How to Beat the Psychology of Fear

Eli Pariser delivered the commencement address for Dominican University on Saturday, May 14, 2016.

Hello, Class of 2016!

Let’s kick this off in a way befitting this moment in history. Please take out your phones.

Now, I want to ask everyone here to take a selfie. I’m going to do it too. Post it to Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat it to friends if you want. Tag it hashtag #du16 and actually, add to that #ididit.

OK, ready? Go.

We’ll come back to that.

My name’s Eli. I’m the cofounder and co-CEO of a media start-up called Upworthy. Upworthy’s mission is to connect people to stories that matter and, by doing that, to connect them to one another. Today, we’re reaching 200 million people every month. You might have seen us — maybe more than you wish — in your Facebook feed.

I started Upworthy because I’ve always believed that the way things get better, the we solve our biggest problems, is by connecting to one another, connecting to a sense of hope, and taking action together to stand up for what we believe in. That’s been my focus ever since I graduated 15 years ago: building citizen movements, figuring out how to use the internet for good, writing a book about the structure of social media, and then applying that all to Upworthy.

I’m here today to share a bit about what I’ve learned since my own college graduation. And, in particular, to talk about one of the most important things I’ve come to understand from that work.

I want to talk about what it means to matter, why you matter, and how important it is that you know that. And because we have 15 minutes, we’ll also have time for another selfie.

I spend my life looking for and lifting up positive stories. And what I’m about to tell you is, ultimately, a positive story. But every story starts with a problem, a challenge. And I want to talk about one of the big ones facing you all.

You’re here today to step into your future. And I have to say it straight: Your future is a pretty weird, unsettling place.

Technology seems to be reshaping every aspect of our lives.

You don’t need me to tell you that you’re graduating into a highly mediated world. Apps and algorithms will guide some of your most important life experiences — the places where you meet the people you love and suffer some of your worst humiliations. Your favorite possessions are likely to be snippets of media, memories that live in the cloud, that live nowhere.

And while this is a huge benefit when you’re trying to order a pizza at 3 a.m. or get a cheap car ride, there’s an irony to it. At a time when we’ve never been more connected, a lot of people feel isolated and alone. Selfies, in some ways, illustrate that — pictures of you up close in your own frame.

There’s another important way technology’s shaping your future. You’re going to directly compete for jobs with robots and code, science-fiction style. This is already happening, of course. But you’re going to live to see lots of lines of work that we all think of as permanent go away in rapid succession, just like the landline telephone and the iPod and that song “Call Me Maybe” you probably remember from freshman year. Whole occupations, from radio DJ to travel agent to postal worker are being replaced by hyper-efficient technological systems, just like Carly Rae Jepsen.

You’re getting in a driverless car to the future.

If this all makes you uneasy, it probably should. It makes a lot of people uneasy. When you look at America today, it’s hard not to see a country that is, in many quarters, gripped by a kind of deep fear.

It’s a gnawing, 3 a.m.-tossing-and-turning sensation. And the core of that fear is the mother of all fears: the fear that we just don’t matter.

That we’re not necessary anymore. That no one will notice when we’re gone. That when we go, the car will just keep on driving.

I promise I’m not going to leave you in the clutches of despair. BUT — while we’re on the topic of bad news, might as well keep going.

One of the most interesting things I’ve come across recently is a body of scientific evidence suggesting that this kind of existential fear makes everything — and more importantly everyone — worse.

The prevailing psychological theory in this area is called Terror Management Theory. And Terror Management Theory offers a really revealing explanation of human identity and how we react to fear.

Let me give you an example of what it looks like in action.

In an experiment, half of a group of Christian students are asked to write about their own deaths. Then, they’re all asked to rate how much they want to work with a group of students from Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu backgrounds.

When the experimenters collate their results, they see something fascinating — something that actually explains so much of the conflict and difficulty in the world. The students who had just focused on their own deaths are much more prejudiced, more bigoted, and more rejecting than the ones who didn’t.

