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Humanity has turned inwards. And the shift has been rapid.
In the last 15 years, the digital age has brought about new ways of living, interacting, and working. It has accelerated business, connected people across the globe, enabled collaboration, creating new sectors, and even helped us to navigate the crisis created by a pandemic.
But it has also done something else: it has shifted our attentional plane. We have become hyperconscious. Our thinking has become linear and goal-orientated. And for all the many miracles of the digital world, technology has also ushered in a lonelier, more isolated, and self-conscious existence; a fearful, rigid and brittle society that has lost much of its natural ease and confidence, and any sense of permanence.
The inwards turn began well before COVID-19 hit us, but the extreme isolation that the pandemic brings makes it much more pressing that we should examine it and overcome it.
Here follow several perspectives on the ‘turn inwards’ from thinkers in their fields. We hope you find them thought-provoking.
A whole year has gone by with COVID-19 impacting upon the lives of billions of people worldwide. The pandemic has changed our everyday lives, daily routines, the way we behave inside and outside our homes; how we interact with others in groups and how we carry out our work or spend time on hobbies alone. Many of us have reduced our out-of-home activities dramatically and have had limited contact with our loved ones and friends over the past year. We have got used to interacting mostly online, looking at other people’s faces inside Zoom frames on our computer screens. How has this affected our feelings? Have our emotions and behaviour changed?
Yes. Studies show that many of us feel lonelier and have higher levels of uncertainty about the future or even stress. We have become more conservative and lack trust and optimism. We prefer to stick to essential activities to carry out basic everyday tasks. Many of us feel there is not much space left for pursuing happiness the way we used to. The pressure on the global economy, increasing demands on our jobs and economic shocks due to the pandemic and other factors (e.g. Brexit) seemed to have affected all of us to some degree. But why does nobody seem to have escaped and what has changed in ourselves as we have turned inwards?
Recent developments in neuroscience reveal that our biology has changed. Isolation and limited social interaction are unnatural conditions for the human species. We are social creatures. Our brains and bodies are made to work well when we are outside talking to others, feeling and touching them, forming bonds and relationships with our friends, peers or relatives. Think of the last time you had a handshake. Maybe you miss that or you feel that something is off. Our brains and bodies have chemicals and processes that depend on social interactions. The balance of these chemicals depends on interactions. Over the past year, living in the COVID world, this balance has been distorted.
Many hormones and brain chemicals allow us to understand and interact with others in social environments. The most well known of them is oxytocin. This is a powerful chemical that allows mothers to produce milk and form attachments with their infants. It creates attraction between romantic partners and feelings of trust between an individual and their environment. Oxytocin allows us to form affiliations and bonds with a group of peers, colleagues or followers and develop a social identity.
Oxytocin affects our consumer behaviour too. Studies have shown it changes our buying preferences and tendencies as well as consumer-brand relationships. The reason is that both social bonding and the bonding between consumers and brands have the same biological basis. Successful brand-making means that the brand has a social identity of its own; it has attributes that allow the consumer to relate to it in a similar fashion to the way they would relate to a social entity or group.
The way we interact with a brand fulfils needs of our social brain, like social attribution. COVID-19 has changed the biology of our social brain and the way we behave as consumers. Technologists, creatives, marketing leaders and strategists should be aware of this. They can empower our social brain at a time that biology is lagging behind.
There is this idea, espoused by revered eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, known as The Great Turning. Its seeds were sown long before the tumult of the pandemic, and it speaks to the profound changes we need to make if we are to avoid the increasingly bleak consequences wrought by a society fixated on industrial growth. The turning of which Macy speaks is that of re-orienting the trajectory of our species away from collapse, and towards the kind of life-sustaining civilization our ancestors might one day be proud to inherit.
As we have grappled with the extraordinary disruption sustained to our relationships, our work and our ways of life, it is not surprising that we should find ourselves now contemplating deeper, more complex questions. With daily routines and rituals washed away, we have been reminded of the fact that, at its core, life is unpredictable and our time here uncertain. As we mourn the loss of our pre-lockdown lives, we have been forced to reckon not only with a difficult present and ambiguous future, but with the forbidding fate that awaits us if we don’t begin to build a wiser, more regenerative way out of this crisis.
