Keep Your Friends Close…: Technology and the Politics of Fear

Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2016 was one of those paradigm-shifting conference experiences for me. Before PDF, I tended to hear technophilic, almost Pollyannaish narratives about how technology can make our lives- and our civic lives – better. I was clearly behind the times because I now see the narrative shifting and morphing into a much more challenging, questioning viewpoint that might be best described by the saying “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

In almost every talk I heard, technology and the digital economy was described as a double-edged sword, as a way to ignite change, but with high potential costs, and full of booby traps. Those who create technology? A mixed bag at best. Anil Dash didn’t mince words when he called the technocrats and Silicon Valley billionaires liars and the new robber barons. Kentaro Toyama compared the digital economy to The Matrix, in which our personal data is the lifeblood of same Silicon Valley billionaire evil robot overlords.

I have to admit that I take grim pleasure in the aptness of these metaphors, and have uttered identical words myself. However, it is also clear that these ideas are polarizing and, like extremism in politics, privilege emotions above logic to drive more fractious and divisive discourse. Luna Malbroux’s hilarious talk about “EquiTable,” a faux app she developed to create dialogue about social justice and equity, is a nice example of how to break away from bitter recriminations and instead to use humor as a powerful weapon for change.

But if technology is a very sharp double-edged sword, how do we wield it without cutting ourselves?  How do we, as Yvette Alberdingk Thijm described in her talk about using technology as civic witnesses, harness technology for good without allowing others to use it against us.

Keep your friends close…

PDF yielded many ideas and solutions. I mention only a few below (including mine). I was particularly interested in those ideas and solutions demanding that technology serve humanistic goals and that the well-being of people be part and parcel of how we design and build technology. To do this, we have to open our eyes and take a cold, hard look at how our romance with technology has caused us to take our hands off the wheel (no pun with driverless cars intended).

My talk (text can be found here) centered on technology and mental health. I argued that the psychological and emotional nature of the tech we build is not peripheral or ancillary – it is fundamental to shaping how we use tech for healing. Right not, technology and digital culture is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention and our emotional brains for the economic benefit of its creators – this is the basis of the attention economy. To gather, mine, and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, swiping, checking, clutching our devices, hoping to hear the next best thing, to feel connected, soothed, and understood. This is counter to health promotion, and creates imbalance instead of balance, weakness instead of strength. The notion that technology is designed to high jack our brains was beautifully and compelling described in a blog post just a few days after PDF by Tristan Harris.

I ended my talk with a call to action, that we must reclaim the technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the attention economy. We must further anchor this new culture in key values, including the value that our attention is sacred and valuable,  not just the coin of the realm. We must own and be responsible for how we spend our precious attention.

Sherry Turkle observed how our excitement over the rapid pace of technological advances makes us forget some fundamental, common-sense things we know about life. For example, after research suggesting that self-reported declines in empathy among millennials could be caused by growing use of social media and digital communication, one researcher’s solution was to build an “empathy app.” Why would we ever think that technology could make us more empathic, that the thing that might have caused declines in empathy could also be the solution? Dr. Turkle described how many aspects of digital technology actually allow us to effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships.” Solution – we need to reclaim common sense and realize that we are the empathy app, as Dr. Turkle quipped.

danah boyd called our attention to the immense ethical disconnect in how the digital infrastructure of our civic lives – code – is constructed.  This is an industry in “perpetual beta” and thus there are few if any standards, audits, or inspections of code. There also is little consideration of the resources taken up to maintain the immense glut of data generated every day, and little awareness of how bias and inaccuracy are built into data analytics.  These questions are of the utmost importance because an increasing number of decisions in our personal and civic lives are being made based on algorithms and digital profiling.  She exhorts us to be careful of how and what we code.

…but keep your enemies closer

As in everything, knowledge is power. I felt that we at PDF, speakers, participants, and audience alike, implicitly but universally agreed to keep our eyes open, to look our crush, technology, in the face and see that she may not be on our side anymore but to hope that it’s not too late. Technology is empowering, BUT…. We all agreed to spend more time on the “buts,” as well as on the when, how, and under what conditions we can reclaim technology for humanity. In his PDF talk, Kentaro Toyama evoked the great Isaac Asimov and the First Law of Robotics from Asimov’s “I, Robot” (A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm). In Asimov’s universe, the powers of technology are at their fundamental core designed and harnessed for the benefit of people. I believe that we must and can insist that our technology conform to this higher standard, and that with this as a guiding light, we can wield the double-edged sword of technology for more good than ill.