This isn’t about a particular religion — the experiment has been repeated many times with different cultures and contexts at play. And the fundamental result is the same across nearly 300 studies. When people think about death, they judge people who aren’t like them more harshly.

So, why? The core idea of Terror Management Theory is simple: We all deeply want to live. But death is inevitable.

Being human is, essentially, scary: We are fragile, vulnerable creatures made up of flesh and bone. Unlike other animals, we know how tenuous life can be. We know that we’re only here for a short time. That’s terrifying.

To manage that fear, we turn to cultures and belief systems and identity. These things give life meaning. They grant what psychologists call “symbolic immortality.” It’s a great phrase: “symbolic immortality.”

So, when we’re reminded that we’ll die someday, we cling tighter to our identity and our beliefs as a literal lifeline. And the flip side of that is that we’re more antagonistic to people and ideas that might be threatening to who we are and what we believe.

Fear that you don’t matter increases hatred of others.

So that’s Terror Management Theory. And I think it explains a lot.

For example, you’re graduating into a country that is, right this moment, stumbling its way through a sloppy, unseemly midlife identity crisis, with a reality-show ringleader at the steering wheel. This political upheaval is driven by a lot of angry people who don’t understand why their lives turned out the way they did and want someone to pay for it.

And many of the people driving it are older, working-class white men whose jobs are being replaced by automated manufacturing systems and who can’t get re-hired. Is it a stretch to wonder if what’s driving the bigotry and Islamophobia and misogyny we’re seeing from these guys is their worry that they don’t matter any more?

This fear of annihilation — and the clinging to identity that comes along with it — also explains a lot of the worst things about our online culture. We troll for Likes and post revealing pictures to counter this fear. We seek to dominate, to bully, because showing that you squashed someone seems to prove that you’re here, that you exist.

And when you add up these cultural and political changes, you get a system that’s tilting away from the principles that democracy is built on — the idea that we must honor every voice, that every person is created equal.

It’s a vicious cycle: The more we fear, the more we fight; the more we fight, the more we fear.

But the picture isn’t all bleak. Remember, I run Upworthy. I’m not going to let you leave depressed.

Here’s the good news: There’s a flip side to all of this. There’s a way to reverse that cycle.

So let me tell you about another study.

In October of 2008, researchers asked a bipartisan group of people to watch the presidential debates between Obama and McCain. They separated their subjects into two groups. One group just rated the debates. As you’d expect, the Republicans thought Obama did poorly and McCain did well, and the Democrats felt that McCain was awful and Obama was amazing.

But the other group was asked to first spend some time thinking about things they VALUE about themselves, like creativity and sense of humor and — totally outside of politics — things they care about as people. And in this group, something striking, almost unbelievable happened. The Republicans and Democrats just about saw eye to eye. The Democrats were more willing to admit that McCain had some admirable traits, and the Republicans were willing to concede that Obama had some excellent moments.

What this study shows about the impact of remembering that you matter is profound.

When you remember that you matter, you’re less threatened by opposing ideas, and you’re more inclined to embrace them instead of rejecting them.

(And actually, when Dominican works with the Presidential Debate Commission this fall to figure out what a presidential debate looks like for the social media era — an undertaking that is so important and so exciting — perhaps people should think first about why they like themselves.)

The McCain-Obama study is just one of many studies that demonstrate the powerful effect that believing we matter has on the way we behave, especially toward those who are different from us. One study has even proven that people whose sports teams have just won are much less racially biased than people whose teams have just lost.

I don’t think the importance of the takeaway here can be overstated: When we’re affirmed in who we are, when we believe that we matter, we relax. We’re more open to new ideas, other ways of seeing things. We’re more accepting of each other. We feel safe. Our subconscious bias goes down. Our empathy goes up. Instead of seeing stereotypes, we can see and accept people as individual human beings.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how empathy is important. I believe that. But the fact is that self-worth is empathy’s gateway drug. Only when we’re not feeling personally threatened can we see how the world looks to others.

