Profound Problems: Band-Aids and Polarizations –

Profound Problems: Band-Aids and Polarizations

Polarizations are easy to see, especially in our politically driven media. Listen, do what I say, pick this side. When simplicity rules there are only two sides, right and wrong. It’s a little harder to see the polarization when it’s close to home because it’s more emotional when your spouse is yelling at you or your daughter is failing in school. At these times we are more driven to act based on feeling personally threatened. All kinds of emotional polarizations are coming at us, in our homes, at work and in the larger world we live in.

A first step to seeing polarization is recognizing it: someone wants you to take his or her side, someone needs to be fixed, someone demands you change. Once the emotional tone picks up in conversations any of us can jump on the “blame the other or you are wrong band wagon”. Heightened emotionality results in a focus on someone to blame and/or to fix. We miss the complexity.

When intense feelings are aroused in us, our primitive or programmed automatic behaviors designed to fix others are activated. We’re less able to focus on self as part of the problem or solution. In the attempt to fix others one can become possessed. And those who are focused on, who are under pressure to take a side, may feel they have no choice but to give in or to follow along.

Once we see the clues of intense emotionality and or polarization then can we understand our feelings as reactions, not facts, but as indicators of the intensity of the emotional situation we are in?

In the last blog I wrote about “feeling” the situation in a chess game as the threatening pawn approaches our knight. The idea was that it is automatic to be so narrowly focused on the threat that we become reactive, and therefore unaware of the options available on the broader chessboard. In these circumstances we can even forget the rules of the game. Reactivity is driven by fear and that fear shuts down our ability to think clearly.

Reactive emotionality is part of our ancient heritage. We are a part of evolution. Our brains like simple, “feel-right” answers. Problems appear to be outside of us, out there in others. When things get intense in relationships sides are taken, we rush into things. When it comes to side taking there is no middle ground. We can feel that others are for us or against us. I put it this way in a poem celebrating our humanness.

Feeling is Seeing
Easier to find someone
to blame,
than someone
to love….
Only one can be
when emotionality is your light.

From Family Process to Societal Process

Now that we are approaching elections, can you see this same emotionality (polarization) spike in society? Turn on your TV and see who makes you mad. Political and economic fortunes are built on promoting our brains to take sides. While this concerns some of us, others are pleased to have a job creating 30-second advertising campaign messages increasing reactivity. It’s their employment security. Some people seem to think voters cannot deal with complex problems and just want to know who is a jerk or who is on the “other side”.

When people you love get really mad at you it’s hard to think logically about what they said. When an authority figure tells you what they think, and especially when they are on TV, they too can hook into your feelings.

Enough research has been done on group behavior to know how advertising can manipulate the crowd. We know people like “feel right” answers achieved by going along with experts, our friends or people we met an hour ago. Making decisions based on going along with others or hoping to avoid making people mad are like silly band-aids covering the profound nature of the problems.

More than five thousand political ads will be aimed at viewers this year. Each 30-second commercial is aimed at making you vote the emotional way. According to Borrell Associates, political ad spending will reach $4.2 billion this year double the $2.1 billion the firm estimated was spent in 2008.

Advertisers know how to influence your emotional system. They threaten you like an angry parent/spouse. “You are wrong. Do it my way.” Your can react and feel like your way of life is being threatened, and your children will suffer.

So how do you step aside when an emotional weapon is aimed at your psyche? If you try to step aside and observe and wonder what all the fuss is about, your friends and family members may just think you are unfeeling, stupid or even against them.

Please if possible just relax sit back, take a deep breath, there may be another way.

A few people are on to this game. I had a good chuckle over Gail Collins’ NY Times Op-Ed column, The Fury Failure. Her comments that rage is not working out approaches with humor the profound relationship between anger and the ability of people in social groups to think, especially when threatened by high emotionality in others.

Really, people, rage never gets you anything but overturned garbage cans and broken windows. If you want to do rage, go to France. We are talking here about undifferentiated anger, which creates nothing but a feeling of moral superiority on the part of the irate. It’s natural to get furious at specific things: a tax increase or an unfaithful spouse or a blown tire.

People yell fire; you do not think, you run. If there is a fire, running may not the best thing to do.

Reacting to intense emotional messages is what happens in disintegrating families, and it can happen to a society.

The broad question, in these moments before the election, is this. Can we be thoughtful about and take the time to discover and understand the profound problems we face? The first step in doing this is to understand the nature of the emotional system that surrounds problems. To put this simply, evaluate your emotional response to any message you receive and then check the facts. Then take the second step and analyze the profound nature of the problem.

George Soros wrote a thoughtful analysis of the complex relationship between China and the rest of the world in a recent issue of the Financial Times. His thesis: Engage thinking not blaming, then look at the long and the short-term risks and rewards.

Since the Chinese government is the direct beneficiary of the currency surplus, it would need to have remarkable foresight to accept this diminution in its power and recognize the advantages of coordinating its economic policies with the rest of the world. It (the Chinese government) needs to recognize that China cannot continue rising without paying more attention to the interests of its trading partners. Only China is in a position to initiate a process of international cooperation because it can offer the enticement of renminbi appreciation.
China has already developed an elaborate mechanism for consensus building at home. Now it must go a step further and engage in consensus building internationally. This would be rewarded by the rest of the world accepting the rise of China.

