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, Ph.D., is a Psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School; co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital; and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. An in-demand speaker and advisor, David has worked with the senior leadership of hundreds of major organizations, including the United Nations, Ernst & Young, and the World Economic Forum. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Harvard Business Review, Time, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal. David is on the core faculty of the extraordinary global program Homeward Bound which culminates in an all-women expedition to Antarctica and is being filmed as a documentary. The program aims at increasing the influence and impact of women in the sciences. Originally from South Africa, David lives outside of Boston with her family.
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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Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.
- Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
- The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
- The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
Proof that some people are less patient than invertebrates<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H1yhGClUJ0U" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> The common cuttlefish is a small cephalopod notable for producing sepia ink and relative intelligence for an invertebrate. Studies have shown them to be capable of remembering important details from previous foraging experiences, and to adjust their foraging strategies in response to changing circumstances. </p><p>In a new study, published in <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2020.3161" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Proceedings of the Royal Society B</a>, researchers demonstrated that the critters have mental capacities previously thought limited to vertebrates.</p><p>After determining that cuttlefish are willing to eat raw king prawns but prefer a live grass shrimp, the researchers trained them to associate certain symbols on see-through containers with a different level of accessibility. One symbol meant the cuttlefish could get into the box and eat the food inside right away, another meant there would be a delay before it opened, and the last indicated the container could not be opened.</p><p>The cephalopods were then trained to understand that upon entering one container, the food in the other would be removed. This training also introduced them to the idea of varying delay times for the boxes with the second <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/cuttlefish-can-pass-a-cognitive-test-designed-for-children" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">symbol</a>. </p><p>Two of the cuttlefish recruited for the study "dropped out," at this point, but the remaining six—named Mica, Pinto, Demi, Franklin, Jebidiah, and Rogelio—all caught on to how things worked pretty quickly.</p><p>It was then that the actual experiment could begin. The cuttlefish were presented with two containers: one that could be opened immediately with a raw king prawn, and one that held a live grass shrimp that would only open after a delay. The subjects could always see both containers and had the ability to go to the immediate access option if they grew tired of waiting for the other. The poor control group was faced with a box that never opened and one they could get into right away.</p><p>In the end, the cuttlefish demonstrated that they would wait anywhere between 50 and 130 seconds for the better treat. This is the same length of time that some primates and birds have shown themselves to be able to wait for.</p><p>Further tests of the subject's cognitive abilities—they were tested to see how long it took them to associate a symbol with a prize and then on how long it took them to catch on when the symbols were switched—showed a relationship between how long a cuttlefish was willing to wait and how quickly it learned the associations. </p>
All of this is interesting, but what use could it possibly have?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcxNzY2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTM0MzYyMH0.lKFLPfutlflkzr_NM6WmnosKM1rU6UEIHWlyzWhYQNM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C10%2C0%2C88&height=700" id="77c04" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7eb9d5b2d890496756a69fb45ceac87c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A diagram showing the experimental set up. On the left is the control condition, on the right is the experimental condition.
Credit: Alexandra K. Schnell et al., 2021<p> As you can probably guess, the ability to delay gratification as part of a plan is not the most common thing in the animal kingdom. While humans, apes, some birds, and dogs can do it, less intelligent animals can't. </p><p>While it is reasonably simple to devise a hypothesis for why social humans, tool-making chimps, or hunting birds are able to delay gratification, the cuttlefish is neither social, a toolmaker, or is it hunting anything particularly <a href="https://gizmodo.com/cuttlefish-are-able-to-wait-for-a-reward-1846392756" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intelligent</a>. Why they evolved this capacity is up for debate. </p><p>Lead author Alexandra Schnell of the University of Cambridge discussed their speculations on the evolutionary advantage cuttlefish might get out of this skill with <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/mbl-qc022621.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eurekalert:</a> </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "Cuttlefish spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief periods of foraging. They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to every predator in the ocean that wants to eat them. We speculate that delayed gratification may have evolved as a byproduct of this, so the cuttlefish can optimize foraging by waiting to choose better quality food."</p><p>Given the unique evolutionary tree of the cuttlefish, its cognitive abilities are an example of convergent evolution, in which two unrelated animals, in this case primates and cuttlefish, evolve the same trait to solve similar problems. These findings could help shed light on the evolution of the cuttlefish and its relatives. </p><p> It should be noted that this study isn't definitive; at the moment, we can't make a useful comparison between the overall intelligence of the cuttlefish and the other animals that can or cannot pass some variation of the marshmallow test.</p><p>Despite this, the results are quite exciting and will likely influence future research into animal intelligence. If the common cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test, what else can?</p>
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?
- Everyone wants to know if there is alien life in the universe, but Earth may give us clues that if it exists it may not be the civilization-building kind.
- Most of Earth's history shows life that is single-celled. That doesn't mean it was simple, though. Stunning molecular machines were being evolved by those tiny critters.
- What's in a planet's atmosphere may also determine what evolution can produce. Is there a habitable zone for complex life that's much smaller than what's allowed for microbes?
Protozoa—a term for a group of single-celled eukaryotes—and green algae in wastewater, viewed under the microscope.
Credit: sinhyu via Adobe Stock<p>Another way the story of life on Earth might not get repeated elsewhere in the cosmos relates to the composition of planetary atmospheres. Our world did not begin with its oxygen-rich air. Instead, oxygen didn't show up until almost two billion years after the planet formed and one billion years after life appeared. Earth's original atmosphere was, most likely, a mix of nitrogen and CO2. Remarkably it was life that pumped the oxygen into the air as a byproduct of a novel form of photosynthesis invented by a novel kind of single-celled organism, the nucleus-bearing eukaryotes. The appearance of oxygen in Earth's air was not just a curiosity for evolution. Life soon figured out how to use the newly abundant element and, it turns out, oxygen-based biochemistry was supercharged compared to what came before. With more energy available, evolution could build ever larger and more complex critters.</p><p>Oxygen may also be unique in allowing the kinds of metabolisms in multicellular life (especially ours) needed for making fast and fast-thinking animals. Astrobiologist <a href="http://faculty.washington.edu/dcatling/Catling2008CatalystMag.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">David Catling</a> has argued that only oxygen has the right kind of chemistry that would allow for animals to form on any world.</p><p>Atmospheres may play another role in what can and can't happen in the evolution of life. In 1959, <a href="https://astro.uchicago.edu/alumni/su-shu-huang-1949.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Su-Shu Huang</a> proposed that each star would be surrounded by a "<a href="https://www.nasa.gov/ames/kepler/habitable-zones-of-different-stars" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">habitable zone</a>" of orbits where a planet would have temperatures neither too hot nor too cold to keep life from forming (i.e. liquid water could exist on the planet's surface). Since then, the habitable zone has become a staple of astrobiological studies. Astronomers now know that the outer part of the habitable zone will be dominated by worlds with lots of greenhouse gases like CO<em>2</em>. A planet in a location like Mars, for example, would require a thick CO2 blanket to keep its surface above freezing. But all that CO2 could present its own problems for life. Almost all forms of animal life on Earth, including sea creatures, die when placed in CO2-rich environments. This has led astronomer <a href="https://eschwiet.github.io/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eddie Schwieterman</a> and colleagues to propose a <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/ab1d52" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">habitable zone for complex life</a>: A band of orbits where planets can stay warm without requiring heavy CO2 atmospheres. According to Schwieterman, animal life of the kind we know would only be able to form in this much thinner band of orbits. </p>