from the world's big
Fear is the feeling of losing control—making choices is the antidote
Are you scared—of flying, the dark, anything? Or are you scared about not being in total control of the situation?
Dr. Tali Sharot is the author of The Influential Mind (2017) and The Optimism Bias (2012). She is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab, at University College London. Her papers on decision making, emotion, and influence have been published in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Psychological Science, and many others. She has been featured in numerous outlets and written for The New York Times, Time Magazine, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, and more.
Tali Sharot: When we want to change people’s behavior, we often say, “Do this. Don’t to do that.”
Basically we are, a lot of times, giving orders—whether it is to our kids, people in our family, people that we work with—we are exerting control over others or at least attempting to exert control over others.
But what we find is that what the brain is trying to do... it’s trying to control its environment. That’s one of the major goals of what the brain is trying to do. And it’s trying to do that in order to get rewards and avoid losses. And because of that, in the brain control has been associated with something good, with a reward, and it’s something that people seek out.
If people can make a choice, the same part of the brain that is activated when people get a piece of food like a piece of chocolate is activated when people have the opportunity to make a choice. When people don’t have an opportunity to make a choice, when they feel they don’t have control, what is triggered is anxiety.
And so what this means is that giving people a choice—giving people a sense that they are in the control, that they have agency—is more likely to motivate them, is more likely to put them in the frame of a reward rather than a loss. And because control in and of itself is rewarding, a lot of times people will be willing to give up other kinds of rewards like monetary rewards in order to have control. For example, in a study that I conducted with my colleagues we gave people the opportunity to either make choices themselves about random shapes that can give them rewards, or give another person, an expert, an opportunity to make a choice for them.
And what we found is that people sub-optimally make the decision to keep the agency, to keep the choice themselves rather than have an expert make the choice for them even if the expert was more likely to choose the correct thing, to choose a thing that will get them more money.
So a way to think about it: it’s a bit like the stock market. So a lot of people like to pick their own stocks instead of giving someone else the opportunity to choose for them—experts are even better, going according to an index.
And the reason that people like to pick their own stocks is because it gives them a sense of control, it gives them a sense of agency, and that gives them reward. And many times people realize that there might be a monetary loss. Some people are overconfident, they think well I’ll pick the right thing, and that’s fine, but they still are willing to lose part, to have a monetary loss, to make the choice themselves.
So in fact in general people prefer to make their own choices, but there are incidents where people would rather give away their choice.
For example, when the choice is so complicated, the effort is so... so much effort has to be put into it... I would rather not do it and give someone else the opportunity to make the choice for me.
Or for example, under high amounts of stress people sometimes realize that it’s better to have someone else make the choice for them. Or for example, when making a choice people are afraid that they will regret what they choose (such as in medical decisions) they sometimes actually prefer to have someone else make the choice for them.
And in the book I talk about the things that people are scared of the most, and the fears that we have are not necessarily rational. So people, for example, a lot of people are scared of flying; so if you look at the numbers flying is not necessarily the most dangerous thing that you do. Driving your own car is more dangerous, but people are afraid of flying because one of the reasons is that once you’re in the plane you don’t have control anymore, you don’t have control over the plane, you don’t have control of anything really of your environment. So the sense of being in this space where you’re losing control completely, giving it to someone else, is something that people feel anxious about.
Now, they don’t want to take control. I don’t want to fly the plane. I know I will be dead if I fly the plane, but never the less I feel anxious, and I think that’s true in other domains like health.
One of the reasons that being in a hospital is anxiety-provoking, not only because you’re sick—and that’s very anxiety provoking—but also because, again, you lose control.
Everyone is making the decision for you, as they should: the doctors and the nurses. I mean people should have some say, but they realize that the experts are making the choices for them and that sense of losing control, again, can cause anxiety.
And one thing that studies have shown is that as we age, as we go into older age we lose some of our control (especially if we go to nursing homes). Other people make the choices for us and that induces stress on an individual as well, because no longer can I choose what will I do and when will I do it, and giving people a sense of control back can help them.
Again, with kids, people tend to tell kids exactly what to do, when to do it and so on, and kids are not happy with that.
But we could change that: instead of telling the kids, “Well you have to eat your salad,” maybe say, “Well why don’t you create your own salad? Here are the different ingredients, and put them together—create them.”
And one study that we’ve done showed that when people—and is not only us, we did one example of this, there’s many, many studies showing that—when you create something you value it more.
So we did a study where people created their own Converse shoes and they liked the Converse shoes that they created much more than the Converse shoes which looked exactly the same that someone else created—same color or same shape everything was exactly the same—but if I created it I liked it more.
Moreover, even if I didn’t create it but I thought I created it, I believed I created it, I wrongly had a memory that I created the shoe, I liked it better. So if you feel like you have agency in something—whether it’s a product, whether is an idea—then you feel like it’s worth more.
And it doesn’t actually have to be a true perception, you just have to have a perception of an agency, a perception of a control in order to value that thing more, and that’s what we’ve shown in our study looking at how people create shoes and how they value them.
Fear is a motivator—often, when we're scared, we feel that we want to leave a situation. That so-called "pull" that you feel often has more to do with wanting to be in a place of agency and control than it does, say, being scared of the dark, or flying. Actually, fear of flying is a great example for what Tali Sharot proposes. We all know that we couldn't actually fly the plane if we were giving the controls, but we're more-so afraid of giving up all of our perceived control. You're three times more likely to crash in a car than crash in a plane but we all feel as if we are in control... which is why you don't have many people scared of driving. Tali does a great job explaining the mentality behind fear, and her video here is worth a watch. Tali's latest book is The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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