Calming the Politics of Fear: Technology and the Anxious Brain

“Calming the Politics of Fear: Technology and the Anxious Brain” is my talk from Personal Democracy Forum 2016 (June 10, 2016), adapted here for a written format. This talk was part of a set of talks entitled “Tools We Need.” I argue that using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, and that we must reclaim technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the digital economy. The video of the talk is available here.

Threat Bias

I became a psychologist and a researcher because I wanted to help people overcome problems like anxiety and depression. But I quickly discovered that no one likes you when you are a mental health professional. Psychologists pry into people’s minds and tell you it’s your mother’s fault. Psychiatrists prescribe you drugs with terrible side effects and that emotionally numb you. It’s no coincidence that Hannibal Lector is a psychiatrist.

And that’s when I got it. We psychologists and psychiatrists have profoundly failed people. We have failed to give people the treatments they need – and instead give people treatments that are too expensive, too time consuming, too hard to access, and perhaps most importantly, deeply stigmatizing. Largely because of us, people fear that their hearts and minds will never heal and that will continue to feel broken inside.

I believe that digital technology can offer us some unique ways out of this mess, and provide tools for both professionals and each of us as individuals to heal problems like anxiety and depression.

But I also believe that using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, with high potential costs as well as benefits.

In my research lab, we study things called cognitive biases – invisible habits of thinking and paying attention that intensify and even cause anxiety, depression, and addiction. I’ve translated this research into digital techniques that are designed to short circuit cognitive biases.

Let me explain cognitive biases by conducting a little experiment. Please fix your eyes on the screen. [[The following picture flashed up on the screen for 2 seconds]]

angry face

How many of you saw the angry face? How many didn’t? The results of our experiment?: Decades of research tell us that people who tend to be anxious or stressed detect that angry face more quickly, and pay attention to it longer and intensely than people who are relatively less anxious and stressed.

This preference to pay attention to and prioritize the negative is called the threat bias.  And here’s the kicker. The threat bias piggybacks on one of the triumphs of evolution – the ability to quickly and automatically notice danger, which in turn triggers us to fight or take flight to deal with the danger.

But the threat bias highjacks and skews this evolutionary advantage. It acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prefer and prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety – We see monsters in the closet even when they’re not there.

For example, imagine you’re giving a talk, like I am now, and there is a smart audience in front of you, bright lights beaming down. If I had an amped-up threat bias, I would very quickly and intensely notice that there is this one person in the audience who is frowning, shaking his or her head, maybe falling asleep. I will fail to notice all the interested and smiling faces in the audience, and get stuck on this person. The natural result – I feel more anxious and stressed, I am on the look-out for further negative information, and I ignore positive evidence that I’m doing a good job.

In this way, the threat bias drives the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, takes up mental bandwidth, and puts us at a disadvantage when there is no real danger to face, when the monsters in the closet are only in our mind.

Personal Zen

Now, this threat bias doesn’t sound so great. Not great at all. But I love the threat bias and other cognitive biases. That is because there is an empowering message hidden in the idea of cognitive biases. Biases are essentially habits. When we have a bad habit, we are not broken inside – to change, we just need to learn a new habit.

So I have spent a good part of my 20-year career studying how we can derail cognitive biases like the threat bias, learn new habits to heal the anxious brain, and translate these techniques into a digital format.

Over these 20 years as a researcher, I’ve done all the things that a researcher is supposed to do, and enjoyed the process: received grants, run dozens of studies, published over fifty scientific papers on everything from the emotional lives of children to the neuroscience of the anxious brain, became a full, tenured professor at the City University of New York, where I founded the Emotion Regulation Lab, The Center for Stress, Anxiety and Resilience, and the Center for Health Technology and Wellness.

But I only really began to make progress and question how my research on cognitive biases was making a difference when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was talking to my husband about how I felt stuck, and that maternity leave was going to be my chance to think outside the box and he says, “Why don’t you build an app for that?” An app, I said – that’s ridiculous. There are too many “apps for that,” ugh.

