees described, however, how hard it could be to get buy-in or financial support when the work didn’t directly improve Facebook’s growth. By its nature, the team was not thinking about growth, and in some cases it was proposing ideas antithetical to growth. As a result, it received few resources and languished. Many of its ideas stayed largely academic.
On August 29, 2018, that suddenly changed. In the ramp-up to the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders ratcheted up accusations that Facebook, Twitter, and Google had anti-conservative bias. They claimed that Facebook’s moderators in particular, in applying the community standards, were suppressing conservative voices more than liberal ones. This charge would later be debunked, but the hashtag #StopTheBias, fueled by a Trump tweet, was rapidly spreading on social media.
For Trump, it was the latest effort to sow distrust in the country’s mainstream information distribution channels. For Zuckerberg, it threatened to alienate Facebook’s conservative US users and make the company more vulnerable to regulation from a Republican-led government. In other words, it threatened the company’s growth.
Facebook did not grant me an interview with Zuckerberg, but previousreporting has shown how he increasingly pandered to Trump and the Republican leadership. After Trump was elected, Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s VP of global public policy and its highest-ranking Republican, advised Zuckerberg to tread carefully in the new political environment.
On September 20, 2018, three weeks after Trump’s #StopTheBias tweet, Zuckerberg held a meeting with Quiñonero for the first time since SAIL’s creation. He wanted to know everything Quiñonero had learned about AI bias and how to quash it in Facebook’s content-moderation models. By the end of the meeting, one thing was clear: AI bias was now Quiñonero’s top priority. “The leadership has been very, very pushy about making sure we scale this aggressively,” says Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI who joined in April 2019.
It was a win for everybody in the room. Zuckerberg got a way to ward off charges of anti-conservative bias. And Quiñonero now had more money and a bigger team to make the overall Facebook experience better for users. They could build upon Kloumann’s existing tool in order to measure and correct the alleged anti-conservative bias in content-moderation models, as well as to correct other types of bias in the vast majority of models across the platform.
This could help prevent the platform from unintentionally discriminating against certain users. By then, Facebook already had thousands of models running concurrently, and almost none had been measured for bias. That would get it into legal trouble a few months later with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which alleged that the company’s algorithms were inferring “protected” attributes like race from users’ data and showing them ads for housing based on those attributes—an illegal form of discrimination. (The lawsuit is still pending.) Schroepfer also predicted that Congress would soon pass laws to regulate algorithmic discrimination, so Facebook needed to make headway on these efforts anyway.
(Facebook disputes the idea that it pursued its work on AI bias to protect growth or in anticipation of regulation. “We built the Responsible AI team because it was the right thing to do,” a spokesperson said.)
But narrowing SAIL’s focus to algorithmic fairness would sideline all Facebook’s other long-standing algorithmic problems. Its content-recommendation models would continue pushing posts, news, and groups to users in an effort to maximize engagement, rewarding extremist content and contributing to increasingly fractured political discourse.
Zuckerberg even admitted this. Two months after the meeting with Quiñonero, in a public note outlining Facebook’s plans for content moderation, he illustrated the harmful effects of the company’s engagement strategy with a simplified chart. It showed that the more likely a post is to violate Facebook’s community standards, the more user engagement it receives, because the algorithms that maximize engagement reward inflammatory content.
But then he showed another chart with the inverse relationship. Rather than rewarding content that came close to violating the community standards, Zuckerberg wrote, Facebook could choose to start “penalizing” it, giving it “less distribution and engagement” rather than more. How would this be done? With more AI. Facebook would develop better content-moderation models to detect this “borderline content” so it could be retroactively pushed lower in the news feed to snuff out its virality, he said.
The problem is that for all Zuckerberg’s promises, this strategy is tenuous at best.
Misinformation and hate speech constantly evolve. New falsehoods spring up; new people and groups become targets. To catch things before they go viral, content-moderation models must be able to identify new unwanted content with high accuracy. But machine-learning models do not work that way. An algorithm that has learned to recognize Holocaust denial can’t immediately spot, say, Rohingya genocide denial. It must be trained on thousands, often even millions, of examples of a new type of content before learning to filter it out. Even then, users can quickly learn to outwit the model by doing things like changing the wording of a post or replacing incendiary phrases with euphemisms, making their message illegible to the AI while still obvious to a human. This is why new conspiracy theories can rapidly spiral out of control, and partly why, even after such content is banned, forms of it canpersist on the platform.
In his New York Times profile, Schroepfer named these limitations of the company’s content-moderation strategy. “Every time Mr. Schroepfer and his more than 150 engineering specialists create A.I. solutions that flag and squelch noxious material, new and dubious posts that the A.I. systems have never seen before pop up—and are thus not caught,” wrote the Times. “It’s never going to go to zero,” Schroepfer told the publication.
Meanwhile, the algorithms that recommend this content still work to maximize engagement. This means every toxic post that escapes the content-moderation filters will continue to be pushed higher up the news feed and promoted to reach a larger audience. Indeed, a study from New York University recently found that among partisan publishers’ Facebook pages, those that regularly posted political misinformation received the most engagement in the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election and the Capitol riots. “That just kind of got me,” says a former employee who worked on integrity issues from 2018 to 2019. “We fully acknowledged [this], and yet we’re still increasing engagement.”
But Quiñonero’s SAIL team wasn’t working on this problem. Because of Kaplan’s and Zuckerberg’s worries about alienating conservatives, the team stayed focused on bias. And even after it merged into the bigger Responsible AI team, it was never mandated to work on content-recommendation systems that might limit the spread of misinformation. Nor has any other team, as I confirmed after Entin and another spokesperson gave me a full list of all Facebook’s other initiatives on integrity issues—the company’s umbrella term for problems including misinformation, hate speech, and polarization.
A Facebook spokesperson said, “The work isn’t done by one specific team because that’s not how the company operates.” It is instead distributed among the teams that have the specific expertise to tackle how content ranking affects misinformation for their part of the platform, she said. But Schroepfer told me precisely the opposite in an earlier interview. I had asked him why he had created a centralized Responsible AI team instead of directing existing teams to make progress on the issue. He said it was “best practice” at the company.
“[If] it’s an important area, we need to move fast on it, it’s not well-defined, [we create] a dedicated team and get the right leadership,” he said. “As an area grows and matures, you’ll see the product teams take on more work, but the central team is still needed because you need to stay up with state-of-the-art work.”
When I described the Responsible AI team’s work to other experts on AI ethics and human rights, they noted the incongruity between the problems it was tackling and those, like misinformation, for which Facebook is most notorious. “This seems to be so oddly removed from Facebook as a product—the things Facebook builds and the questions about impact on the world that Facebook faces,” said Rumman Chowdhury, whose startup, Parity, advises firms on the responsible use of AI, and was acquired by Twitter after our interview. I had shown Chowdhury the Quiñonero team’s documentation detailing its work. “I find it surprising that we’re going to talk about inclusivity, fairness, equity, and not talk about the very real issues happening today,” she said.
“It seems like the ‘responsible AI’ framing is completely subjective to what a company decides it wants to care about. It’s like, ‘We’ll make up the terms and then we’ll follow them,’” says Ellery Roberts Biddle, the editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that studies the impact of tech companies on human rights. “I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
“We’re at a place where there’s one genocide [Myanmar] that the UN has, with a lot of evidence, been able to specifically point to Facebook and to the way that the platform promotes content,” Biddle adds. “How much higher can the stakes get?”
Over the last two years, Quiñonero’s team has built out Kloumann’s original tool, called Fairness Flow. It allows engineers to measure the accuracy of machine-learning models for different user groups. They can compare a face-detection model’s accuracy across different ages, genders, and skin tones, or a speech-recognition algorithm’s accuracy across different languages, dialects, and accents.
Fairness Flow also comes with a set of guidelines to help engineers understand what it means to train a “fair” model. One of the thornier problems with making algorithms fair is that there are different definitions of fairness, which can be mutually incompatible. Fairness Flow lists four definitions that engineers can use according to which suits their purpose best, such as whether a speech-recognition model recognizes all accents with equal accuracy or with a minimum threshold of accuracy.
But testing algorithms for fairness is still largely optional at Facebook. None of the teams that work directly on Facebook’s news feed, ad service, or other products are required to do it. Pay incentives are still tied to engagement and growth metrics. And while there are guidelines about which fairness definition to use in any given situation, they aren’t enforced.
This last problem came to the fore when the company had to deal with allegations of anti-conservative bias.
In 2014, Kaplan was promoted from US policy head to global vice president for policy, and he began playing a more heavy-handed role in content moderation and decisions about how to rank posts in users’ news feeds. After Republicans started voicing claims of anti-conservative bias in 2016, his team began manually reviewing the impact of misinformation-detection models on users to ensure—among other things—that they didn’t disproportionately penalize conservatives.
All Facebook users have some 200 “traits” attached to their profile. These include various dimensions submitted by users or estimated by machine-learning models, such as race, political and religious leanings, socioeconomic class, and level of education. Kaplan’s team began using the traits to assemble custom user segments that reflected largely conservative interests: users who engaged with conservative content, groups, and pages, for example. Then they’d run special analyses to see how content-moderation decisions would affect posts from those segments, according to a former researcher whose work was subject to those reviews.
The Fairness Flow documentation, which the Responsible AI team wrote later, includes a case study on how to use the tool in such a situation. When deciding whether a misinformation model is fair with respect to political ideology, the team wrote, “fairness” does not mean the model should affect conservative and liberal users equally. If conservatives are posting a greater fraction of misinformation, as judged by public consensus, then the model should flag a greater fraction of conservative content. If liberals are posting more misinformation, it should flag their content more often too.
But members of Kaplan’s team followed exactly the opposite approach: they took “fairness” to mean that these models should not affect conservatives more than liberals. When a model did so, they would stop its deployment and demand a change. Once, they blocked a medical-misinformation detector that had noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns, the former researcher told me. They told the researchers that the model could not be deployed until the team fixed this discrepancy. But that effectively made the model meaningless. “There’s no point, then,” the researcher says. A model modified in that way “would have literally no impact on the actual problem” of misinformation.
“I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
Ellery Roberts Biddle, editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights
This happened countless other times—and not just for content moderation. In 2020, the Washington Post reported that Kaplan’s team had undermined efforts to mitigate election interference and polarization within Facebook, saying they could contribute to anti-conservative bias. In 2018, it used the same argument to shelve a project to edit Facebook’s recommendation models even though researchers believed it would reduce divisiveness on the platform, according to the Wall Street Journal. His claims about political bias also weakened a proposal to edit the ranking models for the news feed that Facebook’s data scientists believed would strengthen the platform against the manipulation tactics Russia had used during the 2016 US election.
And ahead of the 2020 election, Facebook policy executives used this excuse, according to the New York Times, to veto or weaken several proposals that would have reduced the spread of hateful and damaging content.
Facebook disputed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting in a follow-up blog post, and challenged the New York Times’s characterization in an interview with the publication. A spokesperson for Kaplan’s team also denied to me that this was a pattern of behavior, saying the cases reported by the Post, the Journal, and the Times were “all individual instances that we believe are then mischaracterized.” He declined to comment about the retraining of misinformation models on the record.
Many of these incidents happened before Fairness Flow was adopted. But they show how Facebook’s pursuit of fairness in the service of growth had already come at a steep cost to progress on the platform’s other challenges. And if engineers used the definition of fairness that Kaplan’s team had adopted, Fairness Flow could simply systematize behavior that rewarded misinformation instead of helping to combat it.
Often “the whole fairness thing” came into play only as a convenient way to maintain the status quo, the former researcher says: “It seems to fly in the face of the things that Mark was saying publicly in terms of being fair and equitable.”
The last time I spoke with Quiñonero was a month after the US Capitol riots. I wanted to know how the storming of Congress had affected his thinking and the direction of his work.
In the video call, it was as it always was: Quiñonero dialing in from his home office in one window and Entin, his PR handler, in another. I asked Quiñonero what role he felt Facebook had played in the riots and whether it changed the task he saw for Responsible AI. After a long pause, he sidestepped the question, launching into a description of recent work he’d done to promote greater diversity and inclusion among the AI teams.
I asked him the question again. His Facebook Portal camera, which uses computer-vision algorithms to track the speaker, began to slowly zoom in on his face as he grew still. “I don’t know that I have an easy answer to that question, Karen,” he said. “It’s an extremely difficult question to ask me.”
Entin, who’d been rapidly pacing with a stoic poker face, grabbed a red stress ball.
I asked Quiñonero why his team hadn’t previously looked at ways to edit Facebook’s content-ranking models to tamp down misinformation and extremism. He told me it was the job of other teams (though none, as I confirmed, have been mandated to work on that task). “It’s not feasible for the Responsible AI team to study all those things ourselves,” he said. When I asked whether he would consider having his team tackle those issues in the future, he vaguely admitted, “I would agree with you that that is going to be the scope of these types of conversations.”
Near the end of our hour-long interview, he began to emphasize that AI was often unfairly painted as “the culprit.” Regardless of whether Facebook used AI or not, he said, people would still spew lies and hate speech, and that content would still spread across the platform.
I pressed him one more time. Certainly he couldn’t believe that algorithms had done absolutely nothing to change the nature of these issues, I said.
“I don’t know,” he said with a halting stutter. Then he repeated, with more conviction: “That’s my honest answer. Honest to God. I don’t know.”
Corrections:We amended a line that suggested that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy, had used Fairness Flow. He has not. But members of his team have used the notion of fairness to request the retraining of misinformation models in ways that directly contradict Responsible AI’s guidelines. We also clarified when Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI, joined the company.
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.
This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.
Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.
The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.
Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.
The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.
Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.
One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.
The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.
But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefitsoverwhelmthe ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predictedthat wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmedexactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.
Rules in Place of Mechanisms and Intuitions
Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.
In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.
All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.
Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.
Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.
After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.
Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.
Outdoors? It’s the opposite.
There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.
And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.
We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.
Scolding and Shaming
Throughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.
Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?
On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.
While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditionsnecessary for more people to keep themselves safe.
And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.
Amidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.
As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, or just enjoying their lives. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.””
Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.
Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.
And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.
The Balance Between Knowledge And Action
Last but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.
Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.
Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.
And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.
At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.
Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.
Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”
Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.
As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.
Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.
These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.
And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.
Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.
Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.
So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?
Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.
Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”
So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.
But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.
People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.
Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.
As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.
What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.
A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.
The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.
Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.
An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.
You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.
There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.
And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.
The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.
Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.
The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.
Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associatedwith higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.
Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.
For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.
New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”
Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.
Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.
But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.
Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.
Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.
And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.
But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.
Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.
Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.
We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.
Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”
Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.
Cambridge University team say their findings could be used to spot people at risk from radicalisation
Our brains hold clues for the ideologies we choose to live by, according to research, which has suggested that people who espouse extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.
The study, built on previous research, included more than 330 US-based participants aged 22 to 63 who were exposed to a battery of tests – 37 neuropsychological tasks and 22 personality surveys – over the course of two weeks.
