Culture and Leadership | DEI | Empathy | Growth Mindset

Latest from the Lab: The Dark Side of Reassessing a Stressful Situation

Illustration of two faces in opposite directions

Throughout a typical workday, we often face difficult situations. Some are familiar, like a manager pressuring us to finish a project, or a meeting thrown on our calendar when we’re already booked. Others are still fairly new to us, like trying to participate in a virtual meeting with a bad internet connection.

Oftentimes, these circumstances can elicit an emotional reaction initiated by the same biological and neurological networks that have evolved to respond to physical threats. That’s because we process social threats similarly to physical threats. Of course, we can’t respond to social threats in the same manner. While it might appear that I froze on the computer screen, freezing, fighting, or fleeing are all inappropriate responses in this situation.

As such, we’ve developed various ways to cope and regulate our emotions. One of the most tried and true emotional regulation techniques is reappraisal, which refers to the intentional re-interpretation of an emotional situation to alter your perspective of it and the emotional impact it has on you. Videos freeze all the time; I’m sure my boss understands.

Researchers posit that a person’s ability to successfully reappraise is facilitated by their creativity. The more creative you are, the more potential reappraisals you can generate, increasing your chance of coming up with a suitable interpretation. This is particularly important when you’re faced with unforeseen stressful situations in which you can’t rely on previous reappraisal strategies. No big deal — I’ll still have a chance to get my point across. And actually, it was good I had a bad connection for the last five minutes because now I’ve had a chance to organize my thoughts.

We’ve experienced unforeseen, stressful situations countless times in the past few years with the pandemic. Recent research has shown that people who are less tolerant of uncertainty, and who worry more about COVID-19, are less able to use reappraisal. Instead, they use emotional suppression more often in daily life. Unlike reappraisal, suppression refers to the inhibition of physical or behavioral expression of negative emotions. While both reappraisal and suppression have their utility, reappraisal is generally considered more beneficial because it has been shown to have longer-lasting positive effects on multiple aspects of our emotional response. Further, suppression doesn’t decrease negative emotions as much as reappraisal, and it can actually damage our social relationships and even impair our memory. I froze again? I’m so embarrassed, but I can’t let it show.

What this means is that feeling threatened — particularly during a time of uncertainty— decreases a person’s ability to be creative. But it’s more complicated than that. Our capacity to manage and respond to threats is highly adaptive and functional, resulting in our ability to detect, evaluate, and respond with tremendous efficacy. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; we’re more likely to survive an attack if we can quickly come up with ways to defend ourselves.

But recent research takes that perspective a step further, by showing that feeling socially threatened can inspire the dark side of your creativity. In a study published in 2019, researchers had participants play a high or low social threat-inducing version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma works by partnering with another player with whom you can choose to cooperate. If you cooperate, you could mutually benefit, but you leave yourself open to exploitation by the other person if they choose not to cooperate. The degree to which you might be exploited can vary, resulting in a high or low social threat condition of the experiment.

After playing the prisoner’s dilemma game, participants were asked to come up with as many unusual (creative) uses for a brick as possible. Those in the high social threat condition came up with fewer creative uses for a brick compared to the low social threat condition. But the high-threat group came up with more malevolent creative uses for the brick — like using a brick to “sink a body in a lake.” The research showed that while threat diminishes our ability to be creative overall, it inspires a very specific and nasty form of creativity. The sort of creativity that may lead someone to pretend their camera has frozen to get out of a meeting.

What this means is the perfect storm of social threats and increased uncertainty can lead to a diminished ability to regulate our emotions, and lead us to resort to malevolent reappraisals.

To be sure, there are ways to both diminish social threats and increase our ability to regulate our emotions. To minimize feelings of threat in ourselves and others, and to stop ourselves from using creativity in spite, we can turn to frameworks that offer a shared language, like SCARF. Using a shared language to discuss complex or personal challenges aids communication across team members. For instance, maybe your video freezing during a virtual meeting feels like a status threat because you didn’t get to contribute to the meeting. Or maybe you felt a sense of uncertainty as to when it might happen again, or how your tech malfunction was perceived by others. Using a shared language to interpret the experiences and reactions of yourself and others allows you to speak openly with your coworkers and ensures they understand where you’re coming from. With this language, everyone can defuse situations using everyday social rewards.

Moreover, we can improve our ability to regulate our emotions via reappraisal. People don’t engage in reappraisal if they don’t believe they can do so successfully, so the first step is changing our beliefs about our ability to reappraise. One way to improve this ability is to focus on the short-term nature of a stressful situation. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but I was gone for just a small portion of one presentation. You can also distance yourself from the situation, which is sometimes referred to as the “fly on the wall” strategy, or to consider the situation from a third-person perspective. Someone’s video freezing during a meeting is pretty common, and it’s not a big deal.

As we continue to encounter socially threatening situations at work, our ability to manage our emotions upon encountering these circumstances depends on many factors, some that may be out of our control. We can work to minimize the impact of social threats through implementation of a shared language with colleagues and continue to develop our ability to manage our emotions by practicing reappraisal.

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