But, he got me thinking that maybe this really was a way to do things differently.

Enter attention bias modification, a technique I study in my lab and that takes the threat bias and turns it on its head. Attention bias modification sounds a little like this:

clockwork orange

But I promise you, it’s not. Attention bias modification uses simple computerized techniques to rebalance the scales of attention to create a new habit of preferring and prioritizing the positive over the negative. It is perfectly suited to digital and mobile technology because it’s brief, cheap & easily accessible, and doesn’t require a shrink.

I’ve created an app called Personal Zen that embeds these techniques into an engaging, on-the-go format. Here is how it works – We see both an angry and pleasant sprite quickly pop up in a field of grass. The sprites then burrow down into the field, but only the pleasant sprite leaves a trail of grass. Our task is to trace that windy trail. Because the angry and pleasant sprite appear at exactly the same time, our brain is forced to figure out what to pay attention to. By ALWAYS following the trail of the pleasant sprite, our brains learn to automatically focus on the positive and disengage from the negative. We start building a new habit of attention. Follow the joy.

Picture1

It’s deceptively simplistic, but clinical trials show that using Personal Zen and the attention bias modification techniques it is based on effectively rewires our brains to disengage from the negative and focus more on the positive – and this translates into reducing stress and anxiety after as little as single use of the app.

The Politics of Technology and Fear

So Personal Zen is a technology-based way to help heal the anxious brain. Yet, I simultaneously believe that the digital technology culture as it stands now is also one of the most surefire ways to amp UP the threat bias and make our anxious brains worse.

We mediate our lives through mobile and digital technology – we know this, it’s how we filter the tremendous complexity of our lives. But we are living in an attention economy in which news organizations, businesses, and our social networks are constantly pinging, ringing, and texting us, competing for our rapidly dwindling bandwidth of attention. We are on a digital mental treadmill. Corporations spend millions figuring out how to best keep us on that treadmill by high jacking and seducing our emotional brains, how to reward us, titillate us, and scare us into looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, and how to mine, use, and sell our personal data.

The politics of fear are finding fertile soil in this attention economy, with fear-mongering politicians using these same techniques to drive opinion and votes, to amp up our anxieties and fears. The only good voter is an anxious voter.

The digital mental health field as it stands is not much better. There are thousands of mental health apps on the market, but fewer than 1% have ANY scientific evidence base. So, it’s essentially the Wild West, full of snake oil salesmen. This is tough on us consumers. How do we find the signal in the noise? The FTC’s crackdown on digital brain training companies like Lumosity, which was fined millions for unfounded medical claims, is a sign of the times.

The Future is Now

But let’s turn to the future.

It is crucial that at this key moment in time, we envision a new and revolutionary future for the role of technology in health. That future has to be now, and we have no time to waste. The digital technology culture in which health care is evolving is consciously and relentlessly designed to brain hack, co-opting our anxious brains, our addicted brains, our bored and restless brains. We have to disrupt the digital disruption of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, the human race has been brain hacking for millennia, shaping and mediating how we view and make sense of reality – through language, religion, the arts, politics, education…. Along come radical advances in digital computing and now we have another tool – but it is a tool that should NOT be privileged above others. And we must take a cold, hard look at how in some contexts, the costs of these digital tools outweigh the benefits, leading to information overload, greater anxiety, and social disconnection.

So I say, let’s step off the digital mental treadmill. We all know ways to do this, ways as simple as silencing the endless rings and buzzes of our notifications, turning off our devices during meals with our family and friends, and minimizing the time as family, parents, and friends, our loved ones see the back of our devices rather than our faces. When we take these steps, we treat our attention as sacred and precious, as a resource to be spent wisely. These values must be front and center when we design and use health technology.

I challenge all of us today to reclaim technology to heal the anxious brain and heal the culture of fear: Designers, help us streamline screen time – less time with eyeballs on the screen – and design technology that facilitate our ability to live truly connected and fulfilling lives; Consumers, demand digital health tools with scientific backing and be conscious of how you’re spending your precious, precious attention; Politicians, draw on the best rather than the worst aspects of the attention economy. The only good voter is an informed voter. If we do these things, together, we will create the tools we need.