The tasks were engineered to be neutral, not emotional or political – they involved, for instance, memorising visual shapes. The researchers then used computational modelling to extract information from that data about the participant’s perception and learning, and their ability to engage in complex and strategic mental processing.
A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.
“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.
She said another feature of people with tendencies towards extremism appeared to be that they were not good at regulating their emotions, meaning they were impulsive and tended to seek out emotionally evocative experiences. “And so that kind of helps us understand what kind of individual might be willing to go in and commit violence against innocent others.”
Participants who are prone to dogmatism – stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence – actually have a problem with processing evidence even at a perceptual level, the authors found.
“For example, when they’re asked to determine whether dots [as part of a neuropsychological task] are moving to the left or to the right, they just took longer to process that information and come to a decision,” Zmigrod said.
In some cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards the politically conservative tended to go for the slow and steady strategy, while political liberals took a slightly more fast and furious, less precise approach.
“It’s fascinating, because conservatism is almost a synonym for caution,” she said. “We’re seeing that – at the very basic neuropsychological level – individuals who are politically conservative … simply treat every stimuli that they encounter with caution.”
The “psychological signature” for extremism across the board was a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies, the researchers said.
The study, which looked at 16 different ideological orientations, could have profound implications for identifying and supporting people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.
“What we found is that demographics don’t explain a whole lot; they only explain roughly 8% of the variance,” said Zmigrod. “Whereas, actually, when we incorporate these cognitive and personality assessments as well, suddenly, our capacity to explain the variance of these ideological world-views jumps to 30% or 40%.”
As mágoas – as suas ou aquelas que outros lhe causam – mantêm você preso. A terapia do perdão pode ajudá-lo a mudar de perspectiva e seguir adiante com a sua vida
Nathaniel Wade – 14 de agosto de 2020
Quando eu tinha 26 anos, meu mundo desmoronou. Eu tinha acabado de começar a pós-graduação e viajava constante entre Richmond, Virgínia e Washington, DC, porque minha esposa estava terminando sua pós-graduação em uma cidade diferente de onde eu estudava. Em uma dessas viagens, eu estava lavando roupa e encontrei um bilhete amassado no fundo da secadora. Estava endereçado a minha esposa por um de seus colegas de classe: “Devemos sair em horários diferentes. Te encontro em minha casa mais tarde”.
Minha esposa estava tendo um caso, embora não tenha sido confirmado até meses depois. Para mim, foi um golpe de proporções monumentais. Eu me senti traído, enganado e até ridicularizado. A raiva explodiu em mim e, ao longo de dias e semanas, essa raiva se transformou em uma confusão fervilhante de amargura, confusão e descrença. Nós nos separamos sem um plano claro para o futuro.
Embora essa dor me apunhalasse com uma intensidade que eu nunca havia sentido, eu não era o único a passar por isso. Muitas pessoas experimentam dores semelhantes, e muito piores, em suas vidas. Estar em um relacionamento geralmente significa ser maltratado, magoado ou traído. Como pessoas, frequentemente sofremos injustiças e dificuldades de relacionamento. Uma das maneiras que os humanos desenvolveram para lidar com essa dor é por meio do perdão. Mas o que é perdão e como funciona?
Essas eram as questões nas quais eu estava trabalhando ao mesmo tempo em que passava por minha separação. Eu estava fazendo pós-graduação na Virginia Commonwealth University, e o psicólogo Everett Worthington era o meu orientador. Ev é um dos dois pioneiros na psicologia do perdão e, desde o primeiro dia, ele me fez explorar o perdão de uma perspectiva acadêmica (deixei seu escritório depois de nosso primeiro encontro com uma pilha de meio metro de artigos científicos para revisar). Desde então, tornei-me psicólogo e professor de aconselhamento psicológico na Iowa State University, com especialização em perdão como parte do processo de psicoterapia.
Os primeiros trabalhos produzidos por Worthington e por mim, e por outros pesquisadores, identificaram o que o perdão não era. Robert Enright, da Universidade de Wisconsin-Madison, outro pioneiro na psicologia do perdão, foi fundamental neste trabalho. Por exemplo, ele e seus colegas distinguiam entre perdoar e tolerar, desculpar ou ignorar uma ofensa. Para que o verdadeiro perdão ocorra, afirmaram, é necessário que haja uma verdadeira ofensa ou mágoa, com consequências reais. Uma boa ilustração pode ser a dos clientes que Enright e uma de suas alunas, Suzanne Freedman (agora professora da University of Northern Iowa), descreveram em um artigo: mulheres sobreviventes de incesto infantil. Para que o verdadeiro perdão ocorresse neste contexto, argumentavam, as mulheres precisavam primeiro reconhecer que uma mágoa real lhes fora infligida quando crianças. Negar sua própria dor ou ignorar a atrocidade não seria perdão. E, se viesse, o perdão só ocorreria depois de trabalhar a difícil realidade do que aconteceu. Ao longo de muitos meses e através de um trabalho pessoal desafiador, as mulheres do estudo resolveram grande parte do medo, amargura, raiva, confusão e mágoa, e alcançaram um nível notável de paz e resolução em relação aos abusos anteriores.
Outra questão principal que se tornou rapidamente aparente na pesquisa foi se a reconciliação precisava fazer parte do perdão ou não. Para acadêmicos e terapeutas como eu, interessados em ajudar as pessoas a obter o perdão por ofensas muitas vezes graves, como infidelidade conjugal ou violências do passado, o perdão é restrito a um processo interno. Assim, o perdão não inclui necessariamente a reconciliação, mas é o processo interno pelo qual alguém resolve a amargura e a mágoa e se move para algo mais positivo em relação à pessoa que o ofendeu, como empatia ou amor. Em contraste, a reconciliação é um processo pelo qual as pessoas restabelecem um relacionamento de confiança com alguém que as magoou. Essa distinção tornou-se fundamental em minha própria cura.
Embora esta distinção seja importante, não significa que a reconciliação não seja uma opção valiosa para aqueles de nós que vêem o perdão desta forma. Em vez disso, a reconciliação se torna um processo separado, independente do perdão, mas importante e valioso por si só. Isso foi um bálsamo considerável para mim nos meses que se seguiram à minha separação. Apesar da dor, raiva e confusão que ainda sentia meses depois, eu sabia que gostaria de buscar o perdão em algum momento no futuro. Eu não queria que minha amargura do passado contagiasse minha felicidade futura em relacionamentos amorosos. Eu não queria carregar esse fardo pelo resto da minha vida. Em vez disso, imaginei um momento em que gostaria de deixar isso de lado e seguir em frente. Meu verdadeiro medo, porém, era que, ao perdoar, eu necessariamente tivesse que me reconciliar com minha esposa ou, alternativamente, que se eu não quisesse me reconciliar, não me livraria da raiva. Ao ver o perdão como um processo separado da reconciliação, novas opções apareceram. Entendi então que poderia perdoar ou não, e poderia me reconciliar ou não.
Um processo semelhante ocorreu para muitos clientes com quem trabalhei. Por exemplo, lembro-me do alívio sensível que senti em um grupo de pessoas que estava tratando quando trouxe à tona a diferença entre perdão e reconciliação. Os membros desse grupo estavam lutando contra violências diversas, de serem financeiramente roubados por um ex a casos de traição e outras experiências negativas. Quando apresentei a possível distinção entre perdão e reconciliação e discutimos como isso poderia acontecer em suas próprias experiências, senti um suspiro coletivo. Houve um peso tirado dos ombros dos participantes simplesmente pelo entendimento de que perdoar não significa necessariamente reconciliar. Os membros do grupo sentiram-se mais livres e isso ajudou em seus processos de perdão de maneiras novas e ricas.
Por exemplo, Jo (nome fictício) estava sofrendo com um noivo que lhe roubou dez mil dólares e desapareceu. Obviamente, não havia maneira de Jo trabalhar na reconciliação, mesmo que ela quisesse, e ainda assim, com essa distinção, ela podia ver como ela ainda poderia seguir em frente com o perdão.
Por outro lado, Maria, que trabalhava para perdoar a filha adulta pelas coisas que a magoara, queria manter o relacionamento; ela estava muito interessada em reconciliação. Compreender a diferença ajudou-a a ver que ela poderia trabalhar tanto no perdão quanto na reconciliação de maneiras diferentes para ajudar a curar seu relacionamento com a filha.
Em suma, uma compreensão adequada parece ajudar as pessoas a aceitar o perdão e abre novas possibilidades de cura e crescimento. Mas como funciona e de que forma as pessoas podem usá-lo para seu próprio benefício?
Passei a maior parte da minha carreira acadêmica tentando responder a essa pergunta. Especificamente, estudei maneiras de ajudar as pessoas a perdoar os outros quando têm dificuldade para fazê-lo. A ciência sobre isso ainda é muito nova, mas parece haver um núcleo comum de intervenções que fornecem ajuda para que as pessoas caminhem em direção à resolução de suas feridas.
A primeira é uma estratégia testada e comprovada em quase todas as formas de psicoterapia: compartilhar a história pessoal em um ambiente seguro e sem julgamento. Quase todas as intervenções de perdão estabelecidas prescrevem um momento para compartilhar a mágoa ou ofensa. Isso é particularmente poderoso em um ambiente de grupo, no qual os participantes compartilham suas experiências diferentes uns com os outros, testemunham suas dores e se apoiam mutuamente. No entanto, contar a própria história de forma individual é também eficaz, em um contexto em que não se tenta dar conselhos, não se diminui a importância de sentimentos negativos e não se estimula a raiva (evitando reações como “sim, ele é a pior pessoa do mundo!”). Frequentemente, em nossos programas de perdão, os participantes nos dizem que uma das partes mais importantes e eficazes é a oportunidade de compartilhar com os outros o que lhes aconteceu. Afirmam que a parte mais útil costuma ser “saber que outros tiveram dificuldades semelhantes” e “ser capaz de desabafar, podendo dizer ali coisas que eu não poderiam ser ditas em outros lugares” e “sentir que foi ouvido, realmente compreendido e que poderia tirar isso do peito”.
Essa reação é compreensível, visto como pode ser difícil falarmos sobre momentos em que fomos magoados ou agredidos. Para alguns, é difícil compartilhar porque vítimas de violência em geral sentem vergonha e humilhação com a sua situação. Poucas pessoas querem compartilhar abertamente os momentos em que foram fracas ou maltratadas, traídas ou rejeitadas. São histórias de vulnerabilidade. Além da vergonha que as pessoas sentem, muitas vezes há o desejo de evitar a dor associada à mágoa: se eu compartilhar, terei que reviver a dor e talvez não seja capaz de lidar com isso. As intervenções que podem ajudar as pessoas a superar esses obstáculos, compartilhar sua dor e receber apoio podem ser de grande ajuda para ajudá-las a se recuperar.
Após uma recontagem completa da história, a maioria das intervenções oferece um tempo para as pessoas considerarem o ponto de vista do ofensor. O objetivo geralmente é ajudar as pessoas a desenvolver compreensão ou até empatia pela pessoa que as magoou. Existe um grande poder na empatia, ainda que existam também perigos envolvidos aí.
Três anos depois de encontrar aquele bilhete amassado, pedi o divórcio e segui em frente com um novo espírito de perdão
Quando bem feita, esta parte da intervenção ajuda as pessoas a expandirem sua perspectivas e ganharem nova consciência para as complexidades dos eventos que cercam suas feridas. Isso pode leva-las a uma visão mais ampla dos eventos, fazendo a ofensa parecer-se menos com uma maldade ou com sadismo e mais com uma situação complexa em que alguém tomou decisões prejudiciais ou ruins. Essa mudança de perspectiva e compreensão podem abrir as portas para o perdão. Um excelente exemplo disso é o trabalho de Frederic Luskin, diretor do Stanford Forgiveness Project, e do reverendo Byron Bland, capelão da Universidade de Palo Alto. Em 2000, eles reuniram protestantes e católicos da Irlanda do Norte que haviam perdido parentes devido à violência religiosa naquele país, e criaram um workshop de perdão de uma semana na Universidade de Stanford, na Califórnia. Grande parte dessa experiência foi ajudar cada grupo a ver o outro sob uma luz mais humana, a abandonar a amargura associada ao outro grupo e a alavancar a empatia para avançar em direção ao perdão. Como um participante que perdeu seu pai relatou: “Por anos eu tive ressentimento dos católicos, até vir para Stanford.”
É claro que, se feito de maneira inadequada ou sem precauções, tentar desenvolver empatia pode reduzir-se a culpar a vítima e encorajar aqueles que foram feridos a questionar ou minimizar seus sentimentos, permitindo que outros os magoem no futuro. A parte importante e difícil desse processo é ajudar as pessoas a manter a legitimidade de sua dor enquanto exploram outros pontos de vista. O objetivo é ajudar as pessoas a aceitarem seus sentimentos como compreensíveis e suas reações como justificadas, mesmo enquanto desenvolvem uma apreciação mais nuançada da perspectiva da pessoa ofensora. Isso leva tempo e muitas vezes não deve tentado até que um período considerável tenha decorrido desde a ofensa. A quantidade de tempo depende de muitos fatores, como a gravidade da mágoa e o relacionamento que se tem com a pessoa que o ofendeu.
Em minha própria jornada de perdão, foi de grande valia o compartilhamento da experiência e o desenvolvimento da empatia. Recebi ajuda considerável de vários parentes e amigos e de um terapeuta atencioso que ouviu minha história sem julgar o que eu deveria ou não fazer. Em vez disso, eles todos me ouviram, apoiaram-me em minha dor e permitiram que eu me expressasse livremente. Meu melhor amigo suportou o peso disso tudo. Tínhamos marcado uma viagem à praia no mesmo verão em que encontrei aquele bilhete para minha esposa. Eu a confrontei um pouco antes da viagem, e ela admitiu o caso pela primeira vez pouco antes de meu amigo e eu partirmos em nossa viagem. Passei dois dias na praia na Carolina do Norte vomitando minha raiva e confusão, compartilhando história após história de todos os pequenos enganos e equívocos que só agora eu estava juntando. Como ele tolerou tudo isso, eu não sei. Mas, para mim, foi um descarrego inicial que me ajudou a caminhar em direção ao perdão definitivo.
A parte importante seguinte na minha jornada de perdão foi construir empatia por minha ex-esposa. Isso não aconteceu imediatamente. Na verdade, tardou muitos anos até que eu fosse capaz de desenvolver uma nova perspectiva sobre a questão. Foi necessário esse tipo de distância até que eu me tornasse humilde o suficiente para ver como eu mesmo contribuí para o fim do relacionamento. Eu vi minha parte. Eu vi como ela pode ter se sentido aprisionada por mim, pela família e pelos amigos para entrar em um casamento que parecia invejável para estranhos, mas muito provavelmente nunca foi totalmente confortável para ela. Comecei a ver como essas forças podem tê-la influenciado a fazer as escolhas que fez. Agora posso sentir por ela e quão difícil e confuso tudo isso pode ter sido, e posso ver que ela provavelmente não tinha intenção ou desejo de me machucar. Ela se sentiu aprisionada e reagiu a essa experiência. Longe de tudo isso e distante daquela dor que senti, posso dizer que eu realmente queria o que era melhor para ela. Eu esperava que ela tivesse uma vida plena. Por fim, optei por perdoar minha esposa e optei por não me reconciliar. Três anos depois de encontrar aquele bilhete amassado na secadora, decidi pedir o divórcio e segui em frente com um novo espírito de perdão e paz.
