The Psychology of Defeating Fear: Low Self-Esteem and Hate Live in the Mind

Harvard psychologist Susan David explains the dangers of fear-mongering, the questionable ethics of journalism in spreading hate politics, and the disturbing way that repetition wears down our brain's resistance to fallacies and hate speech.

Susan David:  How do we thrive in a world where every which way we turn our fear is being activated by politicians, by the media and by the desperate events that are happening around us? What is really fascinating when we look at the brain research around fear is that our brains proxy anything that feels unfamiliar, incoherent or inaccessible as being unsafe. There is fascinating research that shows that when people have lower levels of self-esteem and they are in a job in which they are recognized and promoted, that promotion can feel incoherent to the person with low self-esteem. They have low self-esteem and they might be used to and expecting to be treated badly. So what is fascinating is the results showing that when people are promoted when they have a lower levels of self-esteem they are more likely to leave their jobs. Fear is an incredibly, incredibly powerful force in our lives and our brains are fairly immature in assessing anything that feels slightly incoherent for unfamiliar as unsafe.

What this might mean is that if you are used to hearing a story time and time again from a parent or from a partner about how you are not good enough, you are more likely to be drawn to that relationship because it feels familiar. The messaging that you are getting time and time again is connected with what you expect to get.

When we have politicians who are effectively demagogues who are inspiring fear in us, that fear leads to very particular and relatively predictable responses. When we are fearful there is this idea in psychological research of mortality say yes that when our mortality is threatened, when someone says oh this group of people is out to get you and we feel that we are actively being threatened we are more likely to stereotype, we are more likely as individuals to become bigoted, we are more likely to respond to messages that we hear time and time again even if they are against our values as somehow making sense to us.

How do we protect ourselves against this? Daniel Kahneman describes system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is the intuitive response, the emotional visceral us and them that can sometimes arise out of fear. System 2 is the deliberate thoughtful examination of what is this person saying? Is it inline with how I really want to be? Is it connected with how I really want to raise my children? Is this a world that I want to support? When we are able to step back from our fear, not to pretend that it doesn't exist but to see our fear for what it is, fear, not a direction but data and an emotion. When we are able to step back from the fear and able to assess the fear and assess the messaging from the place of our values in a more deliberate thoughtful way, we are able to come to a place where we are ultimately protected from the demagoguery message, from the message of the fear and are able to move us ourselves forward in a way that is aliened with how we truly want to be and with a world that we truly want to live in.
When Donald Trump first started with all of his messaging we used to hear things that the politicians would say and we would be like oh my goodness how can the person possibly say that thing? But what happens over time is the more familiar something sounds, so the more we've heard it time and time again, even if the story is inaccurate, even if the story doesn't serve us the more we are likely to become immured to it and immune to it. So what I actually think from a media perspective is when I speak to people in the media about this they will often say well we simply go where the story takes us so we'll give as much coverage to wherever the story is at even if the story is one that insights hatred or violence. But I actually think that there is a very, very powerful ethical choice that the media makes in that.

Because when they expose and expose and expose and expose a story that is about hatred and a story that is about violence, as human beings the more familiar we become with that story the more immured we become to it. And I think we can see exactly this in the current elections that things that were said six months ago where everyone was horrified that a politician could possibly even prevail on people to listen to what was being said are now being met with oh there we go again. We somehow have become immured to the messaging because of the familiarity with which we are hearing it. And I think it's really important for us as a society and for us as voters to recognize that a familiar story it's not necessarily a truthful story. A familiar story might sound comfortable and our brains might proxy that story for meaning safe and therefore right and therefore comfortable, but that story doesn't necessarily reflect us or what we value. And it's really important to be able to step out from the safety of what might at this point feel familiar and really recognize the words for what they are. They are words that are inciting hatred and division and stereotyping in us as a society. And for many of us that's not the society in which we want to live. And I think there is a moral impetus on us to be able to step back from the story and step forward with our values.

Fear has always had a hold on us, but never with such fervor. Welcome to the end of times. We cannot sink lower. ISIS is at our door, our elected leaders are malevolent man-children, amber alerts are lighting up our phones, immigrants are bringing a plague of violence, someone was murdered while playing Pokemon GO, climate change is flooding our homes and starving our crops. How can we go on?

But, breathe deep and let the clouds of panic part; it turns out there’s very little correlation between the above mindset and reality. Terrorism, despite it reported epidemic, is less prevalent in the Western world now than it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Crime is decreasing. Immigrants actually lower crime in gateway cities, and don’t affect crime rates elsewhere. Rates of rape and sexual assault have been declining for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Despite Zika and Ebola hype, infectious diseases are down. The list continues and is wonderfully documented at length in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

However, that’s not what we like to hear, because we don’t feel safe. This good news feels inaccurate. Why? Well, we have the non-stop news cycle to thank for that, and social platforms that turn every smartphone user into an independent correspondent capturing every horror from the grocery aisle to the protest march. We are experiencing an oversaturation of fearful messages.

"What is really fascinating when we look at the brain research around fear is that our brains proxy anything that feels unfamiliar, incoherent or inaccessible as being unsafe," says Harvard psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. We like familiarity. We like it so much that hearing that terrorism is likely to strike us personally at any moment is somehow more comforting than the message that it’s not, because the fear is more familiar to us at this stage. We’ve come to trust it. If we hear something often enough, we associate familiarity with truth.

It even works on a personal level, where people are drawn to those who hurt them and belittle them purely because the message is familiar. It feels cozy and you’ve been there before. You know how this works. It’s scarier to try something new.

And of course fear is heavily embedded in politics. We have politicians who are effectively demagogues, who aim to inspire fear and cement our bond to them by hyperbolizing a threat to our mortality. So how can we repel deceptive messaging and see clearly?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman identified two kinds of thinking: system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking. David explains: "System 1 thinking is the intuitive response, the emotional visceral ‘us’ and ‘them’ that can sometimes arise out of fear. System 2 is the deliberate thoughtful examination of: what is this person saying? Is it in line with how I really want to be? Is it connected with how I really want to raise my children? Is this a world that I want to support?’

David says that if we can step back from our fear and see it for what it is – manipulated panic rather than data – we can protect ourselves from the demagoguery message and re-align with our true values.

It is difficult to do, and the repetition makes it harder to see straight. Here David draws on the 2016 US election as an example. "… We used to hear things that the politicians would say and we would be like, ‘Oh my goodness how can the person possibly say that thing?’ But what happens over time is the more familiar something sounds… even if the story is inaccurate, even if the story doesn't serve us, the more we are likely to become immured to it and immune to it." Things that were said in the election six months ago that horrified people are now being met with a light-hearted ‘Oh, there we go again’.

David questions the media ethics in pushing out stories that overexpose inaccurate messages of fear that could incite violence and hatred. It familiarizes us to an incorrect message, leaving our values open to corruption.

Susan David's most recent book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Bonus pack is available here.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.