Never Mind Lean In: Here’s Precisionism

Picture this. A recruiter is reviewing job applications. There are two applicants who have the same area of expertise, identical levels of experience, and equally great letters of recommendation. One of them is named Jane, and one of them is named John. The recruiter has to decide without meeting them who to hire, who is the most competent and capable.

Research shows that the recruiter is more likely to hire John, just on the basis of his being a John rather than a Jane. This research further suggests that you and I might do the same, whether or not we are a man or woman making the decision.

This largely invisible bias is but one example of what women face in the workforce. How do we deal with these implicit and subtle biases – let alone with the egregious and explicit misogyny that still exists? Some have touted the concept coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean In” as a solution.

I want to argue here that “Leaning In” is exactly NOT the way to combat bias against women in the workforce or elsewhere. I also want to contrast it with an alternate concept I’ve developed called Precisionism, which I’ve written about here.

Lean In

Let’s start with Lean In. Sheryl Sandburg parlayed her TED talk on why we have too few women leaders into a book call “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”, and then into a Lean In movement. The focus of Lean In is on “… encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do.” Yet almost immediately upon its release, Lean In was critiqued as “faux feminism” with The Guardian going so far as to refer to Lean In as “an infantilising, reactionary guide for ambitious women.”

Moreover, Bell Hooks in her critique “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” argues that Lean In ignores “the concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce and fails to call for much-needed social change, instead providing women advice on how to become successful within existing conditions.”  In this sense, she argues that Sandberg’s stance on gender equality in the workplace is “agreeable to those who wield power in our society – wealthy white men – in a seemingly feminist package….”

One of my favorite quotes on the Lean In ideology is this comment from software engineer Kete Heddleston: “Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.”

Sandberg herself acknowledged that she didn’t truly understand the plight of single moms who cannot blithely Lean In, who do not have the extreme economic advantages that she herself enjoys.

canary in coal mine.3

Precisionism

Enter Precisionism. The basic premise of Precisionism is that many women possess a deeply-rooted drive for excellence that is different from the way men are socialized to pursue excellence. I call this drive for excellence Precisionism because while it shares some aspects of perfectionism, it does not involve unrealistically high standards or feelings of failure. Instead, a Precisionist assumes that s/he is good enough to strive towards the highest standard of excellence, even if it is never quite reached. A Precisionist has the capacity to go deep, to focus on getting the details right and noticing what others fail to notice. A Precisionist sees patterns that others miss, and draws on intuition to transcend current limitations and think outside the box.  A Precisionist also knows that mistakes are an opportunity for growth. A psychologist, Harriet Braiker, got to the heart of this when she wrote: “Striving for excellence motivates you. Striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

Therefore, women should NOT model themselves after predominant, male models of how to succeed, lead, and work effectively. Instead, women should set new standards and capitalize on their unique drive for excellence.

Although Lean In tells women to fight for their seat at the table, the underlying message is that to do so we have to accommodate the status quo. Precisionism in contrast, like the seminal punk rock album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols’ tells us to disrupt long-held beliefs and to be ready with an open mind for something new.  Let’s be ready for new ideas about what makes a person a great leader, powerful, and valuable.

So, ladies, never mind Lean In. It’s precisely the right time for new perspectives on how to take a seat at the table – and to do so by being the ones who set the agenda and lead the conversation.

Precisionism or: How Women Can Rule the World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated worlds of technology and academia. I have a foot in both worlds and have noticed an uptick in discussion about how women are, unintentionally, holding themselves back. Excessive perfectionism might be one of these self-imposed barriers.

But there is a form of perfectionism – what I term Precisionism – that is instead a source of persistence and power in women, and should be cultivated.

Perfectionism seems like it should be a good thing, but from a psychological standpoint, it has a dark side. Perfectionism is defined as “the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.” Clearly, this is a perfect storm of self-defeating beliefs, and doesn’t leave room for growth. Many argue that women have this toxic form of perfectionism in spades, indeed are socialized to think of themselves as failing if they aren’t 100% perfect. My friend Reshma Saujani gave a great TED talk on this dark side of perfectionism in women.