Além de ajudar as pessoas a perdoar os outros, os pesquisadores também começaram a explorar maneiras de ajudar as pessoas a perdoar a si mesmas. Marilyn Cornish, psicóloga conselheira da Auburn University, no Alabama, e eu desenvolvemos uma dessas intervenções, com base em um modelo amplo de quatro etapas. As etapas incluem: responsabilidade, remorso, restauração e renovação. Concentramos essa intervenção em ajudar as pessoas que carregavam consigo uma grande culpa por ter ferido outras pessoas.
A abordagem geral de nossa intervenção é ajudar as pessoas a assumirem as devidas responsabilidades pela ofensa ou ferida que causaram, identificando as formas pelas quais elas são culpadas pela dor da outra pessoa. Fora dessa responsabilidade, elas são incentivadas a identificar e expressar o remorso que sentem. Acreditamos que é saudável abraçar nossa culpa e colocar esse sentimento em um contexto realista. A partir deste ponto, é possível avançar para a restauração. Nesta etapa, a pessoa é incentivada a fazer reparações, a restaurar os danos causados aos outros e a seus relacionamentos e a se comprometer novamente com valores ou padrões que possam ter violado ao magoar os outros. Finalmente, a pessoa é capaz de passar para a renovação, que entendemos ser uma substituição da culpa e da autocondenação por um renovado autorrespeito e autocompaixão. Essa renovação é apropriada somente após uma verdadeira contabilidade da ofensa. Uma vez que isso tenha sido feito, é benéfico para a pessoa mudar para um senso renovado de autoaceitação e perdão.
O perdão a si mesmo a ajudou a enfrentar os filhos com mais honestidade e a restaurar o relacionamento com eles.
Testamos essa intervenção em um estudo clínico. Para isso, convidamos pessoas que haviam magoado outras pessoas e queriam se perdoar a participarem de um programa de aconselhamento individual de oito semanas. Das 21 pessoas que completaram o estudo, 12 receberam o tratamento imediatamente e nove o receberam após estarem na lista de espera. Aqueles que receberam o tratamento imediatamente relataram autoperdão significativamente maior e significativamente menos autocondenação e sofrimento psicológico do que aqueles na lista de espera. Na verdade, depois de controlar sua autocondenação e autoperdão, a pessoa média que recebeu o tratamento foi mais indulgente do que aproximadamente 90% das pessoas na lista de espera. Além disso, uma vez que aqueles na lista de espera receberam o tratamento, sua mudança na autocondenação, no perdão a si mesmo e na angústia psicológica igualou o grupo de tratamento.
Vários meses após a conclusão do estudo, recebi um e-mail de uma das clientes. Vou chamá-la de Izzie. Ela escreveu para nos agradecer pelo aconselhamento; ela disse que mudou sua vida. Izzie entrou no estudo porque estava lutando com as implicações de ter tido um caso extraconjugal no passado. Além de se sentir sozinha e desconectada da família como resultado do divórcio que se seguiu, Izzie ainda lutava com a vergonha e a culpa de suas ações. Essa vergonha a levou a se afastar dos filhos e, então, a sentir mais culpa e vergonha por sua incapacidade de cuidá-los e ser a mãe que desejava ser. Em seu e-mail, ela detalhou como o processo de autoperdão a ajudou a assumir a responsabilidade pelos eventos de maneira apropriada e superar o remorso para renovar seus relacionamentos. Ela nos contou como conseguiu encarar os filhos com mais honestidade e ter um relacionamento restaurado com eles. Depois de ter investido tanto tempo em sua própria autocondenação, ela agora estava livre para se relacionar com eles de uma nova maneira e ser mais a mãe que ela queria, e eles precisavam que ela fosse.
O perdão, dos outros e de si mesmo, pode ser um processo poderoso de mudança de vida. Pode mudar a trajetória de um relacionamento ou até mesmo a vida de uma pessoa. Não é a única resposta que uma pessoa pode dar ao ser magoado ou magoar os outros, mas é uma forma eficaz de administrar os momentos inevitáveis de conflito, decepção e dor em nossas vidas. O perdão abrange tanto a realidade da ofensa quanto a empatia e compaixão necessárias para seguir em frente. O verdadeiro perdão não foge da responsabilidade, recompensa ou justiça. Por definição, ele reconhece que algo doloroso, até mesmo errado, foi feito. Simultaneamente, o perdão nos ajuda a abraçar algo além da reação imediata de raiva e dor e da amargura latente que pode resultar. O perdão incentiva uma compreensão mais profunda e compassiva de que todos nós temos falhas em nossas diferentes maneiras e que todos nós precisamos ser perdoados às vezes.
Children who experienced compassionate parenting were more generous than peers
Date: December 1, 2020
Source: University of California – Davis
Summary: Young children who have experienced compassionate love and empathy from their mothers may be more willing to turn thoughts into action by being generous to others, a University of California, Davis, study suggests. Lab studies were done of children at ages 4 and 6.
Young children who have experienced compassionate love and empathy from their mothers may be more willing to turn thoughts into action by being generous to others, a University of California, Davis, study suggests.
In lab studies, children tested at ages 4 and 6 showed more willingness to give up the tokens they had earned to fictional children in need when two conditions were present — if they showed bodily changes when given the opportunity to share and had experienced positive parenting that modeled such kindness. The study initially included 74 preschool-age children and their mothers. They were invited back two years later, resulting in 54 mother-child pairs whose behaviors and reactions were analyzed when the children were 6.
“At both ages, children with better physiological regulation and with mothers who expressed stronger compassionate love were likely to donate more of their earnings,” said Paul Hastings, UC Davis professor of psychology and the mentor of the doctoral student who led the study. “Compassionate mothers likely develop emotionally close relationships with their children while also providing an early example of prosocial orientation toward the needs of others,” researchers said in the study.
The study was published in November in Frontiers in Psychology: Emotion Science. Co-authors were Jonas G. Miller, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University (who was a UC Davis doctoral student when the study was written); Sarah Kahle of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, UC Davis; and Natalie R. Troxel, now at Facebook.
In each lab exercise, after attaching a monitor to record children’s heart-rate activity, the examiner told the children they would be earning tokens for a variety of activities, and that the tokens could be turned in for a prize. The tokens were put into a box, and each child eventually earned 20 prize tokens. Then before the session ended, children were told they could donate all or part of their tokens to other children (in the first instance, they were told these were for sick children who couldn’t come and play the game, and in the second instance, they were told the children were experiencing a hardship.)
At the same time, mothers answered questions about their compassionate love for their children and for others in general. The mothers selected phrases in a survey such as:
“I would rather engage in actions that help my child than engage in actions that would help me.”
“Those whom I encounter through my work and public life can assume that I will be there if they need me.”
“I would rather suffer myself than see someone else (a stranger) suffer.”
Taken together, the findings showed that children’s generosity is supported by the combination of their socialization experiences — their mothers’ compassionate love — and their physiological regulation, and that these work like “internal and external supports for the capacity to act prosocially that build on each other.”
The results were similar at ages 4 and 6.
In addition to observing the children’s propensity to donate their game earnings, the researchers observed that being more generous also seemed to benefit the children. At both ages 4 and 6, the physiological recording showed that children who donated more tokens were calmer after the activity, compared to the children who donated no or few tokens. They wrote that “prosocial behaviors may be intrinsically effective for soothing one’s own arousal.” Hastings suggested that “being in a calmer state after sharing could reinforce the generous behavior that produced that good feeling.”
This work was supported by the Fetzer Institute, Mindfulness Connections, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
Jonas G. Miller, Sarah Kahle, Natalie R. Troxel, Paul D. Hastings. The Development of Generosity From 4 to 6 Years: Examining Stability and the Biopsychosocial Contributions of Children’s Vagal Flexibility and Mothers’ Compassion. Frontiers in Psychology, 2020; 11 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.590384
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered some interesting and unusual changes in our buying behavior
Date: September 10, 2020
Source: University of Technology Sydney
Summary: Understanding the psychology behind economic decision-making, and how and why a pandemic might trigger responses such as hoarding, is the focus of a new paper.
Rushing to stock up on toilet paper before it vanished from the supermarket isle, stashing cash under the mattress, purchasing a puppy or perhaps planting a vegetable patch — the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered some interesting and unusual changes in our behavior.
Understanding the psychology behind economic decision-making, and how and why a pandemic might trigger responses such as hoarding, is the focus of a new paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy.
‘Hoarding in the age of COVID-19’ by behavioral economist Professor Michelle Baddeley, Deputy Dean of Research at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School, examines a range of cross-disciplinary explanations for hoarding and other behavior changes observed during the pandemic.
“Understanding these economic, social and psychological responses to COVID-19 can help governments and policymakers adapt their policies to limit negative impacts, and nudge us towards better health and economic outcomes,” says Professor Baddeley.
Governments around the world have implemented behavioral insights units to help guide public policy, and influence public decision-making and compliance.
Hoarding behavior, where people collect or accumulate things such as money or food in excess of their immediate needs, can lead to shortages, or in the case of hoarding cash, have negative impacts on the economy.
“In economics, hoarding is often explored in the context of savings. When consumer confidence is down, spending drops and households increase their savings if they can, because they expect bad times ahead,” explains Professor Baddeley.
“Fear and anxiety also have an impact on financial markets. The VIX ‘fear’ index of financial market volatility saw a dramatic 564% increase between November 2019 and March 2020, as investors rushed to move their money into ‘safe haven’ investments such as bonds.”
While shifts in savings and investments in the face of a pandemic might make economic sense, the hoarding of toilet paper, which also occurred across the globe, is more difficult to explain in traditional economic terms, says Professor Baddeley.
Behavioural economics reveals that our decisions are not always rational or in our long term interest, and can be influenced by a wide range of psychological factors and unconscious biases, particularly in times of uncertainty.
“Evolved instincts dominate in stressful situations, as a response to panic and anxiety. During times of stress and deprivation, not only people but also many animals show a propensity to hoard.”
Another instinct that can come to the fore, particularly in times of stress, is the desire to follow the herd, says Professor Baddeley, whose book ‘Copycats and Contrarians’ explores the concept of herding in greater detail.
“Our propensity to follow others is complex. Some of our reasons for herding are well-reasoned. Herding can be a type of heuristic: a decision-making short-cut that saves us time and cognitive effort,” she says.
“When other people’s choices might be a useful source of information, we use a herding heuristic and follow them because we believe they have good reasons for their actions. We might choose to eat at a busy restaurant because we assume the other diners know it is a good place to eat.
“However numerous experiments from social psychology also show that we can be blindly susceptible to the influence of others. So when we see others rushing to the shops to buy toilet paper, we fear of missing out and follow the herd. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Behavioral economics also highlights the importance of social conventions and norms in our decision-making processes, and this is where rules can serve an important purpose, says Professor Baddeley.
“Most people are generally law abiding but they might not wear a mask if they think it makes them look like a bit of a nerd, or overanxious. If there is a rule saying you have to wear a mask, this gives people guidance and clarity, and it stops them worrying about what others think.
“So the normative power of rules is very important. Behavioral insights and nudges can then support these rules and policies, to help governments and business prepare for second waves, future pandemics or other global crises.”
When historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous thesis on the US frontier in 1893, he described the “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness” it had forged in the American character.
Now, well into the 21st century, researchers led by the University of Cambridge have detected remnants of the pioneer personality in US populations of once inhospitable mountainous territory, particularly in the Midwest.
A team of scientists algorithmically investigated how landscape shapes psychology. They analyzed links between the anonymised results of an online personality test completed by over 3.3 million Americans, and the “topography” of 37,227 US postal—or ZIP—codes.
The researchers found that living at both a higher altitude and an elevation relative to the surrounding region—indicating “hilliness”—is associated with a distinct blend of personality traits that fits with “frontier settlement theory”.
“The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom,” said researcher Friedrich Götz, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.
“Such rugged terrain likely favored those who closely guarded their resources and distrusted strangers, as well as those who engaged in risky explorations to secure food and territory.”
“These traits may have distilled over time into an individualism characterized by toughness and self-reliance that lies at the heart of the American frontier ethos” said Götz, lead author of the study.
“When we look at personality across the whole United States, we find that mountainous residents are more likely to have psychological characteristics indicative of this frontier mentality.”
Götz worked with colleagues from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences, Austria, the University of Texas, US, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and his Cambridge supervisor Dr. Jason Rentfrow. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The research uses the “Big Five” personality model, standard in social psychology, with simple online tests providing high-to-low scores for five fundamental personality traits of millions of Americans.
The mix of characteristics uncovered by study’s authors consists of low levels of “agreeableness”, suggesting mountainous residents are less trusting and forgiving—traits that benefit “territorial, self-focused survival strategies”.
Low levels of “extraversion” reflect the introverted self-reliance required to thrive in secluded areas, and a low level of “conscientiousness” lends itself to rebelliousness and indifference to rules, say researchers.
“Neuroticism” is also lower, suggesting an emotional stability and assertiveness suited to frontier living. However, “openness to experience” is much higher, and the most pronounced personality trait in mountain dwellers.
“Openness is a strong predictor of residential mobility,” said Götz. “A willingness to move your life in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence and personal freedom drove many original North American frontier settlers.”
“Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories.”
The researchers wanted to distinguish between the direct effects of physical environment and the “sociocultural influence” of growing up where frontier values and identities still hold sway.
To do this, they looked at whether mountainous personality patterns applied to people born and raised in these regions that had since moved away.
The findings suggest some “initial enculturation” say researchers, as those who left their early mountain home are still consistently less agreeable, conscientious and extravert, although no such effects were observed for neuroticism and openness.
The scientists also divided the country at the edge of St. Louis—”gateway to the West”—to see if there is a personality difference between those in mountains that made up the historic frontier, such as the Rockies, and eastern ranges e.g. the Appalachians.
While mountains continue to be a “meaningful predictor” of personality type on both sides of this divide, key differences emerged. Those in the east are more agreeable and outgoing, while western ranges are a closer fit for frontier settlement theory.
In fact, the mountainous effect on high levels of “openness to experience” is ten times as strong in residents of the old western frontier as in those of the eastern ranges.
The findings suggest that, while ecological effects are important, it is the lingering sociocultural effects—the stories, attitudes and education—in the former “Wild West” that are most powerful in shaping mountainous personality, according to scientists.
They describe the effect of mountain areas on personality as “small but robust”, but argue that complex psychological phenomena are influenced by many hundreds of factors, so small effects are to be expected.
“Small effects can make a big difference at scale,” said Götz. “An increase of one standard deviation in mountainousness is associated with a change of around 1% in personality.”
“Over hundreds of thousands of people, such an increase would translate into highly consequential political, economic, social and health outcomes.”
