“May you live in interesting times.” This quote was supposed to originate from a Chinese curse, and as we approach the halfway point of 2020, you could be excused for seeing the reasons why.
Teachers are famously annoying for saying that you can turn any problem can into a ‘learning opportunity.’ This piece aims to not only show this to be true for the events of 2020 but also explain why you feel so annoyed when you are told that.
Emotions are behaviour drivers (or influencers). From an evolutionary perspective, they are there to help us survive to reproduce. However, from an emotional intelligence point of view, it’s crucial to consider the other half of this process, conscious thought. What we think and what we feel are intermeshed, and they have a massive impact on each other. They are not the same thing, however, and this is where emotional intelligence is born.
To explain all of this I hope that we can dispel some common misconceptions. The first is that aiming to understand emotion means that you are trying to do away with them. That emotions are somehow wrong, or that you can replace feeling with logic.
The truth is far more complicated, but nothing to do with eliminating emotion. The simple reason for this is that you do not choose to have feelings. So where do feelings come from?
We are going to consider three of the major contributors to emotion, namely, evolution, circumstances and conditioning. We have evolved (or rather, we have been naturally selected) because instincts have helped our ancestors to survive to reproduce. These instincts drive us by using two simple levers, things we like and things we don’t. Some of these instincts are quite easy to understand, having a healthy respect for creatures with big teeth, for example. Fear of the unknown is another straight-forward protective mechanism; however, others though are more subtle. It is at this point where the frisbee comes in (I’m sure you were wondering).
K.D. Kipling is a psychologist from the US, and in the mid 80’s he was in a park when a stray frisbee came to rest by him. When he threw it back, he momentarily became part of the game, passing the frisbee back and forth a few times. Then suddenly the two other players of the game stopping throwing the frisbee in his direction. He had been excluded. Now given the tiny amount of time that he was involved in the game, he was struck by the depth of his emotional response.
We are social animals, and evolution’s method for keeping us this way is to make us really not like being excluded. It hurts, and Kipling went on to study the pain of exclusion as a result of his encounter. Another, almost contradictory instinct, centres on the idea of dominance. We exist in groups because it is safer, but within those groups, we are all in competition for resources. Any high school teacher can watch these forces play out in the cliques and one-upmanship of school life, as well as the reaction to being told what to do.
An illustration of the nastier consequences of evolutionary forces is seen in the humble vole. Experiments examining the levels of oxytocin (aka the love hormone) in these animals have shown how the biochemical empathy responses to other voles decrease the more distantly related they are. These results potentially give a biochemical basis for the concept of ‘us and them’.
Why is all of this important now? We are living through a highly emotional time. The pandemic and its consequences will have raised the global cortisol (a stress hormone) levels significantly. It is no coincidence that more conspiracy theories are flying right now. Logic is less important. People want to feel that they have control, to not be told what to do. Instead, there is helplessness. Throw in the most visual representation of dominance you can think of in the form George Floyds murder and the world was always going to erupt.
George is at the end of a massive line of racial injustices, stretching back forever. There are, however, significant reasons, why now is different. Lockdown, perversely, may have created the perfect conditions for change. Normally, voices for change lose their volume because of a lack of momentum. People are too scared of change, and what it might cost them. Speaking out, carries the risk of being the only one, and that leads to another fear, that of exclusion.
The fear of change has dropped. The world has just gone through the fastest, most significant change in human history. The whole of the market system just ground to a halt, and the sky didn’t fall in. The world has been forced to adapt, and this means that change is possible. Now the fear of exclusion has gone as well. The anxiety associated with lockdown has shifted the balance, and suddenly it is the quiet majority that is screaming.
The realisation they are having is that most people are good and we are the same, and there is inclusivity to that. They want to get on, and they want to be nice to each other, to have the same things for their families. This statement may sound glib on the surface, but it is very far from that. It is fear that drives the idea that we need to dominate people, fear of what they might do.
The fact that people have to scream the idea that Black Lives Matter shows how far we are away from that in reality. Change is needed in the structures and the relationships that run our world. Underneath it all, we all have our fears but now is the chance to move past our most ingrained and damaging demons. If we can take this opportunity and show that we can achieve new ways of doing things without the sky falling in, then just imagine what is possible.