So let’s sum up where we are so far. Technological change is stirring an existential fear. That fear is stoking the wildfires in our politics and society. But when we’re reminded that we matter, things get better. We’re more likely to act as good citizens. We’re more likely to be our best selves. We’re more likely to actually solve those problems.

So having a sense of self-worth isn’t some kind of new-age, hippy-dippy thing. It’s important — and maybe even key to saving democracy and solving the biggest problems we face.

But that brings us to a very big question.

What is the right basis for valuing yourself?

This is a harder question than it first appears. Ultimately, it’s a question you have to answer on your own.

But since you invited me to come speak, I’ll tell you my opinion.

The reason you matter is not your occupation. And it’s not about what you’ve achieved — unless you think that children have no basis for self-worth.

It’s definitely not about what you own, how you appear to others, or how popular you are. Even the best Snapchat filter won’t increase your value as a human being. And there is no amount of Likes that add up to love.

Here’s what I believe: You matter because you contain within you a great capacity to do good. To act with love.

That can look many different ways: You could dedicate your life to being a criminal defense lawyer, an architect building bright spaces for people without resources, a leader of a movement for freedom or justice, the creator of a start-up that solves a big problem. I’m sure many of you will.

But you don’t need to lead a country to freedom to do good (although in many circles, it’s considered polite to do so if the opportunity arises). Your goodness could just look like a simple act of standing up for someone else.

One of my favorite Upworthy stories is about a woman named Kerri Peek. Kerri’s an Army veteran. She happened to see a Facebook post by the mother of a Muslim girl named Sofia Yassini. Sofia, an 8-year-old, was terrified by the anti-Muslim rhetoric she saw on TV. Kerri posted a picture of herself in uniform on Sofia’s mom’s wall. “Please show this picture of me to your daughter,” she wrote. “Tell her I am a Mama too and as a soldier I will protect her from the bad guys. #Iwillprotectyou” Within hours, hundreds of other soldiers added their voices to say they’d protect Sofia and Muslims in America. And the story reached millions.

There are so many ways to deploy your goodness. But I can promise you: If you organize your life around the question of how to best unleash the goodness inside you, you won’t be disappointed.

So as we conclude, I want to return to your selfie. I don’t have to see it to know that it is a picture of someone that matters. And as we’ve discussed — honoring yourself is truly important. That’s a big piece of what today is about. That’s why we’re all gathered here — to congratulate you, sincerely, for the people that you are, that you’ve come to be.

But unleashing what’s good in you will require broadening your frame. It’s kind of counterintuitive: To be your best self, you have to include others in the picture.

That’s the other way to fight fear: through togetherness. Kerri Peek’s story is a facing-fear-together story. Most great stories are.

As William James said, we are like islands in the sea: separate on the surface but connected in the deep.

So, no Dominican commencement speech would be complete without the mention of the beloved mascot, the penguin. If that isn’t a tradition, I am starting it now, along with speaker selfies.

As any student of “March of the Penguins” knows, penguins are awesome. They can swim faster than a human can run. They can drink ocean water and sneeze out the salt.

And when it gets really, really Antarctic cold, they huddle close to one another. They put the kids on the inside. They rotate turns on the outside, absorbing the chill. They come together. And that’s how they make it through the winter.

So before we close, in just a minute, we’re going to redo the selfie another way. I want you to capture yourself in the context of everyone around, everyone who has travelled this journey with you. Instead of a selfie, let’s call it a “withie.” With your friends. With your classmates. With your professors. With your family. With as many people as you can fit into the frame. The whole context. I’m going to do that too.

Ready, go.

As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this.

You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too.

If you do that, then truly there’s nothing to be afraid of. Class of 2016, you’re going to do just fine.



Written by

Brooklynite and Mainer, Simon's Rock alum, author of The Filter Bubble, and co-founder of @Upworthy

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