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New research provides evidence that people from higher social classes are worse at understanding the minds of others compared to those from lower social classes. The study has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“My co-author and I set out to examine a question that we deemed important given the trend of rising economic inequality in American society today: How does access to resources (e.g., money, education) influence the way we process information about other human beings?” said study author Pia Dietze, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine.
“We tried to answer this question by examining two essential components within the human repertoire to understand each other’s minds: the way in which we read emotional states from other people’s faces and how inclined we are to take the visual perspective of another person.”
For their study, the researchers recruited 300 U.S. individuals from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and another 452 U.S. individuals from the Prolific Academic platform. The participants completed a test of cognitive empathy called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which assesses the ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind from looking only at their eyes and surrounding areas.
The researchers also had 138 undergraduates at New York University complete a test of visual perspective-taking known as the Director Task, in which they were required to move objects on a computer screen based on the perspective of a virtual avatar.
The researchers found that lower-class people tended to perform better on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and Director Task than their higher-class counterparts.
“We find that individuals from lower social class backgrounds are better at identifying emotions from other people’s faces and are more likely to spontaneously take another person’s visual perspective. This is in line with a large body of work documenting a tendency for lower-class people to be more socially attuned to others. In addition, our research shows that this can happen at a very basic level; within seconds or milliseconds of encountering a new face or person,” Dietze told PsyPost.
But like all research, the new study includes some limitations.
“This research is based on correlational data. As such, we need to see this research as part of a larger body work to answer the question of causality. However, the insights gained from our study allows us to speculate about how and why we think these tendencies develop,” Dietze explained.
“We theorize that social class can influence social information processing (i.e., the processing of information about other people) at such a basic level because social classes can be conceptualized as a form of culture. As such, social class cultures (like other forms of culture, for example, national cultures), have a pervasive psychological influence that impact many aspects of life, at times even at spontaneous levels.”
Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Can my kids have a play date? Will the other child wear a mask? Can I send them back to school? When my boss asks me to come back to the office, should I?
Shayla Bell lies awake at night racking her brain for answers and preparing for another day of unprecedented choices.
“There’s all these little, small decisions all the time,” said Bell, a suburban Chicago retail professional with two kids. “I find myself being my own devil’s advocate so often to try to reach the best conclusion. And I’m tired.”
“It’s a state of low willpower that results from having invested effort into making choices,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University who coined the term in 2010. “It leads to putting less effort into making further choices, so either choices are avoided or they are made in a very superficial way.”
Like a mental gas tank, the human brain has a limited capacity of energy, and as you make decisions throughout the day, you deplete that resource. As you become fatigued, you may be inclined to avoid additional decisions, stick to the status quo or base a decision on a single criteria, Baumeister said.
When we’re able to maintain daily routines, the brain can automate decisions and rely on heuristics – or mental shortcuts – to avoid fatigue. But the pandemic has disrupted many of our routines, forcing us to allocate more mental energy to decision-making.
The effects of decision fatigue have serious implications for people in positions of authority. Jonathan Levav, who studies behavioral decision theory at Stanford University, found that judges serving on parole boards in Israel were more likely to give favorable rulings at the very beginning of the workday or after a food break than later in a sequence of cases, after the judges had made more decisions.
“If you make a lot of decisions repeatedly, that has an effect on subsequent decisions,” Levav said. “As people make more decisions, they’re more likely to simplify whatever subsequent decisions they’re dealing with.”
We’re not just making a greater number of daily decisions. We’re also making high-stakes, moral decisions, said Elizabeth Yuko, a writer and staff member at the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education.
“It’s fatigue with making decisions that have consequences we’ve never had to deal with before,” Yuko said. “These things come with such a moral weight on them, it comes with even more stress.”
For parents and guardians, in particular, the stakes are high. Erin Scarpa, a mother of two who works at a bank in New Jersey, said she temporarily relocated her family to North Carolina specifically to avoid making decisions about socializing with neighbors. Scarpa said she’s particularly concerned about reports of patients suffering lasting damage from COVID-19.
“You’re talking about decisions that could limit your child’s life forever,” Scarpa said. “That’s a whole other concept.”
Sneha Dave, a recent college graduate living with an inflammatory bowel disease and unidentified respiratory condition, said she struggled with crippling decision fatigue at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There’s been so many times where I go to the grocery store where I turn around because there are too many cars there. I spend a lot of time deciding what the right time to go to the grocery store is or whether I should go in,” she said.
Dave said she’s still grappling with a big decision – whether or not to pursue a round of treatment for her bowel disease, which would severely weaken her immune system – but she’s slowly learned how to cope with her decision fatigue.
“The chronic illness community has been able to adapt significantly better and make these decisions a little easier because these are decisions we’ve made our whole lives,” Dave said.
How statewide COVID-19 policies affect decision fatigue
Streamlined state and nationwide policies on COVID-19 have the potential to alleviate decision fatigue, some researchers said, but the notion of greater regulation carries contentious political implications.
“The more that requirements are in place, such as mask mandates, the less it’s a personal choice about what to do. And it makes it easier to make other, related decisions,” said Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies self-control. “You don’t have to agonize about whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store when you know that others will have masks on.”
Mandates may also cause people to feel depleted if they find it difficult to comply with a policy, researchers said. Others may be making such specific, preferential decisions that statewide policies wouldn’t be enough to alleviate decision fatigue.
Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor and author studying the psychology and economics of choice, is gathering data on how Americans feel about statewide COVID-19 policies.
Contrary to classical economic theory, Iyengar’s work has found that, in some contexts, people may prefer to have their choices limited or entirely removed. For example, people are more likely to purchase jams or chocolates – or to undertake optional class essay assignments – when offered a limited rather than extensive array of choices. Study participants reported greater satisfaction with their selections when their options had been limited.
A similar trend may be playing out when it comes to COVID-19 policies, Iyengar said. Her preliminary findings suggest that people living in states with face mask policies reported being “happier” than those in states without mask mandates. The findings may simply be driven by political preferences, Iyengar said.
“There’s a naturally occurring experiment, although that experiment falls along political lines,” she said.
Tips for avoiding decision fatigue
There are some simple strategies for avoiding decision fatigue, researchers said. Many center on general health and well-being, such as maintaining a nutritious diet, getting a full night’s sleep and exercising regularly. Others focus on timing your decisions and developing routines to cut out unnecessary choices.
“Willpower diminishes and decision fatigue increases over the course of the day, so if you have important decisions to make, make them in the morning after a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast,” Baumeister said. “Be aware this is affecting you.”
Plan out tomorrow’s schedule the day before, said Dovid Spinka, a staff clinician at the Center for Anxiety in New York City. Prep or plan your meals for the week. Lay out your clothes in the evening, or – like Steve Jobs – develop a uniform.
If you begin to fade during the day, take a short break, go for a walk or practice mindfulness or breathing exercises, Spinka said. Prioritize your decisions, and try to focus on one at a time. If you’re facing a big decision but feel drained, take a nap or grab a snack. Write down your initial thoughts, but don’t make the decision yet. Come back to it when you’re feeling refreshed, or proactively delay the decision to a set date.
Especially in highly emotional times, people who tend to suppress their emotions may be more prone to experience decision fatigue, said Grant Pignatiello, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University. It’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and talk to others about it.
“We are all going through a collective trauma of this pandemic, so it’s important that we cut ourselves a little slack. If we need to take a nap at the end of the day, watch Netflix or go for a walk, it’s OK,” Pignatiello said.
For Bell, that means granting herself some grace.
“I feel like we’re all – even the coolest cucumbers – we’re all at a higher stress level now,” she said. “So try to have some grace for yourself and others, and understand that we’re all doing the best we think we can.”
Having strong, biased opinions may say more about your own individual way of behaving in group situations than it does about your level of identification with the values or ideals of any particular group, new research suggests.
This behavioural trait – which researchers call ‘groupiness’ – could mean that individuals will consistently demonstrate ‘groupy’ behaviour across different kinds of social situations, with their thoughts and actions influenced by simply being in a group setting, whereas ‘non-groupy’ people aren’t affected in the same way.
“It’s not the political group that matters, it’s whether an individual just generally seems to like being in a group,” says economist and lead researcher Rachel Kranton from Duke University.
“Some people are ‘groupy’ – they join a political party, for example. And if you put those people in any arbitrary setting, they’ll act in a more biased way than somebody who has the same political opinions, but doesn’t join a political party.”
In an experiment with 141 people, participants were surveyed on their political affiliations, which identified them as self-declared Democrats or Republicans, or as subjects who leaned more Democrat or Republican in terms of their political beliefs (called Independents, for the purposes of the study).
They also took part in a survey that asked them a number of seemingly neutral questions about their aesthetic preferences in relation to a series of artworks, choosing favourites among similar-looking paintings or different lines of poetry.
After these exercises, the participants took part in tests where they were placed in groups – either based around political affiliations (Democrats or Republicans), or more neutral categorisations reflecting their answers about which artworks they preferred. In a third test, the groups were random.
While in these groups, the participants ran through an income allocation exercise, in which they could choose to allocate various amounts of money to themselves, to fellow group members, or to members of the other group.
The researchers expected to find bias in terms of these income allocations based around political mindsets, with people giving themselves more money, along with people who shared their political persuasion. But they also found something else.
“We compare Democrats with D-Independents and find that party members do show more in-group bias; on average, their choices led to higher income for in-group participants,” the authors explain in their study.
“Yet, these party-member participants also show more in-group bias in a second nonpolitical setting. Hence, identification with the group is not necessarily the driver of in-group bias, and the analysis reveals a set of subjects who consistently shows in-group bias, while another does not.”
According to the data, there exists a subpopulation of ‘groupy’ people and a subpopulation of ‘non-groupy’ people – actions of the former type are influenced by being in group settings, in which case they are more likely to demonstrate bias against others outside their group.
By contrast, the latter type, non-groupy individuals, don’t display this kind of tendency, and are more likely to act the same way, regardless of whether or not they’re in a group setting. These non-groupy individuals also seem to make faster decisions than groupy people, the team found.
“We don’t know if non-groupy people are faster generally,” Kranton says.
“It could be they’re making decisions faster because they’re not paying attention to whether somebody is in their group or not each time they have to make a decision.”
Of course, as illuminating as the discovery of this apparent trait is, we need a lot more research to be sure we’ve identified something discrete here.
After all, this is a pretty small study all told, and the researchers acknowledge the need to conduct the same kind of experiments with participants in several settings, to support the foundations of their groupiness concept, and to try to identify what it is that predisposes people to this kind of groupy or non-groupy mindset.
“There’s some feature of a person that causes them to be sensitive to these group divisions and use them in their behaviour across at least two very different contexts,” one of the team, Duke University psychologist Scott Huettel, explains.
“We didn’t test every possible way in which people differentiate themselves; we can’t show you that all group-minded identities behave this way. But this is a compelling first step.”
Summary: From Sinatra to Katy Perry, celebrities have long sung about the power of a smile — how it picks you up, changes your outlook, and generally makes you feel better. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or is there a scientific backing to the claim? Groundbreaking research confirms that the act of smiling can trick your mind into being more positive, simply by moving your facial muscles.
From Sinatra to Katy Perry, celebrities have long sung about the power of a smile — how it picks you up, changes your outlook, and generally makes you feel better. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or is there a scientific backing to the claim?
Groundbreaking research from the University of South Australia confirms that the act of smiling can trick your mind into being more positive, simply by moving your facial muscles.
With the world in crisis amid COVID-19, and alarming rises of anxiety and depression in Australia and around the world, the findings could not be more timely.
The study, published in Experimental Psychology, evaluated the impact of a covert smile on perception of face and body expressions. In both scenarios, a smile was induced by participants holding a pen between their teeth, forcing their facial muscles to replicate the movement of a smile.
The research found that facial muscular activity not only alters the recognition of facial expressions but also body expressions, with both generating more positive emotions.
Lead researcher and human and artificial cognition expert, UniSA’s Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos says the finding has important insights for mental health.
“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.
“In our research we found that when you forcefully practise smiling, it stimulates the amygdala — the emotional centre of the brain — which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.
“For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as ‘happy’, then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health.”
The study replicated findings from the ‘covert’ smile experiment by evaluating how people interpret a range of facial expressions (spanning frowns to smiles) using the pen-in-teeth mechanism; it then extended this using point-light motion images (spanning sad walking videos to happy walking videos) as the visual stimuli.
Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says there is a strong link between action and perception.
“In a nutshell, perceptual and motor systems are intertwined when we emotionally process stimuli,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.
“A ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”
Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, Aiko Murata, Kyoshiro Sasaki, Yuki Yamada, Ayumi Ikeda, José A. Hinojosa, Katsumi Watanabe, Michal Parzuchowski, Carlos Tirado, Raydonal Ospina. Your Face and Moves Seem Happier When I Smile. Experimental Psychology, 2020; 67 (1): 14 DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000470
The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar.
Steven Pinker occupies a role that is rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. The Harvard professor pops up on outlets from PBS to the Joe Rogan podcast, translating dense subjects into accessible ideas with enthusiasm. Bill Gates called his most recent book “my new favorite book of all time.”
So when more than 550 academics recently signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of “distinguished fellows” of the Linguistic Society of America, it drew attention to their provocative charge: that Professor Pinker minimizes racial injustices and drowns out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.
But the letter was striking for another reason: It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.
“Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes,” their letter stated.
The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”
But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.
Also this month, 153 intellectuals and writers — many of them political liberals — signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine that criticized the current intellectual climate as “constricted” and “intolerant.” That led to a fiery response from opposing liberal and leftist writers, who accused the Harper’s letter writers of elitism and hypocrisy.
In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.
Reached at his home on Cape Cod, Professor Pinker, 65, noted that as a tenured faculty member and established author, he could weather the campaign against him. But he said it could chill junior faculty who hold views counter to prevailing intellectual currents.
“I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”
He described his critics as “speech police” who “have trolled through my writings to find offensive lines and adjectives.”
The letter against him focuses mainly on his activity on Twitter, where he has some 600,000 followers. It points to his 2015 tweet of an article from The Upshot, the data and analysis-focused team at The New York Times, which suggested that the high number of police shootings of Black people may not have been caused by racial bias of individual police officers, but rather by the larger structural and economic realities that result in the police having disproportionately high numbers of encounters with Black residents.
“Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately,” Professor Pinker tweeted with a link to the article. “Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”
The linguists’ letter noted that the article made plain that police killings are a racial problem, and accused Professor Pinker of making “dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.”
But the article also suggested that, because every encounter with the police carries danger of escalation, any racial group interacting with the police frequently risked becoming victims of police violence, due to poorly trained officers, armed suspects or overreaction. That appeared to be the point of Professor Pinker’s tweet.
The linguists’ letter also accused the professor of engaging in racial dog whistles when he used the words “urban crime” and “urban violence” in other tweets.
But in those tweets, Professor Pinker had linked to the work of scholars who are widely described as experts on urban crime and urban violence and its decline.
“‘Urban’ appears to be a usual terminological choice in work in sociology, political science, law and criminology,” wrote Jason Merchant, vice provost and a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, who defended Professor Pinker.