That isn’t, however, all there is to perfectionism. Toxic perfectionism can be dispensed with and what’s left over – striving towards excellence – can be amplified and cultivated in women.

This is what I call Precisionism and it has three guiding principles:

  1. Strive to be good enough rather than perfect. A Precisionist assumes that s/he is good enough to strive towards the highest standard of excellence, even if it is never quite reached. In contrast, if a perfectionist doesn’t reach the highest standard, s/he feels worthless. Thomas Edison was one of the great Precisionists, and said, “I have not failed, not once.  I’ve succeeded in discovering ten thousand ways that don’t work.”
  1. Focus on depth rather than reach. A Precisionisthas the capacity to go deep, to focus on getting the details right and noticing what others fail to notice. A Precisionist sees patterns that others miss, and draws on intuition to transcend current limitations and think outside the box. A Precisionist is rarely a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. A Precisionist is masterful.
  1. Embrace self-critique and come out stronger for it. A Precisionist knows that mistakes are an opportunity for growth. Decades of psychology research support this idea. A learning style focused on growth of knowledge and skills rather than on end-goals (e.g., grades, money) fosters accelerated learning, achievement, and creativity.

 

black-iris

Black Iris III, 1926, Georgia O’Keefe

As much as I’d like to take credit for coining the term Precisionism, in fact the first art movement native to the U.S. was called Precisionism. Characterized by sharply defined, almost photo-realistic images, Precisionism had a huge impact on other far-reaching artistic movements such as magic realismpop art, and photorealism,  Precisionist artists include Charles Demuth and perhaps more famously, Georgia O’Keefe.

Precisionist artists were visionaries, trend-setters, and disrupters. They were thought leaders. We need more Precisionists in the world today.

But let me be clear. While cultivating Precisionism, we should still place a high-powered microscope over how we raise and socialize our girls. There is compelling evidence that women’s professional progress can be slowed in extremely subtle, almost invisible ways. There is also good reason to believe that girls are socialized to play it safe for fear of failure, whereas boys are encouraged to shoot from the hip, do things by the seat of the pants, bravely “jump off the jungle gym.” There is face validity to this idea. For example, men will apply for jobs that they are only 60% qualified for. Women won’t apply unless they meet almost all the qualifications.

However, I read this statistic differently than many would. Some may call men in this case brave, bold, and confident. I call them sloppy. I don’t think that women should “lean in” and apply for a job for which they’re barely half qualified. Instead, they should cultivate Precisionism, apply for a job they’re 75% qualified for, crush the job interview, and grab that job by the horns.

Is rigid perfectionism holding some women back? Certainly, but the solution to this problem is NOT to shoot from the hip, put style over substance, or make mistakes because you’re moving too quickly or are under-qualified for a job. The solution is to cultivate Precisionism. We as a society are suffering from a serious shortage of Precisionism and we need to infuse MORE, not less, Precisionism into our professional and civic lives. When people say, “It would be great if women ran the world” I think this is part of what they mean.

We are in the midst of a paradigm-shift in which we are refusing to ignore the glass ceilings women face, and women are on the rise in politics, culture, business, and technology. Women — let us be brave and refuse to disavow one of our signature strengths, Precisionism. After all, it’s no coincidence that women are [almost] always right.

A Conversation with Lisa Garr

 

Lisa Garr Show Icon

 

 

I had a great time speaking with Lisa Garr about Personal Zen and the Digital Mental Health Revolution on the Aware Show.

Dear Lumosity

 

Dear Lumosity,

I want to break up with you. After all, you’re a cheat and a liar. But I’m not going to let you off that easily. Why? Call me foolish, call me naïve. But I have to believe that there is good in you yet and I’m going to stick with you, through better or worse.

lumosity

And now, it’s definitely worse.  It’s been a couple of months since the truth came out – that you “deceived consumers with unfounded claims that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.” Ouch. This from no less than the Federal Trade Commission. They saw through your deception and fined you millions for it. I wish I could say I saw this coming, but my feelings blinded me.

And I did come to you with many strong and deeply-felt emotions but you decided to prey upon my fears – of not performing at my peak, of growing old, of my brain not working as quickly or well as it used to, even of developing serious health issues like Alzheimer’s disease. I was at a vulnerable point and was desperate to believe in you and your overblown claims. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I fell for it, actually thought that you could help me turn back the clock. But it felt so good to play your little games, to believe that I could change for the better. You seduced me.

