Todays Anxious Self

A nation at war, citizens at each others’ throats. General disappointment in the country’s leaders and institutions, and uncertainty about the future.

So matters stood in the United States in October 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” for all the blessings that the country enjoyed. In the midst of the worst war in United States history, the president recommended not grievance, but gratitude. He also asked his constituents to pray for all the war’s “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” — to feel pity, in other words. But not for themselves.

In the 19th century, people readily grasped such a message (that’s one reason Thanksgiving caught on and became an annual ritual). Confidence and clarity could still prevail in the 20th as well, as in 1933, when another president, Franklin Roosevelt, proclaimed that the nation had nothing to fear but fear itself. And in 1997, when South Korea’s people accepted painful economic reforms in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, which led, after a couple of years of sacrifice, to a quick recovery. In dark times, it’s what democratic, free-market societies are supposed to do best: Trust in their leaders, and themselves.

Will the leaders of today and tomorrow be able to do as well?

Every day, the news brings hints that the answer might be “no.” From Europe to Asia to the Americas, the “hottest” stars in media, politics and business peddle fear, suspicion and outright conspiracy theories.

Rather than talking about problems and solutions, for example, the quirky, conservative American TV commentator Glenn Beck tells his 2 million daily viewers to look for conspiracies and hoard food. In Western Europe, “outsider” parties once considered part of the lunatic fringe are gaining support. Out on the streets in France, proposed social-service reforms in October triggered not debate, but wildcat strikes, violence and fuel shortages. And in Great Britain in December, students thought the best way to protest rising tuition charges was to throw bottles at Prince Charles’s car as it drove by on a London street.

Meanwhile, China, a people’s republic where strikes are officially inconceivable, experiences some 100,000 a year.India’s authorities consider that the gravest threat to that country’s democracy is not Islamic terrorism or Pakistani aggression, but home-grown “naxalites” — violent, nominally left-wing guerrillas who are now active in 223 of the nation’s 626 administrative districts (compared with only 55 districts in 2003, according to the journal Global Asia).

Sharing a Dark Mood

All these raging, mistrustful people don’t share a message or idea (in fact, as many have pointed out, angry demonstrators in the European Union want to prevent just the kind of social-welfare budget cuts that angry demonstrators in the United States are demanding). What they share, instead, is a mood: fearful and suspicious, inconsolable and angry.

It’s well known that economic downturns make people less generous and more concerned with their own welfare. But today’s crisis is no Great Depression. In worse times, societies like our own have settled down to work and gotten serious. Instead, today’s prosperous countries are getting panicked. Humanity has never been as rich, as technologically equipped or as well-informed as it is today. Yet leaders in both public and private sectors find themselves contending with fear, mistrust and despair.

The Enlightenment architects of the modern world expected history to march in the opposite direction — toward a saner society, where sensible leadership would be easier. “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy,” the American diplomat and president, John Adams, wrote in 1780, adding that “my sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Food-hoarding and rumor-mongering weren’t on his list.

It’s not unreasonable to expect our information-rich and productive economy to help us deal with a worldwide crisis of confidence. After all, in 2011, unprecedented numbers of people have access to unprecedented technology for gathering and analyzing information. Yet policy discussions are riddled with widely believed untruths. We have the means to communicate with others more quickly and more richly than ever before. But public discourse reeks of mistrust and conspiratorial fantasies — and employees report themselves unhappy and distrustful on the job. (A survey in Singapore found workers there unhappier in 2010 than the year before, despite an economic rebound; meanwhile, a 2009 survey by the Conference Board research group found only 45 percent of Americans “satisfied” with work, a 22-year low.)

Billions of us have more options than any previous generation to control our surroundings and to make ourselves comfortable (What color do you want your iPod? How much fat should go in your latte, or would you prefer soy milk? You want salad with that? We have seven choices of dressing.). Yet we talk, at work and in our communities, of fear and frustration. We have ever more methods, from YouTube to Tumblr, for expressing ourselves completely. But millions feel no one is listening.

Are Our Gadgets to Blame?

To some, all this suggests that we aren’t using our technology and convenience-oriented service economy to its fullest potential. But there’s evidence for a more troubling explanation: It could be that the technological aids and comforts of our time are actually causing the trouble.