Yet, as with all great transformations, the scale and depth of change this demands will not come to pass unless another kind of turning also takes place – that of our attention. For all the grief and fear and pain the pandemic has unleashed, it has also forced many of us to reckon with and confront the cadence of our lives. From long-haul flights and hours spent commuting, to chance encounters and moments shared together, in the absence of ‘normality’ we have been challenged to gaze into the mirror and really ask ourselves who we are, what we want, and why we are here.
It’s no wonder then, that despite mounting stress and financial strain, so many people (younger generations in particular) have become much more vocal about their values and expectations, demanding more from the brands they buy from and the bosses they serve. Whether calling for the equal valuing of human life, or the rewilding of our beloved home, a new song is being sung – and heard – even amidst the interminable noise and distraction of our time. It is this turning I have spent the last 12 months researching, and in the course of writing a new book, Business Unusual: Values, Uncertainty and the Psychology of Brand Resilience (now available for pre-order), it is these shifts that have given me the profound sense of hope of what we could achieve if we are brave enough to dream boldly.
What this means in terms of how we reconnect and rebuild is as yet unknown, and there will be much work to be done to heal the wounds that continue to be inflicted by illness, loss and isolation. Yet it is also true that in this moment, right now, we are being offered the most precious and fleeting of opportunities to choose differently. To step back, take stock, and choose life. For, in the words of the great Joanna Macy, “It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power”.*
*Joanna Macy and the Great Turning (2014). Documentary Film
Let’s start with a thought experiment: For you personally, if lockdown had never happened, what would be different? I’ve been asking this question a lot in coaching conversations and in all cases it has provoked a deeply reflective response. Our circumstances have changed in so many ways that considering what would be different involves a lot of imagination. Whether you love it, hate it, or something in between, the changes to our circumstances and therefore our behaviours have become habitually ingrained and changing some of them will inevitably require a kind of rehabilitation.
So what has really changed, deep down in our human systems, emotionally, interpersonally, behaviourally? If we have indeed turned inwards?
American psychologist Will Schutz, the creator of a theory called Fundamental Interpersonal Relationship Orientation (FIRO), looked at interpersonal behaviour through the lenses of inclusion, control and openness. Inclusion describes our need for attention from other people. In important relationships we want to be invited to the party, we dislike being ignored, we like to feel important and make a difference, we like recognition and we are stimulated one way or another by alive behaviours like spontaneity. Control describes our need to be competent. We don’t like to be humiliated or screw up. We like to do a good job, to grow, to learn, to be right, to be in control, to influence, to decide. Openness describes the quality of our connections. We fundamentally need interpersonal affection but we really don’t like rejection so we protect ourselves by valuing trust, transparency and depth of connection.
During strict lockdown we were deprived of control, had incredibly low levels of inclusion and any gestures of affection were an absolute no-no! Psychologically, it has been a total disaster. If these are our fundamental interpersonal needs, how have the habit-forming restrictions of lockdown violated them, and how can we recover?
Have you heard the expression 100 days to make a habit? Well what does a year do? The duration of the limitations that prevented us from meeting our interpersonal needs healthily has been habit forming.
A recent and popular New York Times article by psychologist Adam Grant uses the social science term “Languishing” to describe the dominant mindset of 2021. It’s not depression or burnout but it feels a bit joyless and empty.
When a captive baby elephant (horrible concept, I know) is tethered to a stake in the ground with a metal chain it struggles for some time but eventually accepts its fate. After a while the chain can be replaced by a rope which the elephant could easily break free from but it never tries to. The previous unsuccessful attempts to escape have created a learned helplessness. This happens to us humans too. Learned helplessness is a state that occurs when a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they don’t even try. Later when opportunities for change become available they don’t notice because they have accepted their predicament.
When the roadmap to normality was announced by the UK government did you receive an influx of party invitations? Probably not. I’m sure the invitations will come, but right now people may still be a little tentative. Have we forgotten how to make things happen? I used to commute to London every day and thought nothing of it, now a trip to London seems like a grand day out.
To check yourself for a lockdown mindset, and to free yourself of it, here are a couple of friendly challenges:
Inclusion – you may have lost the appetite for gatherings. some things may seem like a lot of effort to attend and you may be rocked by spontaneity. Force yourself to say yes!
Control – it may seem like there is no point making plans until things are more certain. Make plans anyway!
Openness – You may think a zoom call is a perfectly adequate way to connect with people but it is not the same as physical proximity. Find ways to be in the moment with people in person.
I wish you all the best for your rehabilitation.