Another issue, Professor Pinker’s critics say, is contained in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” In a wide-ranging description of crime and urban decay and its effect on the culture of the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote that “Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”
The linguists’ letter took strong issue with the words “mild-mannered,” noting that a neighbor later said that Goetz had spoken in racist terms of Latinos and Black people. He was not “mild-mannered” but rather intent on confrontation, they said.
The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.
Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.
The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.
He has also suggested that underrepresentation in the sciences could be rooted in part in biological differences between men and women. (He defended Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who in 2005 speculated that innate differences between the sexes might in part explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Mr. Summers’s remark infuriated some female scientists and was among several controversies that led to his resignation the following year.)
And Professor Pinker has made high-profile blunders, such as when he provided his expertise on language for the 2007 defense of the financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges. He has said he did so free of charge and at the request of a friend, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and regrets it.
The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.
The linguists’ society, like many academic and nonprofit organizations, recently released a wide-ranging statement calling for greater diversity in the field. It also urged linguists to confront how their research “might reproduce or work against racism.”
John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor of English and linguistics, cast the Pinker controversy within a moment when, he said, progressives look suspiciously at anyone who does not embrace the politics of racial and cultural identity.
“Steve is too big for this kerfuffle to affect him,” Professor McWhorter said. “But it’s depressing that an erudite and reasonable scholar is seen by a lot of intelligent people as an undercover monster.”
Because this is a fight involving linguists, it features some expected elements: intense arguments about imprecise wording and sly intellectual put-downs. Professor Pinker may have inflamed matters when he suggested in response to the letter that its signers lacked stature. “I recognize only one name among the signatories,’’ he tweeted. Such an argument, Byron T. Ahn, a linguistics professor at Princeton, wrote in a tweet of his own, amounted to “a kind of indirect ad hominem attack.”
The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics.
“Any resulting action from this letter may make it clear to Black scholars that the L.S.A. is sensitive to the impact that tweets of this sort have on maintaining structures that we should be attempting to dismantle,” wrote Professor David Adger of Queen Mary University of London on his website.
That line of argument left Professor McWhorter, a signer of the letter in Harper’s, exasperated.
“We’re in this moment that’s like a collective mic drop, and civility and common sense go out the window,” he said. “It’s enough to cry racism or sexism, and that’s that.”
Summary: Researchers are examining the important roles rituals play in reducing our anxiety levels.
With graduation ceremonies, weddings, funeral, annual parades, and many other gatherings called off, it is apparent that our lives are filled with rituals. UConn Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dimitris Xygalatas studies rituals and how they impact our health. In research published today in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Xygalatas and collaborators from Masaryk University, Czech Republic, including former UConn student Martin Lang, examine the important roles rituals play in reducing our anxiety levels.
“In the current context of the pandemic, if you were a completely rational being — perhaps an extraterrestrial who’s never met any actual humans — you would expect that given the current situation people wouldn’t bother doing things that do not seem crucial to their survival. Maybe they wouldn’t care so much about art, sports, or ritual, and they would focus on other things,” says Xygalatas. “If you were to think that, it would show you didn’t know much about human nature, because humans care deeply about those things.”
Further, Xygalatas says, rituals play an important role in people’s lives, helping them cope with anxiety and functioning as mechanisms of resilience.
This research started years ago, says Xygalatas. He explains that to study something as complex as human behavior, it is important to approach the question from multiple angles to collect converging evidence. First, in a laboratory study, they found that inducing anxiety made people’s behavior more ritualized, that is, more repetitive and structured. So the next step was to take this research out to real-life situations, where they examined whether performing cultural rituals in their natural context indeed helps practitioners cope with anxiety.
“This approach also goes to show the limitations of any study. One study can only tell us a tiny bit about anything, but by using a variety of methods like my team and I are doing, and by going between the highly controlled space of the lab and the culturally relevant place that is real life we are able to get a more holistic perspective.”
The experiment reported in their current publication took place in Mauritius, where the researchers induced anxiety by asking participants to prepare a plan for dealing with a natural disaster that would be evaluated by government experts. This was stressful, as floods and cyclones are very pertinent threats in that context. Following this stress-inducing task, one half of the group performed a familiar religious ritual at the local temple while the other half were asked to sit and relax in a non-religious space.
The researchers found that the speech was successful in inducing stress for both groups but those who performed the religious ritual experienced a greater reduction in both psychological and physiological stress, which was assessed by using wearable technology to measure heart rate variability.
Stress itself is important, says Xygalatas, “Stress acts as a motivation that helps us focus on our goals and rise to meet our challenges, whether those involve studying for an exam, flying a fighter jet, or scoring that game-winning goal. The problem is that beyond a certain threshold, stress ceases to be useful. In fact, it can even be dangerous. Over time, its effects can add up and take a toll on your health, impairing cognitive function, weakening the immune system, and leading to hypertension or cardiovascular disease. This type of stress can be devastating to our normal functioning, health, and well-being.”
This is where Xygalatas and his team believe ritual plays an important role in managing stress.
“The mechanism that we think is operating here is that ritual helps reduce anxiety by providing the brain with a sense of structure, regularity, and predictability.”
Xygalatas explains that in recent decades we have begun to realize the brain is not a passive computer but an active predictive machine, registering information and making predictions to help us survive.
“We come to expect certain things — our brain fills in the missing information for the blind spot in our vision, and prompts us to anticipate the next word in a sentence — all of these things are due to this effect because our brain makes active predictions about the state of the world.”
Well-practiced rituals, like the one included in the study, are repetitive and predictable and therefore the researchers believe they give our brains the sense of control and structure that we crave, and those feelings help alleviate stress. This stress reducing impact of rituals could be a way to cope with chronic anxiety.
In today’s stressful context, we see ritual taking different forms, from people gathering to applaud healthcare workers, to virtual choirs singing across the internet. Xygalatas also notes a recent study that tracked the increase in people typing ‘prayer’ in Google searches. In this unpredictable time, people are continuing to find relief in ritual.
“One thing I like to tell my students is that we as human beings are not as smart as we’d like to think. But thankfully, we are at least smart enough to be able to outsmart ourselves. We have many ways of doing this, for instance when we look at ourselves in the mirror before an interview and tell ourselves, ‘Ok I can do this’. Or when we take deep breaths to calm down. We have all of these hacks that we can use on our very brain. We could rationalize it and tell ourselves ‘Ok I’m going to lower my heartbeat now’. Well that doesn’t work. Ritual is one of those mental technologies that we can use to trick ourselves into doing that. That is what these rituals do — they act like life hacks for us.”
Going forward, Xygalatas points out that he and his colleagues intend to do more work on the exact mechanisms underlying these effects of ritual.
“Of course it is a combination of factors, and that is why ritual is so powerful: because it combines a number of mechanisms that have to do both with the behavior itself, the physical movements, and with the cultural context, the symbolism, and the expectations that go into that behavior. To be able to disentangle those things is what we are trying to do next: we are examining these factors one at a time. Those rituals have gone through a process of cultural selection and they are still with us because they fulfil specific functions. They are life hacks that have been with and have served us well since the dawn of our kind.”
M. Lang, J. Krátký, D. Xygalatas. The role of ritual behaviour in anxiety reduction: an investigation of Marathi religious practices in Mauritius. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2020; 375 (1805): 20190431 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0431
To hear some experts tell it, science denial is mostly a contemporary phenomenon, with climate change deniers and vaccine skeptics at the vanguard. Yet the story of Galileo Galilei reveals just how far back denial’s lineage stretches.
BOOK REVIEW — “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages).
Years of astronomical sightings and calculations had convinced Galileo that the Earth, rather than sitting at the center of things, revolved around a larger body, the sun. But when he laid out his findings in widely shared texts, as astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” the ossified Catholic Church leadership — heavily invested in older Earth-centric theories — aimed its ire in his direction.
Rather than revise their own maps of reality to include his discoveries, clerics labeled him a heretic and banned his writings. He spent the last years of his life under house arrest, hemmed in by his own insistence on the expansiveness of the cosmos.
Nearly 400 years later, the legacy of denial remains intact in some respects. Scientists who publish research about climate change or the safety of genetically modified crops still encounter the same kind of pushback from deniers that Galileo did. Yet denialism has also sprouted some distinctly modern features: As Alan Levinovitz points out in “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” sometimes we ourselves can become unwitting purveyors of denial, falling prey to flawed or false beliefs we may not realize we’re holding.
Levinovitz passionately protests the common assumption that natural things are inherently better than unnatural ones. Not only do people automatically tend to conclude organic foods are healthier, many choose “natural” or “alternative” methods of cancer treatment over proven chemotherapy regimens. Medication-free childbirth, meanwhile, is now considered the gold standard in many societies, despite mixed evidence of its health benefits for mothers and babies.
BOOK REVIEW — “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” by Alan Levinovitz (Beacon Press, 264 pages).
“What someone calls ‘natural’ may be good,” writes Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University, “but the association is by no means necessary, or even likely.” Weaving real-life examples with vivid retellings of ancient myths about nature’s power, he demonstrates that our pro-natural bias is so pervasive that we often lose the ability to see it — or to admit the legitimacy of science that contradicts it.
From this perspective, science denial starts to look like a stunted outgrowth of what we typically consider common sense. In Galileo’s time, people thought it perfectly sensible that the planet they inhabited was at the center of everything. Today, it might seem equally sensible that it’s always better to choose natural products over artificial ones, or that a plant burger ingredient called “soy leghemoglobin” is suspect because it’s genetically engineered and can’t be sourced in the wild. Yet in these cases, what we think of as common sense turns out to be humbug.
In exploring the past and present of anti-science bias, Livio and Levinovitz show how deniers’ basic toolbox has not changed much through the centuries. Practitioners marshal arguments that appeal to our tendency to think in dichotomies: wrong or right, saved or damned, pure or tainted. Food is either nourishing manna from the earth or processed, artificial junk. The Catholic Church touted its own supreme authority while casting Galileo as an unregenerate apostate.
In the realm of denialism, Levinovitz writes, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change. Righteous laws and rituals are universal. Disobedience is sacrilege.”
The very language of pro-nature, anti-science arguments, Levinovitz argues, is structured to play up this us-versus-them credo. Monikers like Frankenfood — often used to describe genetically-modified (GM) crops — frame the entire GM food industry as monstrous, a deviation from the supposed order of things. And in some circles, he writes, the word “unnatural” has come to be almost a synonym for “moral deficiency.” Not only is such black-and-white rhetoric seductive, it can give deniers the heady sense that they occupy the moral high ground.
Both pro-natural bias and the Church’s crusade against Galileo reflect the human penchant to fit new information into an existing framework. Rather than scrapping or changing that framework, we try to jerry-rig it to make it function. Some of the jerry-rigging examples the authors describe are more toxic than others: Opting for so-called natural foods despite dubious science on their benefits, for instance, is less harmful than denying evidence of a human-caused climate crisis.
What’s more, many people actually tend to cling harder to their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. Studies confirm that facts and reality aren’t likely to sway most people’s pre-existing views. This is as true now as it was at the close of the Renaissance, as shown by some extremists’ stubborn denial that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous.
In the realm of denialism, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change.”
In one of his book’s most compelling chapters, Livio takes us inside a panel of theologians that convened in 1616 to rule on whether the sun was at the center of things. None of Galileo’s incisive arguments swayed their thinking one iota. “This proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy,” the theologians wrote, “and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Cardinal Bellarmino warned Galileo that if he did not renounce his heliocentric views, he could be thrown into prison.
Galileo’s discoveries threatened to topple a superstructure that the Church had spent hundreds of years buttressing. In making their case against him, his critics liked to cite a passage from Psalm 93: “The world also is established that it cannot be moved.”
Galileo refused to cave. In his 1632 book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he did give the views of Pope Urban VIII an airing: He repeated Urban’s statement that no human could ever hope to decode the workings of the universe. But Livio slyly points out that Galileo put these words in the mouth of a ridiculous character named Simplicio. It was a slight Urban would not forgive. “May God forgive Signor Galilei,” he intoned, “for having meddled with these subjects.”
At the close of his 1633 Inquisition trial, Galileo was forced to declare that he abandoned any belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. “I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies.” He swore that he would never again say “anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me.” Yet as he left the courtroom, legend goes, he muttered to himself “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves).
In the face of science denial, Livio observes, people have taken up “And yet it moves” as a rallying cry: a reminder that no matter how strong our prejudices or presuppositions, the facts always remain the same. But in today’s “post-truth era,” as political theorist John Keane calls it, with little agreement on what defines a reliable source, even the idea of an inescapable what is seems to have receded from view.
Levinovitz’s own evolution in writing “Natural” reveals how hard it can be to elevate facts above all, even for avowed anti-deniers. When he began his research, he picked off instances of pro-natural bias as if they were clay pigeons, confident in the rigor of his approach. “Confronted with a false faith, I had resolved that it was wholly evil,” he reflects.
Yet he later concedes that a favoritism toward nature is logical in domains like sports, which celebrate the potential of the human body in its unaltered form. He also accepts one expert’s point that it makes sense to buy organic if the pesticides used are less dangerous to farm workers than conventional ones. By the end of the book, he finds himself in a more nuanced place: “The art of celebrating humanity and nature,” he concludes, depends on “having the courage to embrace paradox.” His quest to puncture the myth of the natural turns out to have been dogmatic in its own way.
In acknowledging this, Levinovitz hits on something important. When deniers take up arms, it’s tempting to follow their lead: to use science to build an open-and-shut case that strikes with the finality of a courtroom witness pointing out a killer.
But as Galileo knew — and as Levinovitz ultimately concedes — science, in its endlessly unspooling grandeur, tends to resist any conclusion that smacks of the absolute. “What only science can promise,” Livio writes, “is a continuous, midcourse self-correction, as additional experimental and observational evidence accumulates, and new theoretical ideas emerge.”
In their skepticism of pat answers, these books bolster the case that science’s strength is in its flexibility — its willingness to leave room for iteration, for correction, for innovation. Science is an imperfect vehicle, as any truth-seeking discipline must be. And yet, as Galileo would have noted, it moves.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.”
Summary: Psychologists find that we are less likely to amplify fears in social exchange if we are stressed.
New psychology research from the University of Konstanz reveals that stress changes the way we deal with risky information — results that shed light on how stressful events, such as a global crisis, can influence how information and misinformation about health risks spreads in social networks.
“The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times,” says Professor Wolfgang Gaissmaier, Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Konstanz, and senior author on the study. “Our results uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.”
The study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, brings together psychologists from the DFG Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz: Gaissmaier, an expert in risk dynamics, and Professor Jens Pruessner, who studies the effects of stress on the brain. The study also includes Nathalie Popovic, first author on the study and a former graduate student at the University of Konstanz, Ulrike Bentele, also a Konstanz graduate student, and Mehdi Moussaïd from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
In our hyper-connected world, information flows rapidly from person to person. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information — such as about dangers to our health — can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts. However, whether or not stress influences this has never been studied.