Increasingly, it looks as if our information-rich, convenience-laden life makes it harder to face real problems, engage in teamwork and recognize good leadership. It seems obvious in challenging times that faster, richer technology will help to solve problems, or at least make people feel better about them — at work and at home, where “household adoption of new technologies seems to shrug off recessions,” as Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, told a reporter in 2008. But maybe we don’t need new gadgets to solve our problems. Maybe we need a new relationship to the ones we already have.

The trouble with our tools and creature comforts is that they make the world into a menu of choices — they make everything, from the latest natural disaster to a nation’s budget woes, into a story about you, the consumer. Consider, for instance, the way we speak about shocking events, like the assassination of JFK, the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London and Madrid. “Where were you?” we ask. “I was in the office, when someone said ‘Turn on the news’…”

Once, not long ago, people didn’t do this. Of course, people in the first half of the 20th century could remember the sinking of the Titanic or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They just didn’t say what they were doing, or how they felt. As the media critic Thomas de Zengotita points out, there’s a big difference between asking “What was it like when that happened?” and “What was I like when that happened?”

What defines the dividing line between these two views of reality, de Zengotita points out in his book “Mediated,” is a culture of consumer convenience and media availability. Its first and most obvious harbinger was television.

“People who just heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio and read about it in the papers didn’t feel inclined to tell those stories because it didn’t feel as if it had happened to them, personally, at all,” he writes. But by the time of the Kennedy assassination, television news was filling the airwaves with images and information that people could not get on the scene. In some ways, it was more complete, more intense than physically being there.

Seeing the world through that kind of media doesn’t just give you a good seat, though. It also orients you differently to the information, for this simple reason: People who are physically present during some catastrophe don’t have any choices. Events happen to them.

Not so the people taking in the story on a television, or smartphone, or Web site (or all three). Those who consume the news have control over it. They’ll keep watching if they want to — if the images are compelling, if the story somehow relates to them — but they can also click over to something else. The event isn’t happening to them, like it or not. It’s an experience they choose to have, or to avoid. Instead of an event controlling them, it’s the consumers who control the event.

This is enjoyable, of course. Most all of us like being able to specify the kind of latte we’ll get, the color of our music player, the picture on the computer desktop, lots of news about our favorite college football team and nothing about basketball, because that’s how I like it, never mind what other people think. But recent research indicates that this expansive modern creature that de Zengotita calls “the flattered self” is more difficult to lead in tough times.

An experiment by the psychologists John M. Darley and Dan Batson illustrates this instability. Its guinea pigs were all students at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thinking they had been assigned to give a talk, each student was heading across campus when the real experiment began: They stumbled across what looked like an injured stranger. Would they stop to help?

Well, that depended on what they’d been told by the researchers just before. Of those who had been told that they were already late, only one in 10 stopped to assist the “victim.”’ In contrast, those who thought they had just enough time were more charitable; more than 40 percent of them stopped. Meanwhile, a third bunch, who’d been given more than enough time, were even kinder, with six in 10 lending a helping hand. It made no difference that all these students were future ministers; nor did their different philosophies and religious convictions (measured by questionnaires) predict what they’d do. It didn’t even make a difference that half of them were about to give their talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The only reliable predictor of their behavior was how much time pressure they felt at the moment.

That’s the problem with using yourself as the measure of all things — your “self” is always changing. So, despite all the effort that goes into pleasing, the flattered self is an anxious, fearful soul. Without a constant standard, how can we be sure we chose right? That unread e-mail, that undownloaded blog post, could be as important as the matters you did attend to. How can you know for sure? Your measure of importance is yourself, and your self, unlike the hard facts of the world, is always changing.

When a person makes his or her own tastes and needs the measure of all things, these kinds of mood swings color all experience. How can we be sure we chose correctly, when our outlook changes from hour to hour?

