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Ethan Kross
Ethan Kross

What to Do When You Can’t Catch a Break

The New York Times 11/11/20

We’ve all had one of those weeks: Your car breaks down, you get in trouble at work, you spill wine on an expensive dress, a family member gets sick. Sometimes those weeks turn into months or even years, and you begin to wonder if the universe is out to get you.

This year has been one of those weeks on a giant scale.

“The sad truth is that the pandemic and all of the upheaval it’s caused is nothing compared to what’s going to be happening in the next decade in terms of weather events,” said Sheldon Solomon, a researcher and social psychologist.

Alongside the psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, Dr. Solomon studies terror management theory, a concept that claims much of human behavior is ultimately driven by our primal fear over our own mortality. When bad things happen, especially when those things seem random and meaningless, we crave a sense of understanding and, ultimately, control. If a family member has a critical illness, for example, you may want to research treatments online, look for a better doctor or pray. While there are personal and practical reasons to do these things, it’s also about feeling productive — doing something gives you a sense of control over the outcome. Even when control is largely an illusion, it makes you feel better.

“So much of what we think and do is driven by these relatively primal processes,” Dr. Solomon said.

When a series of unfortunate events seems unrelenting, we lose that sense of control and find ourselves stuck in a downward spiral of negativity.

“When bad things happen and we feel negative, and we’re uncertain about how things are going to go, we get stuck and we go in a loop,” said Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. To make matters worse, we tend to remember negative events more than positive ones. And when that happens on a global scale, it becomes a “giant death reminder,” as Dr. Solomon puts it. This degree of uncertainty — and our aversion to it — tends to bring out the worst in our behavior. It makes us xenophobic and materialistic, and more susceptible to manipulation and risky behavior.

However, the way that we process negative experiences can help reset that behavior.

“Our interpretations are incredibly powerful to how we think, feel and behave,” Dr. Kross said. In a series of experiments, he and a colleague asked subjects to remember a past experience that had made them sad or angry. Some of the subjects were told to remember the experience through their own perspective, fully immersing themselves in these negative emotions. Others were told to remember the event objectively, using a technique the researchers refer to as self-distancing: psychologically distancing yourself from a situation that’s happening to you. “Imagine a friend coming to you with a problem they’re spinning over,” Dr. Kross said. “It’s relatively easy for us to weigh in objectively in that situation without getting sucked in emotionally. The problem is, when we’re so immersed in the situation, we’re zoomed in so tightly that it’s hard to have a big-picture perspective.”

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