“Since we are often under acute stress even in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do,” says Pruessner, a Professor in Clinical Neuropsychology working at the Reichenau Centre of Psychiatry, which is also an academic teaching hospital of the University of Konstanz.
To do this, researchers had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance, then report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles, and say what information they would pass on to others. Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a control task.
The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information. Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree. Notably, this dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response. In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress did show higher concern and more alarming risk communication.
“On the one hand, the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful,” says Popovic. “Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions such as risky driving or practising unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviours, such as not getting vaccinated.”
By revealing the differential effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the Konstanz study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective. “Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks,” says Gaissmaier.
Hoje, pela manhã, em conversa por WhatsApp com parentes quarentenados, ao falarmos sobre o pronunciamento do Bolsonaro da noite de ontem, um adolescente da família postou um emoticon de careta e disparou: “qual o problema desse cara?” Mais tarde, encontrei nas redes sociais vídeo postado por um grande amigo argentino, Hugo Partucci, em que ele toca, ao violão, canção composta por seu grupo artístico há alguns anos, e que fala de um adulto que, vivendo a perseguição política da ditadura argentina, coloca uma criança para dormir e deseja a ela que tenha bons sonhos. De repente, numa dessas associações de ideias que aparecem de forma espontânea na mente, ocorreu-me que, se nós, adultos, não estragarmos as coisas, o COVID-19 pode melhorar tremendamente a vida política do Brasil.
A ideia, algo contra intuitiva, reconheço, é a seguinte: as pessoas da minha geração (tenho 47), com margem de variação de menos ou mais quinze anos, viram as coisas darem mais ou menos certo da forma bastante errada na política brasileira, e com isso desenvolveram uma atitude cínica com relação ao processo político, de maneira geral. Este cinismo se manifesta, de forma explícita ou nas profundezas do subconsciente, no pensamento algo recorrente que diz que eleições não servem pra nada, que são um imenso teatro para manter as mesmas elites de sempre no poder. Com o Bolsonaro no Planalto, se a juventude entender o que está acontecendo sem herdar nossos vícios de pensamento e nossas emoções apodrecidas, as coisas podem mudar. Que criança ou jovem que tenha memória, no futuro, do que está acontecendo agora vai pensar que as eleições não são importantes? Ocorre, no entanto, que podemos estragar tudo se não tivermos cuidado.
Quando digo que as coisas deram certo da forma errada, refiro-me especificamente ao fato de que no Brasil, desde o fim da ditadura, as coisas caminham mas nunca segundo as aspirações da população. O país se redemocratizou, mas o movimentos Diretas Já não teve sucesso; posteriormente, o processo democrático se estruturou de forma lenta e insegura, com Sarney, Collor, Itamar e FHC, sem que as elites que defendem políticas excludentes tivessem arredado pé do governo por um segundo sequer. O consolo vinha sempre na forma do mantra “O Brasil é uma democracia jovem”. Com o PT no governo, as ânsias e desejos do passado se reascenderam; houve um período de êxtase na juventude progressista, enquanto o Lula distribuía o excedente do dinheiro do pré-sal, associava-se aos banqueiros e não fazia as reformas necessárias nem uma distribuição de renda estrutural e efetiva. Quando a coisa toda desmoronou, veio junto o que restava de esperança naquela geração de jovens no processo político. Sobrou desesperança e amargura, mesmo que em um país mais rico, mais educado e menos desigual do que há 30 anos.
Tenho amigos e parentes que, antilulisticamente, ajudaram a colocar o Bolsonaro no poder. A grande maioria parou de dizer “ah, mais no tempo do PT…” quando o governo Bolsonaro começou a patinar no seu tratamento da epidemia. Depois do pronunciamento de ontem, praticamente todos eles estão gritando “impeachment” nas redes sociais. E o que está fazendo a maioria dos que sempre foram mais politicamente alinhados comigo? Está postando mensagens de ódio, do tipo “deixa eu avisar que eu lembro de cada pessoa da minha lista de contatos que votou no Bolsonaro”, ou inserindo a expressão “eu avisei” nos seus nomes, em seus perfis de redes sociais. Até ontem, isso não me espantava. Hoje de manhã ocorreu-me que podemos estrar estragando a única oportunidade que nos resta de ver o processo político melhorar.
Em que contexto político um grupo vê o rival mudar para o seu lado, e ao invés de congratular-se, reage com ódio? Nossa geração está destruindo o pouco que sobrou da política – com ajuda dos algoritmos das redes sociais, sem dúvida. Em algum momento paramos de fazer política, aquela estruturada ao redor da ideia de que os outros têm direito de pensar diferente e a melhor forma de lidar com isso é exatamente que eles venham dizer isso na nossa cara, e escutem o que temos a dizer a respeito. O processo político virou a válvula de escape de nossas frustrações e da nossa raiva. No processo eleitoral, parecia que os antipestistas eram os que estavam votando com o sistema digestivo. Depois das eleições, aparentemente todo o país passou a viver a política de forma gástrica, e nada mais. A reação mais natural, por ser espontânea e porque já a naturalizamos, é insultar o Bolsonaro quando temos que mencionar o seu nome.
Ocorre, no entanto, que isso pode ter consequências terríveis a longo prazo. Mudemos um pouco a perspectiva da cena: saia dos teus olhos e entre nos da criança que te observa, enquanto você, aos brados, diz que o presidente é um jumento, um palhaço, um imbecil, um retardado, uma pilha de esterco, um psicopata, um monstro, um assassino, um genocida. O que você acha que está acontecendo no pensamento desta criança?
Se há lições a serem aprendidas com o COVID-19, acredito que uma das mais importantes não seja para a nossa geração, mas para a das crianças e jovens. Se eles entenderem que o que causou isso, de forma mais imediata, foi o voto, e que é pelo voto que isso pode ser evitado, jamais terão atitude cínica como a nossa. O processo democrático no futuro será mais maduro e verdadeiro.
Só não vai acontecer se contaminarmos a percepção que os jovens têm da política, com tanto refluxo verbal, de modo que eles não sejam capazes de perceber que o momento atual mostra, com clareza que minha geração nunca teve, o valor que o voto tem. É preciso que admitamos, então, nossas limitações, para que possamos ajudar as crianças e jovens a construírem realidade melhor do que a nossa.
Para tanto, é preciso tratar dos sentimentos que temos dentro de nós, sobre o governo, sobre o papel que o estado-nação tem em nossas vidas, sobre a forma como nos fizemos dependentes e vulneráveis a coisas que não controlamos; precisamos tentar aprender com quem vive de forma mais autônoma, livre e em paz, e precisamos trabalhar para que a relação entre o estado e as pessoas seja mais saudável no futuro. É possível que não sejamos mais capazes de consertar isso; o que estou argumentando aqui é que talvez nossos filhos o sejam, e não devemos atrapalhá-los com nossas limitações. O elemento mais inconveniente do fato de que nossa reação às ações do Bolsonaro é gastrointestinal é não conseguirmos fazer efetivamente nada que mude as coisas com isso. Há, inclusive, a possibilidade de que isso seja estratégia bolsonarista. Quem consegue pensar de forma politicamente estratégica, hoje, não está dando chilique.
Isso tudo passa, a meu ver, por não alienar os jovens do que está acontecendo, no sentido de “protegê-los”. Quando fazemos isso, estamos apenas materializando o pensamento de que eles não poderão ser melhores do que somos e fomos. Quem pensa assim não está colocando a devida atenção em quem são as crianças e jovens de hoje. Ao invés de pautar sua compreensão da realidade pelo programa do Datena ou do Ratinho, olhe ao seu redor, escute as conversas das crianças e jovens, e compare com o que éramos a três ou quatro décadas. Tenho a impressão forte de que muita gente nesta geração nova é mais capaz de empatia, de colaboração, de amor e de perdão do que éramos (e somos).
É preciso encontrar formas de fazer os jovens entenderem o que está acontecendo sem repetir neles nossas limitações emocionais, nossa incapacidade de manter a serenidade, nossos traumas. Por isso, antes de falar aos jovens sobre o que deveria estar acontecendo e não está, tomemos o tempo de tentar analisar o que se passa com nossas emoções, com nossa necessidade de descarregar as emoções negativas através da política (o que aniquila a capacidade da política ser tudo o que poderia). E trata-se mais de postura afetiva do que de ação: podemos e devemos bater panela, assinar petições pedindo o impeachment, participar de manifestações de rua quando o perigo do COVID-19 estiver controlado, e estarmos preparados para a desobediência civil. Mas agindo com a cabeça, e não com os intestinos. Crianças e jovens são imensamente capazes de perceber o que nos move, e isso pode deixar neles marca profunda, positiva ou negativa.
Se fizermos isso tudo – o que vai tomar algum tempo e não vai ser fácil -, podemos pelo menos contribuir para a formação de uma nova geração que será imensamente mais capaz de viver em comunidade e resolver seus problemas de forma pacífica e colaborativa. O ponto central do meu pensamento, entenda-se bem, não é transferir aos jovens a responsabilidade de resolver algo que não fomos capazes. É apenas aproveitar a intervenção drástica e em escala planetária do COVID-19 para que tratemos nossas feridas politico-emocionais, e sejamos capazes de deixar que a crise seja uma lição de crescimento civilizacional para crianças e jovens. Se isso vai ser amargo ou sereno para eles, depende muito de como nossas emoções embotadas afetarão a mensagem.
O QUE TENHO OBSERVADO entre meus colegas e amigos acadêmicos é uma resposta comum à contínua crise da COVID-19. Eles estão lutando bravamente para manter um senso de normalidade — correndo para os cursos online, mantendo rigorosos cronogramas de escrita e criando escolinhas Montessori nas mesas de cozinha. A expectativa deles é apertar os cintos por um breve período, até que as coisas voltem ao normal. Para qualquer um que segue esse caminho, desejo muita saúde e boa sorte.
Entretanto, como alguém que tem experiência com diversas crises ao redor do mundo, o que eu vejo por trás dessa busca pela produtividade é uma suposição perigosa. A resposta para a pergunta que todo mundo está se fazendo — “Quando isso vai acabar?” — é simples é óbvia, mas difícil de engolir. A resposta é nunca.
Catástrofes globais mudam o mundo e esta pandemia é muito semelhante a uma grande guerra. Mesmo que a crise do coronavírus seja contida dentro de alguns meses, o legado dessa pandemia vai viver conosco por anos, talvez décadas. Isso vai mudar o modo como nos movemos, como construímos, como aprendemos e nos conectamos. É simplesmente impossível voltar à vida como se nada disso tivesse acontecido. Assim, embora possa parecer bom por enquanto, é tolice mergulhar num frenesi de atividade ou ficar obcecado com sua produtividade acadêmica neste momento. Isso é negação e auto-ilusão. A resposta emocional e espiritualmente saudável seria se preparar para ser mudado para sempre.
O resto deste artigo é um conselho. Fui constantemente procurada por meus colegas ao redor do mundo para compartilhar minhas experiências de adaptação às condições de crise. Claro que sou apenas uma humana, lutando como todo mundo para se ajustar à pandemia. Entretanto, já trabalhei e vivi sob condições de guerra, conflitos violentos, pobreza e desastres em muitos lugares do mundo. Passei por racionamento de comida e surtos de doenças, bem como prolongados períodos de isolamento social, restrição de movimento e confinamento. Conduzi pesquisas premiadas sob condições físicas e psicológicas extremamente difíceis — e tenho orgulho de minha produtividade e desempenho na minha carreira de pesquisadora.
Deixo aqui os seguintes pensamentos durante esse momento difícil na esperança de que eles ajudem outros acadêmicos a se adaptar a essas condições duras. Pegue o que precisa e deixe o resto.
Primeiro Estágio: Segurança
SEUS PRIMEIROS dias ou suas primeiras semanas numa crise são cruciais e você deveria ter um amplo espaço para fazer um ajuste mental. É perfeitamente normal e aceitável sentir-se mal ou perdido durante essa transição inicial. Considere positivo que não esteja em negação e que está se permitindo trabalhar apesar da ansiedade. Nenhuma pessoa sã sente-se bem durante um desastre global, então agradeça pelo desconforto que sente. Neste estágio, eu diria para focar em alimentação, família, amigos e talvez exercícios físicos — mas você não vai virar um atleta olímpico em quinze dias, então baixe sua bola.
Em seguida, ignore todo mundo que está postando a pornografia da produtividade nas mídias sociais. Está bem se você continua acordado às 3 da manhã. Está bem esquecer de almoçar ou não conseguir fazer uma teleaula de ioga. Está bem se faz três semanas que você nem toca naquele artigo-que-só-falta-revisar-e-submeter.
Ignore tanto as pessoas que dizem estar escrevendo papers quanto as que reclamam de não conseguir escrever. Cada qual está em sua jornada. Corte esse ruído.
Saiba que você não está fracassando. Livre-se das ideias profundamente toscas que você tem a respeito do que deveria estar fazendo agora. Em vez disso, seu foco deve se voltar prioritariamente para sua segurança física e mental. Neste começo de crise, sua prioridade deveria ser a segurança da sua casa. Adquira itens essenciais para sua dispensa, limpe seu lar e faça um plano de coordenação com sua família. Tenha conversas razoáveis sobre preparos de emergência com seus entes queridos. Se você é próximo de alguém que trabalha nos serviços de emergência ou num ramo essencial, redirecione suas energias e faça do apoio a essa pessoa uma prioridade. Identifique e cubra as necessidades dessas pessoas.
Não importa como é o perfil da sua família: vocês vão ter que ser um time nas próximas semanas ou meses. Monte uma estratégia para manter conexões sociais com um pequeno grupo de familiares, amigos e/ou vizinhos, mas mantenha o distanciamento físico de acordo com as orientações de saúde pública. Identifique os vulneráveis e garanta que eles estejam incluídos e protegidos.
A melhor maneira de construir um time é ser um bom companheiro de equipe, então tome alguma iniciativa para não ficar sozinho. Se você não montar essa infra-estrutura psicológica, o desafio das medidas de distanciamento social necessárias pode ser esmagador. Crie uma rede sustentável de apoio social — agora.
Segundo Estágio: Modificação Mental
ASSIM QUE estiver seguro junto com seu time, você vai começar a se sentir mais estável e seu corpo e sua mente vão se adaptar, fazendo-o buscar desafios mais exigentes. Depois de um tempo seu cérebro pode e vai reiniciar sob condições de crise e você vai reaver sua capacidade de trabalhar em alto nível.
Essa modificação mental permitirá que você volte a ser um pesquisador de alta performance, mesmo sob condições extremas. No entanto, você não deve tentar forçar sua modificação mental, especialmente se você nunca passou por um desastre. Um dos posts mais relevantes que vi no Twitter (do escritor Troy Johnson) dizia: “Dia 1 da Quarentena — vou meditar e fazer treinamento físico. Dia 4 — ah, vamos misturar logo o sorvete com o macarrão”. Pode parecer engraçado, mas diz muito sobre o problema.