The Standard Center for Longevity saw the warning signs back in 2014 – they issued a Consensus Statement on the brain training industry from the scientific community, stating that the industry lacks any compelling scientific evidence that their products will reverse cognitive slowing and forgetfulness, improve everyday functioning, or help to prevent dementia. But I ignored the red flags, believing that, for me at least, you would be different.

Can anyone ever really change? I have to believe it’s possible because, despite the betrayal, I believe you could be so much more than you are, Lumosity. And I think there are concrete steps you could take on the road to redemption.

First, get some real scientific validation. It’s possible you don’t know this, although it seems like you have a bazillion scientists working for you, but saying something is science-based SHOULD MEAN that you and other independent scientists have conducted rigorous scientific studies on your own brain training games and show with A HIGH DEGREE OF CERTAINTY that your actual products generalize to real life – that means, remembering where I left my car keys, performing better at work or school (not just on your computer games), or showing actual biological signs that the ol’ brain is working better. With all your money and all your testimonials (solicited through contests that promised prizes), you don’t have a bit of data that the FTC considered compelling. You need to turn this around.

Second, consider an open relationship. Lumosity, let’s see other people. You’re not meant to be in a monogamous relationship. Even with scientific evidence, why would you ever think you could make a person smarter, happier, and healthier, all on your own? You do best when you’re a really good friend – dare I say a fling? – to a person already in a committed relationship. Take for example my relationship with exercise. The single best “treatment” for physical and mental deterioration is physical activity. I’d like to focus on this relationship, and others probably should, too. Why don’t you just offer to help out on the side, give us something fun and engaging to do in our down time. You’re supposed to be a tool – and I don’t mean that kind of tool. I mean a tool that we can use when we need it, to complement the other tools we use to live well.

Third, stick to what you’re good at. You’re good at creating brief and engaging games, but you’re also really good at generating interesting data and connecting people since you’re digital. Focus more on mining that data to create more effective products, and better yet, foster the creation of communities that help people make all-around healthier choices. Instead you’ve been focusing on creating co-dependent relationships. Someone has to break it to you, so it might as well be me – screen time can only take you so far. You and other kinds of health technology need to rethink your approach. Stop taking our time, distracting us and instead get out of the way and help people spend their time well and in healthy ways. My friend Time Well Spent has been talking to me about that, and has really helped me think through my relationship with you.

So, Lumosity, I’m giving you a second chance. I know people often say – it’s not you, it’s me. Well, this time, it’s definitely you. I hope you will rise to the challenge.

 

Sincerely,

Every Customer

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.”  I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.

3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

Digital Mental Health: A Revolution without a Manifesto

Mental illness is THE public health crisis of our time, greater in terms of personal and economic costs than any other disease, dwarfing cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular illness. Half of us Americans are at risk and likely to suffer from one of these problems in our lifetime. The global economic burden of mental illness over the next decade has been estimated at $16 trillion. Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg because half of us never seek treatment – 45% say price is a barrier and 40% say the stigma of mental illness is a barrier.

Digital health technology is the perfect disruptive innovation for this sorry state of affairs – it directly addresses these barriers by being instantly accessible, affordable, and private. Perhaps as importantly, with mental wellness in the palm of your hand, the dialogue around mental health could be reinvented. Instead of focusing only on illness and pathology, we could focus on the pursuit of mental fitness, making it as socially acceptable as improving physical fitness.

I don’t think this is just a nice dream. We are standing on the edge of a revolution and digital technology will be at the epicenter of that revolution. But we are uncertain how to move forward. Elsewhere, I have described this state as the Wild West, a lawless frontier, full of potential.

In order to realize this potential, we need goals, guidelines, and values. We also need to create a truly cross-disciplinary dialogue to fully understand the personal and societal implications of digital mental health, and how to work with the vast amounts of data this movement will create. Until we do so, digital mental health will be a revolution without a manifesto.