The Option Problem

That’s one reason researchers have found that having many options often makes people less happy or less effective. Over the course of many experiments, Sheena S. Iyengar, a psychologist and professor at Columbia Business School, has found that people given four to six options make sounder decisions, and are happier with their choices, than people given 20 or 30. That’s true, she has found, not only in grocery stores and car showrooms, but in scenes of “tragic choice” in hospitals. In France, she reports, parents of terminally ill infants are usually told that doctors had made the painful decision to remove their babies from life support. But American practice is to leave the decision in the hands of the parents. Iyengar interviewed these parents in both nations, and found a sharp difference: The French ones, who felt the choice was out of their hands, were healing well. The Americans, who had to weigh all the medical options themselves, scored much more poorly on measures of psychological health and well-being.

Anxiety and fear, of course, have bad effects on people’s ability to think clearly and work together. At the most basic level, these emotions sap our resources.

The brain’s computing capacity, and its glucose “fuel supply,” are finite. When it spends fuel and attention on anxiety, it has less of both to spend on careful, conscious thought. That’s why experiments on self-control have found that people asked to enforce self-discipline — for example, to avoid eating cookies before a math test — do less well than those who didn’t have to practice self-control first. As the social psychologists Matthew Gailliot and Roy F. Baumeister wrote in 2007, “Willpower is more than a metaphor.”

In moments when rational thought is too hard, people fall back on built-in hunches and rules of thumb — including the “heuristics and biases” whose description won Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. When reason’s better angels are tired, for example, we prefer short-term results (like a cookie right now) to long-term benefits (like a retirement free of heart disease). We see risks more easily than opportunities. And we see stereotypes of race, gender, class and age — instead of individuals.

This effect has been measured by psychologists. For example, Gailliot, Baumeister and their colleagues had Florida college students sip lemonade and then write an essay about a day in the life of a gay man. For half, the drink contained real sugar (thus boosting their body’s fuel supply); others got Splenda. The ones who drank real sugar used fewer stereotypes about homosexuals. Other psychologists have found a similar effect by studying glucose depletion. People who ran hard on a treadmill, for instance, used stereotypes more.

Put the different pieces together, and the research is a picture of human nature as kindling, all ready for the fires of fear. And modern technology acts like a match. First, a choice-laden, information-saturated lifestyle promotes anxiety (and then, when we turn to shopping or the Web for comfort, promotes more anxiety, in a highly negative feedback loop). Second, the impulses triggered by that loop are easier than ever to gratify, thanks to our modern tools of self-assertion. It’s not just easier today to feel fear; it’s also easier than ever to indulge it.

Voting with Their Feet

Gone is the time when people were forced to hear news they disliked, or contemplate facts that annoyed them. Products and services aren’t sold by telling people to “like it or lump it”; instead, commerce moves by encouraging us all to take life the way we want it.

One of the clearest examples of this trend is the way people with “flattered selves” have voted with their feet: The period in which people have felt entitled to “have it my way” has also been the period in which people stopped associating with different kinds of people. The United States, with its tradition of high mobility, shows the greatest change. In 1976, as Bill Bishop has pointed out in “The Big Sort,” only about a quarter of the U.S. population lived in a “landslide county”: a jurisdiction where either the Democratic or Republican candidate for president had gotten an overwhelming percentage of the vote. The rest of the citizenry lived in a place that reflected the nation’s close-to 50-50 split. By the 2004 election, though, nearly half of the population lived in a landslide county. The culture of choice and “having it your way” has spurred people to “cluster” into communities where they don’t have to see, hear or compromise with those of different views.

That kind of clustering creates another feedback loop. As Bishop says, “like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.” As we become more and more able to pick our companions, at work, in life and on the Web, these “group polarization” effects are making us blind to the views of others. “The antidote to group polarization is mixed company,” Bishop writes. “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes.” But the more accustomed we are to having our surroundings under control, the less mixed company we’ll accept.

Finally, there is another reason to worry about the ease with which technology lets us “silo” into only those communities that suit our tastes. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and medical sociologist at Harvard, and his longtime collaborator, James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, have found that our social networks influence our lives in ways we cannot perceive.