Mais do que nunca, precisamos abandonar o performativo e abraçar o autêntico. Modificar nossas essências mentais exige humildade e paciência. Mantenha o foco nessa mudança interna. Essas transformações humanas vão ser sinceras, cruas, feias, esperançosas, frustrantes, lindas e divinas — e serão mais lentas do que os acadêmicos atarefados estão acostumados. Seja lento. Permita-se ficar distraído. Deixe que isso mude o modo como você pensa e como você vê o mundo. Porque o nosso trabalho é o mundo. Que essa tragédia, enfim, nos faça derrubar todas as nossas suposições falhas e nos dê coragem para ter novas ideias.
Terceiro Estágio: Abrace o Novo Normal
Do outro lado dessa mudança, seu cérebro maravilhoso, criativo e resiliente estará te esperando. Quando suas fundações estiverem sólidas, faça uma agenda semanal priorizando a segurança do seu time doméstico e depois reserve blocos de tempo para as diferentes categorias do seu trabalho: ensino, administração e pesquisa. Faça primeiro as tarefas simples e vá abrindo caminho até os pesos-pesados. Acorde cedo. Aquela aula online de ioga ou crossfit vai ser mais fácil nesse estágio.
A essa altura, as coisas começam a parecer mais naturais. O trabalho também vai fazer mais sentido e você estará mais confortável para mudar ou desfazer o que estava fazendo. Vão surgir ideias novas, que nunca lhe passariam pela cabeça se você tivesse ficado em negação. Continue abraçando sua modificação mental, tenha fé no processo e dê apoio ao seu time.
Lembre-se que isso é uma maratona: se você disparar na largada, vai vomitar nos seus pés até o fim do mês. Esteja emocionalmente preparado para uma crise que vai durar 12 ou 18 meses, seguida de uma recuperação lenta. Se terminar antes, será uma surpresa agradável. Neste momento, trabalhe para estabelecer sua serenidade, sua produtividade e seu bem-estar sob condições prolongadas de desastre.
Nenhum de nós sabe quanto tempo essa crise vai durar. Gostaríamos de receber nossas tropas de volta ao lar antes do Natal. Essa incerteza nos enlouquece.
Porém, virá o dia em que a pandemia estará acabada. Vamos abraçar nossos vizinhos e amigos. Vamos retornar às nossas salas de aula e cantinhos do café. Nossas fronteiras voltarão a se abrir para o livre movimento. Nossas economias, um dia, estarão recuperadas das recessões por vir.
Só que, agora, estamos no começo desta jornada. Muita gente ainda não entendeu o fato de que o mundo já mudou. Alguns membros da faculdade sentem-se distraídos ou culpados por não conseguir escrever muito ou dar aulas online apropriadas. Outros usam todo seu tempo em casa para escrever e relatam um surto de produtividade. Tudo isso é ruído — negação e ilusão. Neste momento, essa negação só serve para atrasar o processo fundamental da aceitação, que permite que a gente possa se reinventar nessa nova realidade.
Do outro lado desta jornada de aceitação estão a esperança e a resiliência. Nós sabemos que podemos passar por isso, mesmo que dure anos. Nós seremos criativos e responsivos; vamos lutar em todas as brechas e recantos possíveis. Vamos aprender novas receitas e fazer amizades desconhecidas. Faremos projetos que nem podemos imaginar hoje e vamos inspirar estudantes que ainda estamos para conhecer. E vamos nos ajudar mutuamente. Não importa o que vier depois: juntos, estaremos preparados e fortalecidos.
Por fim, gostaria de agradecer aos colegas e amigos que vivem em lugares difíceis, que sentem na própria pele essa sensação de desastre. Nos últimos anos, rimos ao trocar lembranças sobre as dores da infância e exultamos sobre nossas tribulações. Agradecemos à resiliência que veio com nossas velhas feridas de guerra. Obrigado a vocês por serem os guerreiros da luz e por partilhar de sua sabedoria nascida do sofrimento — porque a calamidade é uma grande professora.
AISHA AHMAD é professora-assistente de Ciências Políticas na Universidade de Toronto, no Canadá, onde também dá cursos avançados sobre Segurança Internacional. Fruto de pesquisas feitas no Afeganistão, Paquistão, Somália, Mali e Líbano, seu livro “Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power” (2017) explora as motivações econômicas por trás dos conflitos no mundo islâmico. Este artigo com conselhos sobre produtividade acadêmica em condições adversas foi publicado originalmente no “Chronicle of Higher Education” em 27/03/20.
[A ironia do autor parece indicar que ele não entendeu muito bem o assunto de que trata. Há frases inconsistentes, como “o efeito Dunning-Kruger não é uma falha humana; é simplesmente um produto da nossa compreensão subjetiva do mundo”, por exemplo. RT]
O estudo nasceu baseado em um caso criminal de um rapaz chamado McArthur Wheeler que, em plena luz do dia de 19 de abril de 1995, decidiu roubar dois bancos em Pittsburg, Estados Unidos. Wheeler portava uma arma, mas não uma máscara. Câmeras de vigilância o registraram em flagrante, e a polícia divulgou sua foto nas notícias locais, recebendo várias denúncias de onde ele estava quase que imediatamente.
Quando eles foram o prender, o Sr. Wheeler estava visivelmente confuso.
“Mas eu estava coberto de suco”, ele disse, antes que os oficiais o levassem.
Não existe “métodos infalíveis”
Em algum momento de sua vida, Wheeler aprendeu de alguém que o suco de limão poderia ser usado como uma ‘tinta invisível’. Se algo fosse escrito em um pedaço de papel usando suco de limão, você não veria nada – a não ser que você aquecesse o suco, o que tornaria os rabiscos visíveis. Então, naturalmente, ele cobriu seu rosto de suco de limão e foi assaltar um banco, confiante de que sua identidade permaneceria secreta para as câmeras, desde que ele não chegasse perto de nenhuma fonte de calor.
Ainda assim, devemos dar créditos pro sujeito: Wheeler não apostou cegamente. Ele realmente testou sua teoria tirando uma selfie com uma câmera polaroid (existe um cientista dentro de todos nós). Por alguma razão ou outra, talvez porque o filme estava com defeito, não sabemos exatamente o porquê, a câmera revelou uma imagem em branco.
As notícias circularam pelo mundo, todo mundo deu uma boa risada, e o Sr. Wheeler foi levado para a cadeia. A polícia concluiu que ele não era louco, nem usava drogas, ele realmente acreditava que seu plano funcionaria. “Durante sua interação com a polícia, ele ficou incrédulo sobre como sua ignorância havia falhado com ele”, escreveu Anupum Pant para a Awesci.
David Dunning estava trabalhando como psicólogo na Universidade Cornell na época, e a história bizarra chamou sua atenção. Com a ajuda de Justin Kruger, um de seus alunos de pós-graduação, ele começou a entender como o Sr. Wheeler podia estar tão confiante em um plano que era claramente estúpido. A teoria que eles desenvolveram é que quase todos nós consideramos nossas habilidades em determinadas áreas acima da média e que a maioria provavelmente avalia as próprias habilidades como muito melhores do que elas são objetivamente – uma “ilusão de confiança” que sustenta o efeito Dunning-Kruger.
“As habilidades necessárias para produzir uma resposta certa são exatamente as habilidades necessárias para reconhecer o que é uma resposta certa”.
No estudo de 1999 (o primeiro realizado sobre o tópico), a dupla fez uma série de perguntas aos alunos de Cornell sobre gramática, lógica e humor (usadas para medir as habilidades reais dos alunos) e, em seguida, pediu que cada um avaliasse a pontuação geral que eles alcançariam e como suas pontuações se relacionariam às pontuações dos outros participantes. Eles descobriram que os estudantes com a pontuação mais baixa, superestimaram consistente e substancialmente suas próprias capacidades. Os alunos do quartil inferior (25% mais baixos por nota) pensaram que atavam acima de dois terços em média dos outros estudantes (ou seja, que ficaram entre os 33% melhores por pontuação).
Um estudo relacionado realizado pelos mesmo autores em um clube de tiro esportivo mostrou resultados semelhantes. Dunning e Kruger usaram uma metodologia semelhante, fazendo perguntas aos aficionados sobre segurança de armas, visando que estes estimassem a si próprios sobre seus desempenhos no teste. Aqueles que responderam o menor número de perguntas de forma correta também superestimaram demasiadamente seu domínio do conhecimento sobre armas de fogo.
Não é específico apenas às habilidades técnicas, pois afeta todas as esferas da existência humana por igual. Um estudo descobriu que 80% dos motoristas se classificam como acima da média, o que é literalmente impossível, porque não é assim que as médias funcionam. Tendemos a avaliar nossa popularidade relativa da mesma maneira.
Também não se limita a pessoas com habilidades baixas ou inexistentes em um determinado assunto – funciona em praticamente todos nós. Em seu primeiro estudo, Dunning e Kruger também descobriram que os alunos que pontuavam no quartil superior (25%) subestimavam rotineiramente sua própria competência.
Uma definição mais completa do efeito Dunning-Kruger seria que ele representa um viés na estimativa de nossa própria capacidade decorrente de nossa perspectiva limitada. Quando temos uma compreensão ruim ou inexistente sobre um tópico, sabemos literalmente muito pouco para entender o quão pouco sabemos. Aqueles que de fato possuem o conhecimento ou habilidades, no entanto, têm uma ideia muito melhor que as outras pessoas com quem andam. Mas eles também pensam que, se uma tarefa é clara e simples para eles, também deve ser assim para todos os outros.
Uma pessoa no primeiro grupo e uma no segundo grupo são igualmente suscetíveis de usar sua própria experiência como base e tendem a dar como certo que todos estão próximos dessa “base”. Ambos tem “ilusão de confiança” – em um, essa confiança eles tem em si mesmos, e no outro, eles tem em todos as outras pessoas.
Mas talvez não sejamos igualmente sem noção
Errar é humano. Mas, persistir com confiança no erro é hilário.
Dunning e Kruger pareciam encontrar uma saída para o efeito que ajudaram a documentar. Embora todos pareçamos ter a mesma probabilidade de nos iludir, há uma diferença importante entre aqueles que são confiantes, mas incapazes, e aqueles que são capazes e não têm confiança: a forma que lidam e absorvem o feedback ao próprio comportamento.
O Sr. Wheeler tentou verificar sua teoria. No entanto, ele olhou para uma polaroid em branco de uma foto que ele tinha acabado de tirar – um dos grandes motivos que sinalizava que algo não deu muito certo na sua teoria – e não viu motivo para se preocupar; a única explicação que ele aceitou foi que seu plano funcionava. Mais tarde, ele recebeu um feedback da polícia, mas nem isso conseguiu diminuir sua certeza; ele estava “incrédulo em como sua ignorância havia falhado com ele”, mesmo quando ele tinha absoluta confirmação (estando na prisão) de que isso falhou.
Durante sua pesquisa, Dunning e Kruger descobriram que bons alunos previam melhor seu desempenho em exames futuros quando recebessem feedback preciso sobre a pontuação que alcançaram atualmente e sobre sua classificação relativa entre a turma. Os alunos com pior desempenho não mudariam suas expectativas, mesmo após um feedback claro e repetido de que estavam tendo um desempenho ruim. Eles simplesmente insistiram que suas suposições estavam corretas.
Brincadeiras à parte, o efeito Dunning-Kruger não é uma falha humana; é simplesmente um produto da nossa compreensão subjetiva do mundo. Na verdade, serve como uma precaução contra supor que estamos sempre certos e serve pra destacar a importância de manter uma mente aberta e uma visão crítica de nossa própria capacidade.
Mas se você tem medo de ser incompetente, verifique como o feedback afeta sua visão sobre seu próprio trabalho, conhecimento, habilidades e como isso se relaciona com outras pessoas ao seu redor. Se você realmente é um incompetente, não vai mudar de ideia e esse processo é basicamente uma perda de tempo, mas não se preocupe – alguém lhe dirá que você é incompetente.
Parte da equipe da HBR se reuniu virtualmente outro dia — uma tela cheia de rostos, numa cena que está se tornando cada vez mais comum por todos lados. Falamos sobre o conteúdo que estamos produzindo nestes tempos angustiantes e como podemos ajudar as pessoas. Mas também falamos sobre como estamos nos sentindo. Uma colega mencionou que o que ela sentia era luto. Cabeças acenaram em concordância na tela.
Se podemos nomeá-lo, talvez possamos lidar com ele. Conversamos com David Kessler sobre ideias de como fazer isso. Kessler é um grande especialista em luto. Ele co-escreveu, com Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, o livro On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. Seu novo livro adiciona outro estágio no processo, Finding Meaning:The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler também trabalhou por uma década no sistema hospitalar de Los Angeles. Ele participou da equipe de risco biológico. Seu trabalho voluntário inclui ser membro da Reserva de Especialistas da polícia de Los Angeles para eventos traumáticos, assim como ter servido na equipe de serviços em situação de desastre da Cruz Vermelha. Ele é o fundador do www.grief.com, que tem mais de 5 milhões de visitas anuais advindas de 167 países.
Kessler compartilhou seus pensamentos sobre por que é importante reconhecer o luto que você pode estar sentindo, como controlá-lo, e por que ele acredita que vamos encontrar um sentido nele. A conversa está levemente editada para garantir maior clareza.
HBR: As pessoas estão sentindo muitas coisas agora. Écorreto chamar algumas das coisas que elas estão sentindo de luto?
Kessler: Sim, e estamos sentindo vários lutos diferentes. Estamos sentindo que o mundo mudou, e ele mudou mesmo. Sabemos que é temporário, mas não sentimos que seja, e compreendemos que as coisas vão ser diferentes. Assim como ir ao aeroporto mudou para sempre depois do 11 de setembro, as coisas vão mudar e este é o ponto no qual mudaram. A perda da normalidade; o medo do estrago econômico; a perda de conexão. Estamos sendo afetados por essas coisas, e estamos em luto. Não estamos acostumados a este tipo de luto coletivo no ar.
Você disse que estamos sentindo mais de um tipo de luto?
Sim, estamos sentindo, também, luto antecipado. Luto antecipado é esse sentimento que temos sobre o que o futuro nos reserva quando estamos incertos a respeito. Normalmente se centra na morte. Sentimos isso quando alguém tem um diagnóstico ruim, ou quando pensamos a respeito do fato de que vamos perder nosso pais em algum momento. Luto antecipado é também, mais maneira mais geral, sobre futuros imaginados. Tem uma tempestade chegando. Tem algo ruim lá fora. Com um vírus, este tipo de luto é muito confuso para as pessoas. Nossa cognição sabe que algo ruim está acontecendo, mas não podemos vê-lo. Isso rompe nosso sentido de segurança. Estamos sentindo a perda da segurança. Eu acho que jamais havíamos perdido coletivamente nosso senso geral de segurança desta forma. Indivíduos ou grupos específicos passaram por isso, mas isso é inédito em escala planetária. Estamos em luto nos níveis micro e macro.
O quê podemos fazer para lidar com o luto?