A manifesto should dissolve the past, reinvent the future, define and antagonize, inspire and provoke to action, spark community and presence. Here I outline what I believe should be six core principles of the manifesto, to guide the digital mental health revolution. Vive la revolution!

translationFocus on Translation. For digital mental health to succeed there must be translation between the analog and the digital, between technical innovation and scientific evaluation. For example, there are thousands of mental health apps on the market, but only a tiny percentage – fewer than 1% – have ANY evidence base. Science is the best way we have to figure out which digital health tools work. It’s how we find the signal in the noise. Yet, this translation requires that people on both sides of this equation think outside their boxes. Technologists need to think randomized controlled trials and researchers need to think nimble science. Creating more academic-corporate partnerships with vision and gusto will increase innovation, reach, resources, and reality base on both sides.

personalizePersonalization. We know that one size does not fit all – in mental health as in most things. We have long talked of personalizing mental health treatments in Psychology. Without a perfect understanding of how and for whom mental health treatments work, we are far from this goal. Yet, while we shouldn’t create an unrealistic standard of everything being personalized, the massive amounts of data created by our digital signatures could move us closer towards data-driven personalization of mental health interventions. Utilizing these data in effective but responsible ways must be a core goal of the digital mental health revolution. Personalization could also provide a new platform for overcoming racial, gender, and cultural insensitivity in our treatment approaches –personalization must be based on who we are as people.

control

Control in the hands of individuals. We expect to self-curate our lives – our self-image, our social network, our information, our entertainment, the tools we use to navigate the world. Why should mental health be any different? We must create a play-list or Netflix model for self-curating mental wellness tools. At the same time, we need guidelines and standards, a balance between the prescriptive from professionals and personal choice. This major challenge is the gorilla in the room. How do we insure privacy while maintaining treatment integrity? How do we avoid using the carrots and sticks of “behavioral design” and gamification in controlling ways that treat individuals like rats in a maze?

digital 1Disruptive innovation. The digital mental health tools that populate the field must be truly disruptive, drastically increasing the accessibility and adoption of mental health diagnosis tools and interventions. To do this, we must first work out machine learning technologies combined with electronic medical records to improve diagnosis, treatment recommendations, and treatment delivery. Second, mental wellness tools must be in the palm of every hand. To do this, we should leverage targeted treatments that are brief and low-cost, and identify portable “active ingredients” that can be translated into many digital and cultural contexts. Therapy is not always appealing, so we must build products that are “sticky,” sophisticated, and aesthetically inspiring.

stigmaAttack stigma. Mental illness is among the most pervasive and potent of social stigmas. Mental illness is not contagious, but we fear it as if it were. The mentally ill are NOT more likely to be violent, and yet this is assumed. As long as mental illness remains a sign of disgrace and shame, people will avoid seeking help because it makes them feel broken – perhaps beyond repair. Digital mental health can’t fix all this, but it will shift the dialogue towards mental wellness rather than pathology, on building mental fitness rather than being broken. It will harness our desire for self-disclosure and “being seen” on social media to better overcome the silence that drives shame.

brain on techUnderstand the costs and benefits of technology. Lest this blog post come across as an ode to technology, let me stop you right there. Technology is by definition the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. If the technology that could transform mental healthcare was hydraulics, or kundalini yoga (and I’m not counting these out) I’d be all for it. At this moment in time, however, digital technology seems most likely to drive real innovation. But we don’t yet grasp the costs and benefits of these technologies. What does our “brain on technology” look like? What is the opportunity cost of being obsessed with and absorbed in our mobile devices? What is the impact of digital burden, of never making time for mind-wandering? We don’t know, and so we must walk a careful line between technophobia and technophilia, avoiding both.

The Ethics of Digital Disruption

Alister Cameron from Squareweave give us an important thought piece on technology companies that are transforming our lives and why we should care about the ethics of their company cultures.

Depression: A Coming Out Story

A wonderful and courageously honest blog post from Shira Renee Thomas on the experience and stigma of clinical Depression. The personal (and economic) burden of psychological disorders is profound, and greater than that of any other type of disease – including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular illnesses! Over 350 million people worldwide suffer from Depression. Yet, we’re only now waking up to the importance of thinking of Depression and other psychological diseases as a public health crisis that requires much, much more awareness and many more resources to reduce stigma and help alleviate individual suffering.

sally brampton quote

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