The need to be in control of one’s fate is profound. When we feel in control, our brain feels ‘empowered’. Whether in a social, behavioural, psychological or economic context, to be empowered is to feel certainty in our lives.

COVID-19 is challenging that sense of control. As a result, hundreds of millions - if not billions - of brains around the world are feeling collectively disempowered. And that sense of disempowerment is likely to be stronger for those who strongly identified with being ‘an individual’, ‘self-made’, or ‘a lone wolf’ - a common archetype in the USA (and the West in general). 


because COVID-19 makes explicit that ‘independence’ (metaphorical, psychological and/or physical) does not exist in any literal sense. Nor has it ever existed. No one - indeed no living system - is an island. We are all fundamentally affected by others, as well as our local and global environments. It has always been this way, and you don’t have to look outside your own body for evidence that this is true. Even your ‘own’ body is a collective, interdependent system of self and ‘non-self’ cells. For many, they are surprised to learn that only 10% of the cells inside you actually ‘belong’ to you. For every one of your cells, there are 10 microorganisms living symbiotically along with your own cells. And that is the point: Mutualism. If they weren’t there doing what they do, your cells - i.e., you - would die. 

At this time, many (some for the first time) are becoming acutely aware that their lives are not their own. Which makes COVID-19, not only a threat to our physical certainty, it also threatens our sense of self (and freedom of self). Having your physical and perceptual selves challenged is hard. Which is why for many people, their brains will instead feel disempowered by life’s inherent interdependence. Afterall, to be dependent on other’s or one’s environment for one’s well-being is to have less control over one’s future. We’d rather feel pain than feel that sense of uncertainty.

In a recent study, scientists at University College London showed that the human brain finds it "... much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won't” (quote by lead author of the study, Archy de Berker). In other words, not knowing what is going to happen next is more stressful to the brain than knowing with certainty that something bad is going to happen. 

So … what happens to your brain when it perceives itself to be disempowered? 

Ignorance, gullibility, delusion and even anger can ensue.

In a Lab of Misfits study, Richard Clarke and I explored what happens to our perceptions of the world when we feel disempowered. To this end, we asked a group of subjects to close their eyes and remember a time when they felt highly stressed and ‘out of control’ (much like many of us are feeling now). They were then asked to visualise that time in as much detail as possible for 5 minutes. Meanwhile another group of people were asked to remember a time when they also felt stressed but ‘in control. After both groups had visualised for 5 minutes, they were then asked to describe their personal memory in writing in as much detail as possible, from the complexity of their feelings, to their breathing, to the colours of their clothes, to the smells and sounds, etc. 

This is what we call ‘priming’; a common technique in neuroscience and psychology. After ‘priming’, each subject was presented with the scene below, and asked to adjust the brightness of the left circle on a dark background until it appeared to be just as light as the small right circle on the light background. This process of ‘measuring perception’ is called psychophysics, which is a main-stay of the Lab of Misfits (and many other perceptual neuroscience labs around the world). It’s an objective, neuroscientific method for objectively measuring a person’s subjective experience. 

For most of you the two small circles at the centres of the light and dark backgrounds will appear different, with the circle on the dark background being the lighter of the two. What might surprise you is that they are in fact physically identical (as seen below without their backgrounds) ...

This is called ‘simultaneous brightness contrast’, and it’s arguably one of the simplest illusions that our brains see. What is fascinating is - despite the fundamental nature of the perception -  subjects who were in a disempowered state actually saw the illusion more strongly than those whose brains were in an empowered state! 

And more … 

Subjects who were manipulated to feel disempowered were not only more affected by this illusion of light, they were also more susceptible to an equivalent illusion of time! They were less able to determine whether two moments had the same (or different) durations. Time warped.

And even more … 

A disempowered brain is more likely to see objects where no objects actually exist! 

Whitson and Galinsky have shown that a brain that is primed to be disempowered is more likely to see hidden objectS within ‘noise images’ in which there was no object (such as the one above). I.e., they imagined that they could see meaningful patterns when none existed. 

While our above research shows that feeling disempowered impacts our most basic perceptions, it can also affect our ‘higher-level’ perceptions. For example, in a fascinating study, Fessler and Holbrook found that being bound to a chair increased a man’s estimate of the size of another, angry man, while simultaneously decreasing the estimate of their own height (note: they specifically used men in their study). And this is not only true for the minds of bound men, but also the minds of children bound by poverty: Children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, estimate the size of coins to be larger than those from wealthier backgrounds; Hungry people are more likely to see food in ambiguous images; People estimate distances to be greater and hills to be steeper when they are exhausted or carrying a heavy load. 

So why do we see illusions stronger and become more gullible and manipulatable?

The need to increase control is an intrinsic motivator of human perception and behaviour (and indeed animal behaviour more generally). Which means that these perceptions and actions, which may seem inappropriate, are actually an attempt by disempowered individuals to find a way out of their uncertain context and increase a sense of control/power. 

The research on the disempowered brain also explains why - especially in times of crisis - there is a tendency towards conspiracies. Recent ones in this time of COVID-19 include the conspiracy that many think ‘explains’ the behaviour of Bill Gates (who is in fact one of the leading supporters of viral research around the world). Another theory believes 5G towers caused COVID-19. 

Like conspiracy theorists, companies too are in the business of reducing uncertainty of their audience / customers / clients.  As the insightful marketing guru Rory Sutherland pointed out to me, the success of Uber is less about disrupting the taxi industry (which most ascribe it to be), and more in line with our own research on uncertainty, in this case our need for certainty about where the taxi is and when it will arrive. In the context of Uber, its success is not about convenience, price or scale but the map on the app which shows how far away the ride is. Sutherland linked this to humankind's inbuilt fear of uncertainty. 

Why might any of this matter to you? 

… because (1) people whose brains are in a disempowered state are more gullible, easily manipulated and controlled, and (2) because it doesn’t require one to actually ‘know’ they are in a disempowered brain-state to perceive themselves and the world in the manner consistent with being disempowered. Here’s an instance which shows how suggestable our brains are - even unconsciously so! 

Becoming aware of how and why you see what we do will give you choice in how you see the world and yourself. And that sense of choice, will shift your brain from one that feels disempowered to one that feels empowered. It will also help you see how those who lead you, or who are led by you, those who you love or are loved by you, they - like you - are also making choices that are often in the service of one outcome: To feel empowered by decreasing their own future uncertainty. 

So, what choices do we in fact have in the face of uncertainty. We can either let our brain become disempowered or empowered. There are only a few: Get sad, get angry, panic or expand. 

We will address the merits of these options in the next blogs. 


Written by: Beau Lotto.


Find out more
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...

Related Posts