Soros has written about his concept of reflexivity, which has to do with the biases of individuals entering into market transactions, possibly altering the perception of fundamentals. Soros’s also understands that anything he believes may in fact be wrong, and is therefore to be questioned and improved.

So there you are, thinking while living with the reactivity all around you. From chess games, to family life and out to the broader world we are asked to consider both self-interest and the ability to cooperate with others.

The hopeful part is that if any of us can see the emotional system, step away from the urge to react for a moment, then this can allow the people around us to calm down. When one person is a bit more neutral everyone calms down.

Thoughtfully integrating our feelings with our best thinking is a discipline that can be embraced. It is not easy. Even if you can smile and take your head into a more objective state you may still suffer a bit. After all, you will be on the outside. There will be no ancient comfort of being on someone’s side, or enjoying the power of telling others how to think and what to do. You can move into the land of observing and profound thinking with awareness and discipline. But it’s not easy and can be a bit uncomfortable.

You will know when you have stepped outside the emotional system when no one is really on your side. You are standing alone to figure out what you think and feel. If this goes on for any length of time as it does in families, then others may be confused that you are still talking to them but not agreeing.

It is a very different feeling state when we are observing situations and thinking about them more objectively. Overall the state of neutrality is one way to avoid getting caught up in the sticky, emotionally reactive, interactional system.

If any of us have the backbone to resist the comfort of side taking or being controlled by the threats or weaknesses in others, then we can move towards analyzing the deeper nature of profound problems. This is what makes individuals emotionally stronger and better able to be a well-defined self in any social group.

Once again many thanks to my editor, Judy Ball and HAPPY HALLOWEEN as you shape your future….



  1. Andrea: fascinating article.

    A few thoughts about various parts in the article.

    “The hopeful part is that if any of us can see the emotional system, step away from the urge to react for a moment, then this can allow the people around us to calm down.” As you are saying, what feels so natural in the heat of the moment may not be the best course of action. Rather, as you suggest, not doing something and/or not saying something may be initially the right thing to do. Then, at a later time, when one is less under the effect of the emotional tone, looking for facts and considering various options may be more easily done (having a non-judgmental third party who has no interest in the discussion can help). Then maybe, with time and practice, one becomes able to find a more mature response, right in the moment.

    To the extent that one is able to be aware of what is happening both outside and within oneself, then I understand that it gives the chance (provides emotional space for) to others to act in a less reactive/automatic way. Not that it is always guaranteed, but that it still is a healthier response than if everyone is always on auto-pilot.

    “Thoughtfully integrating our feelings with our best thinking is a discipline that can be embraced”: this would include, as I understand it, neither discarding one’s feelings nor taking one’s feelings for something they are not: facts. And this is a slippery slope, when the emotional tone gets tense.

    I attended this past Friday a conference / speech given by Bill Clinton. He talked about the work he has been doing with the Clinton foundation and also commented on the current political climate in the US. Two things stuck out for me:

    – Responding to a comment by the master of ceremony that there was little time left for questions and answers, Bill Clinton half jokingly said “one of the issues with America right now is that people are looking for short answers”.

    – He also said that America needed to get back to a fact-based view of the world and that if it did, it could potentially change a lot of things.

  2. Hi Vincent:

    Yes, I think you have the crux of the problem spelled out.

    We can to some limited extent know when we are being suckered in or assaulted by the others demands.
    If not we can and will be seduced into some kind of RE-action by a wide variety of emotional states.

    The question is what can we do to change our vulnerability to the signs and signals from others?
    It easy to get stuck to the emotional system and hard to separate.

    If you pull away or run away you are more stuck and more vulnerable.
    If you get frozen and paralyzed then you are just as stuck to the people and emotionality of the situation as ever.
    The deeper problem is to recognize and respond with some knowledge on your part.

    I will use two analogy’s in the service of seeing a bit more of the pull of the emotional system.

    Perhaps others will add to this list.
    Its useful to have some clear ideas of how people think about understanding the situation we are in.
    Bill Clinton’s comments is one way to discerning the lack of facts in an emotional system.

    Another is basic knowledge about any self organizing discipline.
    Karate, is one example, which I took up in my sixties.
    I have been doing going to classes for about 6 years, and am now a red belt one stripe.
    Three more tests and I might get to be a black belt.
    The disciple requires sparing in which you can see what the other is doing and respond in way to keep your self from being hurt and or to back off or hurt the other so that they are no longer a threat. The knowledge is never to be used without a cause. It is never to be used aggressively. It is always defensive.

    One of my favorite ways of seeing the others influence on us is a children story, which is all about how easy it is to fall into the trap of trying to force others to change.

    Some times all you want is the other to say good morning…. sometimes you want more.

    Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a likable character, prone to tricks and trouble-making who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses the “tar baby” amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as Tar Baby’s lack of manners, punches it, and becomes stuck.[2] Using the phrase “tar baby” to refer to the idea of “a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it” became part of the wider culture of the United States in the mid-20th century.

    The key is to see that is happening to YOU due to the stance or opinions of others.

    People can get better at this, that is seeing and not reacting as much, and then knowing where and how to stand.