This past weekend we changed the clocks back which for us in New England means we will now head off to work and head home from work in the dark. In some ways, it’s reflective of the mood right now in the U.S. given the continued high unemployment (9.6% with higher pockets of unemployment in certain fields and/or geographical regions), the uncertainty resulting from the last week’s Republican upset in the House of Representatives, and the most recent terror threats that now include printer cartridges as bombs that can be detonated in mid-flight via cell phones. I thought it might be helpful to explore why these events cause us a level of disequilibrium that affects our mood even when nothing may be affecting us personally.
Our make-up as human beings is to prefer consistency: familiar house, familiar car, familiar job, and familiar furniture. We like things to hang together and make sense. When we experience change – even from a distance – it creates uncertainty in us which triggers a response in our limbic system. The limbic system (basically our fight and/or flight response center) tries to avoid or control the confusion and disruption that arises when things don’t go the way we think they should. Abraham Maslow would suggest that we revert to the lower “safety and security” need level, shifting our focus to exerting control. Typically we try to control the disruption by doing one of the following:
a.) denying its significance altogether, swamping the disruption by focusing only on good things, modifying our expectations by rationalizing our feelings and thoughts (e.g. it could be worse), or
b.) by changing our evaluation of the events (e.g. at least the bomb didn’t go off).
When we receive these pieces of information via the news or the Internet, we put the information into one of three zones in our minds: the zone of acceptance, the zone of indifference and the zone of rejection. This process of assigning zones happens very rapidly, even as we are receiving information. As a consequence, we actually distort the information coming in to fit our zone of judgment, depending on what is called the “anchor position” we hold on any given issue. For example, if we hold an anchor position that hard work should equal long term employment and then we learn that a close friend’s job has been eliminated after years of faithful service, we will make it seem worse than it really is, by suggesting now that every employer is not trustworthy. We saw this most profoundly after 9/11 when people refused to fly and thought every person of mid-eastern descent was a terrorist. Recently, we witnessed the same negative generalizations toward politicians in office (“They all need to go”). Suddenly, sensible people are not making any sense.
The amount of ego involved will affect how large this “zone of thought” is: the greater the ego investment, the larger our zone of rejection. While small differences between our anchor position and the new position will cause us to change, large discrepancies will cause us to take hard, opposite – and even sometimes – unreasonable positions. Have you heard people in your workplace take rigid positions on situations – even those situations outside their control – in the misguided belief that positioning will bring it under control?
The loss of jobs, coupled with the dramatic increase in housing foreclosures and the simultaneous huge subsidies for the banking and financial industry all seem unfair and unjust to many people. People became emotional, single-minded and somewhat irrational because they felt they have been wronged. As a result, they are strongly motivated to right the wrong. Isn’t this what happened in our most recent election? Isn’t this the basis of the Tea Party Movement? We are more motivated by loss than we are by gain.
What is a bit scary is how we are persuaded to right the wrong. Even though it would make the most sense to plan a systematic, problem solving approach, with substantial evidence and facts, there is really little support for that approach. When we’re in our limbic system response mode, we are more persuaded by easily processed information, attractively packaged, that addresses our immediate need for action. For example, with all the millions spent on political advertising, we could probably count on one hand the ads that actually described what a candidate would do differently. Instead we heard perceived experts attack the opposition by using fear tactics, name-calling, and negative associations. The goal was to quickly put the candidate into our zone of rejection, motivating us to vote for the opposite candidate in order to right some perceived wrong. This method of persuasion is called heuristic; we are becoming increasingly susceptible to heuristic tactics to influence our decision making.
Right now it is so easy to get into unpleasant arguments with people because it doesn’t take much – in our fight/flight mode – to set us off. I’ve decided that the better option is to see this period of disequilibrium as an opportunity to explore human beings and their behavior: What makes Sarah Palin an attractive leader for some people? Why did Barack Obama have such a dramatic and traumatic fall from grace in two years? Why have people chosen change at any price, even without understanding what the change represents? Will we chose a path of reason – collaboration and compromise – or will the emphasis be on ousting the old for something new? Will reason or rhetoric prevail?
One thing I did like was hearing President Obama acknowledge that his administration had failed by focusing too much on “being busy and getting things done” rather than on balancing the tasks with communication and engaging people in the process. We always talk about this in leadership – the balancing of task, process and relationship – but rarely see such a powerful example of how it would have made all the difference.
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