Can we use moments of pain, adversity and uncertainty to develop better thinking? Fear reduces our cognition to the lowest, crocodile-brain, common denominators. How can we avoid these traps?
When a crisis strikes, the quality of our thinking and decision-making matters. Without firsthand information, panic spreads like wildfire. As a result, we find ourselves unable to think clearly while buried in a deluge of disorienting and disturbing images and sounds from information that is often incomplete or incorrect.
South Africans are reeling from days of protesting, rioting, theft, violence, and looting across the country. There are many reasons why this is happening, and I don’t want to debate them. I don’t want to investigate the roles various people and institutions have played. Nor do I want to attempt to predict what might happen as a result of it. However, I know its effect on me and the people I love, and I need to find something constructive to take out of it or go mad.
Those of us not caught in the violence, patrolling the streets to protect our businesses and homes, or standing in queues to find food, have spent most of the last week buried in our devices. Flicking from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook to news sites and back. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, as if our existence depended on consuming pixels and megabytes. Fear and envy fuel social media
This behaviour doesn’t happen by mistake; it’s by design. Assumption, conjecture, misinformation and vitriol overwhelm balanced analysis. Social media deprioritises high-quality information for clickbait, and mainstream newsmakers compromise on quality because they rely on advertising and subscriptions to support their broadcasts. Deep thought and consideration don’t pay the bills.
We seldom go back after an event like this and evaluate the claims we read, shared, or made. If we took the time, we might be shocked at how few came to pass or were based on fact. Yet, knowing this, I do the same thing time after time. It’s a compulsion, an addiction, even. The data I chose to form my view on the topic was a fraction of the complete picture, but it played a huge role in making sense of the experience. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, but there must be a way to use these patterns and lessons to prevent this emotional and mental spiralling. A personal playbook, if you will.
There are some important and powerful questions that I have started to ask myself. The skill will be quietening myself to ask them in the midst of the chaos rather than after it. I need a tool for analysing my responses to information and a guideline for wading through complexity. I thought I’d share my initial ideas for your consideration and feedback: How confident am I that I have the full picture?
The early moments in a crisis are always uncertain. A shortcut to cushioning that initial shock is choosing information sources that have done some fact-checking and analysis for you. Start forming ideas about what is happening with these. A source in the middle of the political spectrum might take longer to publish but is less likely to push an agenda. If your go-to sources lean far left or right, they’re likely filtering certain information and leading your thinking astray. Or, at the very least, not encouraging you to question your assumptions. Resist the urge to draw conclusions or share news until you’ve done some work to understand the complete picture. Am I upset about what’s happening to me? Or to others?
In the course of many discussions over the last few days, one dear (and very patient friend) said in response to my panicky outbursts, “Life is bristling with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden”, quoting Voltaire. In the context of what’s been happening, I took this to mean that my primary concern should be with the things I can control. If I am concerned on behalf of others, the question should be, why? Did they ask me to be? Is it helping them? Is it helping me? Which of my core beliefs and assumptions are being triggered?
Am I angry? Am I afraid? What am I afraid of? What specific image or sentence or sound caused that emotion? Why might that be? Core beliefs have more influence over how we process information than anything else. They are a lens, a filter, through which we see the world. Sometimes, we share misinformation because it reinforces something we believed long before an incident took place: “ah, you see, this proves my point!”
Identifying these core beliefs, understanding them, interrogating them and using new experiences and information to refine them is a foundational pillar to developing wisdom. How am I balancing the information I’m consuming?
There are two sides to this thought. Firstly, what sources of information – reliable but perhaps not directly aligned with my politics – could offer me a different perspective on this issue? Secondly, how do I balance my exposure to the information? Am I taking a break? Going outside? Walking around? Switching my phone off for a bit? Simple habits like leaving the phone on ring but in the entrance hall. Or, avoiding checking it at night when you wake up can make an enormous difference to your emotional capacity and mental wellbeing.
I know for many of you reading this, the trauma and stress of the last week will be tough to come back from. Apart from the obvious physical, relational and economic trauma many have suffered, there is an equally devastating threat to the quality of our thinking. These moments and how people manipulate them can set us back decades, erasing years of building respect and trust. I know I have work to do to address my thinking, and I hope the thoughts I’ve shared can help you do the same.