These effects are significant to three degrees of separation: They involve not only each person’s friends and acquaintances, but also her friends’ friends. Christakis and Fowler have found, for example, that if a friend of a friend of yours takes up smoking, you are 11 percent more likely to take up the habit. Similarly, when they examined long-term data on lifestyle and heart-attack risks in a Massachusetts town, the pair found that having friends whose own friends were obese would increase a person’s risk of being obese himself. On a larger scale, the economist David G. Blanchflower and his colleagues, using Eurobarometer data from 29 European nations, found that obesity spreads through social networks there, too.

But social networks aren’t all bad. They transmit many positive social habits in the same way. Christakis and Fowler have found, for instance, that cooperative behavior will “cascade” through a social network: One person’s cooperative behavior is linked to similar deeds not only in their acquaintances, but in their acquaintances’ acquaintances.

Our information-rich, choice-filled lifestyle is famous, of course, for Facebook, Twitter, texting and many other methods for expanding a person’s social network. But all those tools are aids to connecting with people whom you want to be in touch with. Unlike brick-and-mortar institutions — school, for instance, or the workplace — our social tools bring us face to face only with those we choose, the people we’re comfortable with.

So while today’s wired citizen is as social as his ancestors, he’s not social in the same way: He’s not spending time in mixed company. If your social network is limited to people whom you chose and whom you feel comfortable with, you’re less susceptible to influence from other citizens. Which makes it easier to ignore them, stereotype them or mistrust them. Another feedback loop: Mistrust reduces contact with others, which breeds more mistrust, and so the spiral continues.

The Case for Less

What’s a leader to do? No one (well, almost no one) wants to return to the technology and economy of 1933 or of 1863. How can you get your people to use their tools and exercise their choices in a way that calms them down, rather than riling them up?

Here’s one possibility: Limit choices. Don’t feel bad about it. Many times, as Iyengar has found, choice is a psychic burden and its absence is a relief.

And here’s another suggestion that may sound crazy: Use the tools, but use them completely. With access to constant information on multiple platforms, there’s no excuse for employees (or citizens) to tune out part of the spectrum. The analyst whose reports you don’t like, the commentator whose ideas you hate — they’re your insurance against siloing. It’s tempting, when time is short, to avoid “mixed company.” But giving in will make teamwork harder (and who knows what information you’ll miss).

Finally, tell your people: “It’s not about you.” Being a consumer is fun, but there are times when we’re workers, and times when we’re citizens — times, in other words, when the whole point of our activities is that we don’t get to pick the meeting place, the agenda or the mission. It’s not about intimidating people or making them feel bad; it’s just about exchanging the flattery of a shopping trip for the respect of a duty performed, and a job well done. Your people will probably be less anxious and mistrustful. They may also feel relieved.

Of course, it won’t be an easy job. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson has pointed out, anxiety can be as hard to quit as nicotine: “We find comfort in anxiety because it engrosses our attention, which we have in surplus, and are usually at a loss to employ,” she writes. “And anxiety is a stimulant, like love, like hatred.” Spurred by the feeling, we seek out more comfort, more information, more control, which only make us more anxious, not less. It is, as Robinson says, “as if we took morphine to help us sleep on a bed of nails.”

Using these modern conveniences makes us feel better short-term. Trouble is, they’re making us worse off in the long term. Consider a potent symbol of modern-convenience culture: tasty, inexpensive food, prepared whenever and however you want it. It’s hard to resist, and after all, don’t we all deserve to feel good? Yet a recent NATO study of Dutch Army soldiers found that many were overweight and at risk for high blood pressure and dangerous cholesterol levels —and that the problems were greatest in young people, not over-40 officers and non-coms. Then, too, the U.S. military has declared that 25 percent of those who apply to join are simply too fat to fight. These young people are comfortable today, but they won’t help their nation, nor live as long or as healthily as they could have. Unless they change.

So to the familiar jobs of a leader (inspiration, management, vision, example-setting) today’s information-convenience culture adds another: Weaning people from their dangerous comforts. Before a 21st century leader can metaphorically lead troops or manage colleagues or inspire followers, he or she has to cure addicts.

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David Berreby writes the blog Mind Matters at Bigthink.com and is the author of “Us and Them: The Science of Identity” (University of Chicago Press, 2008). His writing about science and human behavior has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, Discover, Strategy + Business, The Huffington Post and many other publications.