Irritation contagion, a state of fear

There is an interesting social observation that goes along the lines that:

  • Anxiety and fear is a natural state
  • When we are anxious we become hyper vigilant and see things that reinforce our anxiety
  • Our constant exposure to information feeds allows us access to more things that then increase our anxiety

This devilish circle is cited by some as a reason for the apparent increase in anxiety related issues in generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2015. This is the generation that conducts social life online, that doesn’t read newspapers or listen to the radio for news, but does receive information from internet sources. Their natural anxieties are fuelled by things that reinforce those anxieties, and the constant exposure to information means that that fuelling is unremitting.

But it doesn’t stop there – their fear, their anxieties, their irritations breed irritation. And this is not confined to generation Z – we all do it. As soon as we see something that ‘makes our blood boil’ we leap on the bandwagon and comment, expressing our outrage and broadcasting that to our followers. Our followers, by and large, are within our cohort of followers because they like the position we take on things – I know that on twitter, the vast majority of people I follow have my followership because things that they say strike a chord with me. I un-follow those who annoy me. Our followers then are fuelled by our outrage and they comment, and so the whole situation grows exponentially. We reinforce our own perceptions, positions and anxieties by the very circle that we create which serves to build into our own fears and confirm our own beliefs.

Just to test this ‘ you follow me because you agree with me’ theory in a fairly un-scientific way, I had a prowl around twitter to look at the numerous ‘surveys’ that are circulating on the Brexit position. Amongst those I follow, the vast majority of the surveys they have posted come back as anti-Brexit and in favour of a second referendum. I then sought out pro-Brexiteers, and whilst it was not easy tried to find surveys they have posted. I found ten in my followers or those I follow, and managed to find ten posted by pro-Brexiteers. Surprise surprise, of the ten in the ‘I follow’ group eight came out strongly in favour of a second vote or remain. Of the ten posted by pro-Brexiteers, seven came out strongly in favour of no-deal or continuing with Brexit.

To me, this quick check confirms my belief that not only do we follow and are followed by those who confirm our own positions, but also that the influence upon us also has this same ‘confirmatory bias’. Consequently, if we track back to the whole position around anxiety, is it not also reasonable to assume that that same group may well reinforce our own anxieties because they have similar anxieties themselves? Can this therefore allow fear to spread and multiply, and could this be a reason why the most online active generation is suffering from increased levels of anxiety?

Recently, a school attended by one of my offspring introduced a new mobile phone use policy. This had been widely consulted upon apparently, but as soon as it was announced the news spread like wildfire – pupils announcing very quickly that mobile phones were to be banned entirely from the school and how wrong this was. Fairly quickly, a sizeable number identified this as a safety issue, removing from the means to contact family in an emergency. Levels of concern grew, and resistance to the policy increased. Actually, the policy did not stop mobiles being taken to school, and once it had been read it quite sensibly sought to stop their use in lessons and certain break times. However, those affected had allowed their concern to magnify by reading what others had posted (erroneously) and the irritation at the new policy grew.

Social contagion of this nature is not a new thing – in 1774 Goethe published ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which held within it themes around suicide. An increase in suicide rates across Europe following publication is attributed to this book, and indeed the presence of suicide clusters is often called ‘the Werther effect’. Research since confirms that social contagion can exist, sometimes having positive impacts ‘for instance, bringing a social pressure to adopt a more active lifestyle’ but often reinforcing negative impacts such as suicide, depression and anxiety.

And so, herein lies an issue. We tend to favour living in conditions that we regard as secure, where our wellbeing and safety is more assured and we can go about our lives without fear of attack or loss. There is no doubt that today with the terrorist threat level to the UK still at Severe and apparent increases in violent crime our sense of security and safety is not strong. As a consequence, we more likely than not become hyper vigilant to things that reinforce that fear, and we see more things that reinforce that fear whether they are reports online, stories, pictures and images or indeed even dramatic portrayals of a feral state. Retaining objectivity in this situation can be difficult, especially when the sources we may seek out to be objective are branded as ‘fake’ or themselves accused of being biased.

So, what can be done? We can help ourselves to an extent – firstly we can endeavour to triangulate information to see if more than one source confirms or questions it. This can be difficult when, as I have already said, we tend to cluster those with similar views around us and source our information from those who hold similar views.

The second step we can take is also valid, and that is one that I am endeavouring to take at the moment – and that is: breathe and count to ten! I use twitter, and can often feel my irritation (or worse) rising when I see things published on that platform. Using a sort of CBT approach, I am making the conscious effort to not respond or allow the item to raise my hackles! This is useful to help reduce anxiety, and there are tried and tested CBT techniques to do just that.

The third is a really difficult one – and that is trust. Our trust in politicians, those in control and those with responsibility to keep us safe is constantly eroded. However, I know from my own experience that many of those who have responsibility to keep us safe are superb at their jobs. Sure, they make mistakes – when did you last not make a mistake? But, oftentimes the potential for mistakes has been recognised and systems to provide fall-backs are in place. As a conscious step, maybe developing trust and countering the corrosive rhetoric against those we should be trusting to keep us safe is a good step to take.

Finally, access objective advice. UKP prides itself on professionalism, we risk assess carefully and record our assessments to show our evidence. If you have security concerns, let us know – we are happy to help!