Have you noticed it?
You see it a lot these days in advertising, TV idents and posters.
A face that fixes you with its penetrating eyes and scrutinizing gaze. A face that is both fearful and controlling. A curious combination of both Big Brother power and caught-in-the-headlights impotence. A detachment, an alienation, a kind of paralysis.
The stare – and the adversarial stance that underpins it – is just one of several visible signs that society is experiencing an ‘inwards-turn’. It represents a disturbance in the relationship between the self and the world. It’s a sign that all is not well.
Ruskin once said ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.’
I think Ruskin was right. The images around us tell us a great deal about the time in which we live. And the stare has been with us for several years now.
But why now, why today? Because we have lived through times of extreme and rapid technological upheaval, which has resulted in both hyperconsciousness and psychological stress.
For the last two decades we have become increasingly focused on the technology in front of us. We spend on average around six hours a day on screens. It is believed that the average social media user scrolls the height of The Empire State Building in one day. Even our natural and learned physical posture today is one of looking downwards – at our phones, devices, laptops. If attention could be measured as degrees of a circle, then we are employing narrow-beam three-degree attention for much of our day. We are neglecting our broad-beam attention – the other 357 degrees of our attentive circle. Our attention has shifted from the world around us to the world directly in front of us.
It is broad-beam attention that roots us in the world and enables us to relate to the people around us. When we look inwards and downwards, we fail to connect with even those closest to us. We are physically there, but somehow not present. And when we turn inwards, we also turn on each other.
The stare is notable on the outside for its fixity, but it also embodies what is happening on the inside: a mental rigidity, an inner conviction, linear and oppositional thinking, and a desire not to engage. The blank stare is fast replacing spontaneity of expression in the face, a fluidity of thought and being, a subtlety of movement and expression; the face of a world where we seek to understand and appreciate each other.
Then the pandemic hit. We now find ourselves shut off from the very things that might give us a way out – human connection, novelty, spontaneity, even humour. Instead, many of us spend much of our day being stared at by others – and ourselves – on video calls in virtual boxes. Our isolation is now taking its toll on mental health. Indeed, the stare itself is a feature of mental illness.
The psychological stress we are under can be seen in advertising and, much as it has at other times in history, more broadly in culture. Civilisation has experienced the inwards-turn before. The stare is our warning sign.
So if there was ever a time to start looking upwards and outwards, it’s perhaps today.
Orlando Wood is author of Lemon (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, 2019), and is currently writing a new book to be published in the autumn. Orlando works at System1.
We’ve all been pushed further apart from our normal social pillars this last year. Physical interactions have been replaced with Netflix, introspection, and cult-like banana bread baking.
Long periods of social isolation have forced us to live more comfortably at home. The need to control our own lives is a natural response to government-imposed order and new heights of uncertainty. But has this made us less tolerant? Are the effects of the pandemic making us more uncomfortable with randomness, as we focus more on managing our own little routines to how we like them? Digital connection and information seeking is now deeply embedded into those routines which provides us with a better hold on what we do and don’t pay attention to online.
Might the combination of increased comfort, lower tolerance to uncertainty, and higher social media activity have polarized society a bit more?
An echo chamber is when beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication inside a closed system insulated from rebuttal. In the last year, we might have unknowingly drifted into digital echo chambers as diverse opinions/content fail to be seen. Personalisation algorithms selectively guess what information people would like to see by aligning suggested content with their interests. These algorithms could exacerbate our blindness to alternative viewpoints. This leverages the availability bias we’re all susceptible to where we perceive things that come more readily to mind as more representative. Familiar information is reinforced whereas unfamiliar content disappears.
This probably sounds quite Orwellian right now, but it brings important questions to light. Should digital and social media actually inject a degree of randomness into product design? This idea of anti-personalisation might disrupt the user experience at first but it could benefit society in the long run. Perhaps the consumer should be able to control the levels of personalisation they’re exposed to as a means of seeking less self-serving, predictable information.
Whilst it is difficult to know how digital is personalising content we see every day, it is much easier to inject some randomness into our physical lives like pre-pandemic times. Randomness, not comfort, is ironically rather good for humans. Without randomness our expectations take over which means our brains predictively fill in the gaps, whereas alternative perspectives expand creativity by helping to disintegrate the common grooves of thought. In memory of our life before the pandemic, let’s welcome the random. What big tech does about the matter will be a whole different story…