Entender os estágios do luto é um começo. Mas sempre que falo sobre os estágios do luto, eu lembro as pessoas de que os estágios não são lineares e podem não acontecer nessa ordem. Não é um mapa, mas nos fornece uma plataforma para acessar este mundo desconhecido. Existe a negação, que acontece bastante no início: “este vírus não vai nos afetar”. Existe a raiva: “vocês estão nos fazendo ficar em casa e tirando nossos trabalhos”. Existe a barganha: “ok, se estabelecemos o distanciamento social por duas semanas, tudo vai melhorar, certo?”. Existe a tristeza: “eu não sei quando isto vai terminar”. E, finalmente, a aceitação: “isto está acontecendo; eu tenho que descobrir como seguir adiante”.
A aceitação, como você pode imaginar, é onde está nosso poder. Encontramos o controle quando chegamos na fase da aceitação. “Eu posso lavar minhas mãos. Eu posso manter uma distância segura. Eu posso aprender a trabalhar virtualmente.”
Quando estamos sentindo luto, existe uma dor física. E a mente acelerada. Existem técnicas para lidar com isso e fazer com que seja menos intenso?
Vamos voltar para o luto antecipado. Luto antecipado não-saudável é, na verdade, ansiedade; esse é o sentimento sobre o qual você está falando. Nossa mente começa a nos mostrar imagens. Meus pais ficando doentes. Vemos os piores cenários. Essa é nossa mente sendo protetiva. Nosso objetivo é não ignorar essas imagens ou tentar fazê-las ir embora — sua mente não vai deixar você fazer isso e pode ser doloroso se você forçar. O objetivo é encontrar o equilíbrio nas coisas que você está pensando. Se você sente que imagens ruins estão tomando forma, mude o seu pensamento para imagens positivas. Todos nós ficamos doentes e o mundo segue adiante. Nem todo mundo que eu amo morre. Talvez não morram porque estamos todos fazendo as coisas certas. Nenhum cenário deve ser ignorado, mas nenhum deve dominar também.
Luto antecipado é a mente projetando-se para o futuro e imaginando o pior. Para se acalmar, você quer voltar para o presente. Este conselho vai soar familiar para qualquer pessoa que já meditou ou praticou mindfulness, mas as pessoas podem sempre se surpreender com o quão simples isto pode ser. Você pode nomear cinco coisas que estão na sala onde você está. Existe um computador, uma cadeira, uma foto de um cachorro, um tapete velho e uma xícara de café. É simples assim. Respire. Perceba que, no momento presente, nada do que você tinha antecipado aconteceu. Neste momento, você está bem. Você tem comida. Você não está doente. Use seus sentidos e pense sobre o que eles sentem. A mesa é dura. O cobertor é macio. Eu consigo sentir o ar entrando em minhas narinas. Isto efetivamente funciona para reduzir a dor.
Você também pode pensar sobre como abrir mão do que você não tem controle. O que seu vizinho está fazendo está fora do seu controle. O que está no seu controle é ficar a um metro de distância dele, e lavar suas mãos. Foque nisso.
Finalmente, é um bom momento para multiplicar a compaixão. As pessoas vão ter níveis diferentes de medo e luto e isso se manifesta de formas diferentes. Uma pessoa com quem trabalho ficou muito rude comigo outro dia e eu pensei: “não parece a mesma pessoa; essa é a forma como a pessoa está lidando com a situação. Estou vendo seu medo e ansiedade”. Então seja paciente. Pense sobre como as pessoas geralmente são e não quem elas parecem ser neste momento.
Um aspecto particularmente perturbador nesta pandemia é não saber quando ela acaba.
Isto é um estado temporário. Ajuda falar sobre isso. Eu trabalhei 10 anos no sistema hospitalar. Eu fui treinado para situações como esta. Eu também estudei a pandemia da gripe de 1918. As precauções que estamos tomando são corretas. A história nos conta isso. Isto se chama sobrevivência. Vamos sobreviver. Este é um tempo de se superproteger, mas não se reagir de forma desmedida.
E acredito que vamos encontrar sentido nisto. Eu fiquei honrado que a família de Elisabeth Kübler-Ross me deu permissão para acrescentar um sexto estado ao luto: significado. Eu tinha falado bastante com Elisabeth sobre o que viria depois da aceitação. Eu não quis parar na aceitação quando experimentei o luto pessoal. Eu quis significado naquelas horas mais difíceis. E efetivamente acredito que encontramos iluminação nestes momentos. Agora mesmo as pessoas estão percebendo que elas podem se conectar através da tecnologia. Elas não estão tão distantes quanto imaginavam. Elas estão percebendo que podem usar seus telefones para conversas longas. Estão apreciando caminhadas. Eu acredito que vamos continuar encontrando significado agora e quando isso tiver acabado.
O que você diria para alguém que lê tudo isto e ainda assim se sente sobrecarregado com o luto?
Continue tentando. Há algo poderoso em nomear o luto. Isso nos ajuda a sentir o que está dentro de nós. Tantas pessoas me disseram na última semana: “estou dizendo para meus colegas de trabalho que estou tendo dificuldades” ou “chorei na noite passada”. Quando você nomeia o luto, você é mais capaz de senti-lo e ele se move através de você. Emoções precisam de movimento. É importante que entendamos o que estamos passando. Um produto infeliz do movimento de autoajuda é que somos a primeira geração que tem emoções sobre suas emoções. Falamos para nós mesmos: “estou me sentindo triste, mas não deveria sentir isso; outras pessoas se sentem pior”. Nós podemos — devemos — parar no primeiro sentimento. “Eu me sinto triste. Vou me deixar sentir triste, por cinco minutos”. Seu objetivo nesse momento é sentir sua tristeza e medo e raiva, independente do que estejam sentindo as demais pessoas. Lutar contra isso não ajuda porque seu corpo está produzindo o sentimento. Se permitimos que os sentimentos aconteçam, eles vão acontecer de uma maneira ordenada, e nos empoderar. Então não seremos vítimas.
Numa maneira ordenada?
Sim. às vezes tentamos não sentir o que estamos sentindo porque temos essa imagem de um “bando de emoções”. Se eu me sentir triste e acolher a tristeza, ela não irá embora. O bando de emoções ruins vai me dominar. A verdade é que uma emoção se move através de nós. Não existe um bando de emoções que vai nos pegar. É absurdo pensar que não deveríamos sentir luto agora. Permita-se sentir o luto e siga adiante.
Some of the HBR edit staff met virtually the other day — a screen full of faces in a scene becoming more common everywhere. We talked about the content we’re commissioning in this harrowing time of a pandemic and how we can help people. But we also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the panes.
If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it. We turned to David Kessler for ideas on how to do that. Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler also has worked for a decade in a three-hospital system in Los Angeles. He served on their biohazards team. His volunteer work includes being an LAPD Specialist Reserve for traumatic events as well as having served on the Red Cross’s disaster services team. He is the founder of www.grief.com, which has over 5 million visits yearly from 167 countries.
Kessler shared his thoughts on why it’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in it. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity.
HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?
Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?
Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.
What can individuals do to manage all this grief?
Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
When we’re feeling grief there’s that physical pain. And the racing mind. Are there techniques to deal with that to make it less intense?
Let’s go back to anticipatory grief. Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images. My parents getting sick. We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. We all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.
Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.
Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this.I’m seeing their fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.
One particularly troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-endedness of it.
This is a temporary state. It helps to say it. I worked for 10 years in the hospital system. I’ve been trained for situations like this. I’ve also studied the 1918 flu pandemic. The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. History tells us that. This is survivable. We will survive. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact.
And, I believe we will find meaning in it. I’ve been honored that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s family has given me permission to add a sixth stage to grief: Meaning. I had talked to Elisabeth quite a bit about what came after acceptance. I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.
What do you say to someone who’s read all this and is still feeling overwhelmed with grief?
Keep trying. There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night.” When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.
In an orderly way?
Yes. Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have this image of a “gang of feelings.” If I feel sad and let that in, it’ll never go away. The gang of bad feelings will overrun me. The truth is a feeling that moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.
So why can’t we stop such views from spreading? My opinion is that we have failed to understand their root causes, often assuming it is down to ignorance. But new research, published in my book, Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight from Others, shows that the capacity to ignore valid facts has most likely had adaptive value throughout human evolution. Therefore, this capacity is in our genes today. Ultimately, realising this is our best bet to tackle the problem.
So far, public intellectuals have roughly made two core arguments about our post-truth world. The physician Hans Rosling and the psychologist Steven Pinker argue it has come about due to deficits in facts and reasoned thinking – and can therefore be sufficiently tackled with education.
Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists have shown how the mere provision of more and better facts often lead already polarised groups to become even more polarised in their beliefs.
The conclusion of Thaler is that humans are deeply irrational, operating with harmful biases. The best way to tackle it is therefore nudging – tricking our irrational brains – for instance by changing measles vaccination from an opt-in to a less burdensome opt-out choice.
Such arguments have often resonated well with frustrated climate scientists, public health experts and agri-scientists (complaining about GMO-opposers). Still, their solutions clearly remain insufficient for dealing with a fact-resisting, polarised society.
In my comprehensive study, I interviewed numerous eminent academics at the University of Oxford, London School of Economics and King’s College London, about their views. They were experts on social, economic and evolutionary sciences. I analysed their comments in the context of the latest findings on topics raging from the origin of humanity, climate change and vaccination to religion and gender differences.
It became evident that much of knowledge resistance is better understood as a manifestation of social rationality. Essentially, humans are social animals; fitting into a group is what’s most important to us. Often, objective knowledge-seeking can help strengthen group bonding – such as when you prepare a well-researched action plan for your colleagues at work.
But when knowledge and group bonding don’t converge, we often prioritise fitting in over pursuing the most valid knowledge. In one large experiment, it turned out that both liberals and conservatives actively avoided having conversations with people of the other side on issues of drug policy, death penalty and gun ownership. This was the case even when they were offered a chance of winning money if they discussed with the other group. Avoiding the insights from opposing groups helped people dodge having to criticise the view of their own community.
Similarly, if your community strongly opposes what an overwhelming part of science concludes about vaccination or climate change, you often unconsciously prioritise avoiding getting into conflicts about it.
This is further backed up by research showing that the climate deniers who score the highest on scientific literacy tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change isn’t happening – despite the evidence showing this is the case. And those among the climate concerned who score the highest on the same tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change is happening.
This logic of prioritising the means that get us accepted and secured in a group we respect is deep. Those among the earliest humans who weren’t prepared to share the beliefs of their community ran the risk of being distrusted and even excluded.
And social exclusion was an enormous increased threat against survival – making them vulnerable to being killed by other groups, animals or by having no one to cooperate with. These early humans therefore had much lower chances of reproducing. It therefore seems fair to conclude that being prepared to resist knowledge and facts is an evolutionary, genetic adaptation of humans to the socially challenging life in hunter-gatherer societies.
Today, we are part of many groups and internet networks, to be sure, and can in some sense “shop around” for new alliances if our old groups don’t like us. Still, humanity today shares the same binary mindset and strong drive to avoid being socially excluded as our ancestors who only knew about a few groups. The groups we are part of also help shape our identity, which can make it hard to change groups. Individuals who change groups and opinions constantly may also be less trusted, even among their new peers.
In my research, I show how this matters when it comes to dealing with fact resistance. Ultimately, we need to take social aspects into account when communicating facts and arguments with various groups. This could be through using role models, new ways of framing problems, new rules and routines in our organisations and new types of scientific narratives that resonate with the intuitions and interests of more groups than our own.
There are no quick fixes, of course. But if climate change were reframed from the liberal/leftist moral perspective of the need for global fairness to conservative perspectives of respect for the authority of the father land, the sacredness of God’s creation and the individual’s right not to have their life project jeopardised by climate change, this might resonate better with conservatives.
If we take social factors into account, this would help us create new and more powerful ways to fight belief in conspiracy theories and fake news. I hope my approach will stimulate joint efforts of moving beyond disputes disguised as controversies over facts and into conversations about what often matters more deeply to us as social beings.
Humans are the only ultrasocial creature on the planet. We have outcompeted, interbred or even killed off all other hominin species. We cohabit in cities of tens of millions of people and, despite what the media tell us, violence between individuals is extremely rare. This is because we have an extremely large, flexible and complex “social brain”.
To truly understand how the brain maintains our human intellect, we would need to know about the state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, as well as the varying strengths with which they are connected, and the state of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point. Neurobiologist Steven Rose suggests that even this is not enough – we would still need know how these connections have evolved over a person’s lifetime and even the social context in which they had occurred. It may take centuries just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.
Many people assume that our brain operates like a powerful computer. But Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, says this is just shoddy thinking and is holding back our understanding of the human brain. Because, while humans start with senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms, we are not born with any of the information, rules, algorithms or other key design elements that allow computers to behave somewhat intelligently. For instance, computers store exact copies of data that persist for long periods of time, even when the power is switched off. Our brains, meanwhile, are capable of creating false data or false memories, and they only maintain our intellect as long as we remain alive.
We are organisms, not computers
Of course, we can see many advantages in having a large brain. In my recent book on human evolution I suggest it firstly allows humans to exist in a group size of about 150. This builds resilience to environmental changes by increasing and diversifying food production and sharing.
As our ancestors got smarter, they became capable of living in larger and larger groups.Mark Maslin, Author provided
A social brain also allows specialisation of skills so individuals can concentrate on supporting childbirth, tool-making, fire setting, hunting or resource allocation. Humans have no natural weapons, but working in large groups and having tools allowed us to become the apex predator, hunting animals as large as mammoths to extinction.
Our social groups are large and complex, but this creates high stress levels for individuals because the rewards in terms of food, safety and reproduction are so great. Hence, Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues our huge brain is primarily developed to keep track of rapidly changing relationships. It takes a huge amount of cognitive ability to exist in large social groups, and if you fall out of the group you lose access to food and mates and are unlikely to reproduce and pass on your genes.
Great. But what about your soap opera knowledge?ronstik / shutterstock
My undergraduates come to university thinking they are extremely smart as they can do differential equations and understand the use of split infinitives. But I point out to them that almost anyone walking down the street has the capacity to hold the moral and ethical dilemmas of at least five soap operas in their head at any one time. And that is what being smart really means. It is the detailed knowledge of society and the need to track and control the ever changing relationship between people around us that has created our huge complex brain.
It seems our brains could be even more flexible that we previously thought. Recent genetic evidence suggests the modern human brain is more malleable and is modelled more by the surrounding environment than that of chimpanzees. The anatomy of the chimpanzee brain is strongly controlled by their genes, whereas the modern human brain is extensively shaped by the environment, no matter what the genetics.
This means the human brain is pre-programmed to be extremely flexible; its cerebral organisation is adjusted by the environment and society in which it is raised. So each new generation’s brain structure can adapt to the new environmental and social challenges without the need to physically evolve.
Evolution at work.OtmarW / shutterstock
This may also explain why we all complain that we do not understand the next generation as their brains are wired differently, having grown up in a different physical and social environment. An example of this is the ease with which the latest generation interacts with technology almost if they had co-evolved with it.
So next time you turn on a computer just remember how big and complex your brain is – to keep a track of your friends and enemies.