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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Paula Niedenthal, Emotions & Social Psychology


Emotions & Social Psychology

Paula Niedenthal


Paula Niedenthal is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focus is in the functions of emotion expression, socio-ecological shapers of emotion culture, and the physiological basis of social tolerance. She was a researcher in the National Centre for Scientific Research in France for 14 years and is Past-President of the Society for Affective Science.

Transcription of the video


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

I’m noticing that during this time, people are sitting with the details of their life, their families, their actual environment, their actual landscape, much more than they have done in the past, on average, and spending less time planning and constructing and anticipating an experience often somewhere else that they could possibly have to gain fulfillment or pleasure. For example, rather than planning a trip abroad that’s filled with mishaps and standing in the rain and getting sick and potentially not having a lot of pleasure, but then deriving a lot of pleasure later when people give you social credit for doing that trip or where you can make it seem incredibly interesting. Instead of doing that people are walking to the store or making bread or discovering that the landscape around their home, whether it’s urban or rural, is very beautiful. I think a benefit of that is that people continue to recognize the bottom-up influences on their psychological well-being and their happiness as much as they recognize that happiness can be derived from social credit and from telling stories later about things that might elicit envy or just other kinds of social credit.


What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

Daniel Kahneman has referred to this kind of distinction by using the terms the experiencing self versus the remembering self. The experiencing self, is that person who is deriving pleasure or fulfillment from the moment and from the details of one’s life, whereas the remembering self is the person who is deriving pleasure from the recounting essentially, which is an interior or later or socially constructed form of pleasure. If people could learn about this distinction, and harness those two ways of deriving pleasure or well-being as two different kinds of resources, then they can later, when they’re facing challenges to one or the other, focus or abilities or places to derive pleasure and well-being and meaning they could use those two different kinds of resources rather than, I would say, getting off-kilter and only putting more time, resources or money into one rather than the other.


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

Because of my particular interests and research interests, people have noted a lot to me, what wearing masks over their faces does to them psychologically, and similarly, what working at home alone does to them and what they’re referring to is deindividuation. So if you have a mask on your face, you don’t really make eye contact with other people because you don’t feel visible to them in the first place. Because much of your identity is gone. I pass people on bikes who I don’t recognize to be my own neighbors. Our concern would be that these feelings of deindividuation also persist beyond this pandemic, where people are able to navigate in the social world with the feeling that nobody is really identifying them. And the costs that come with deindividuation are things like not feeling responsible for one’s particular behavior or being unusually susceptible to social norms. So my concern is that this persists.


What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

Recognizing and understanding the consequences of deindividuation. And that’s part of the wisdom. The other part is to counteract it. So I recently was in a grocery store in a small town in the state that I live in, of Wisconsin. I noticed repeatedly now that the management there has told the workers who are wearing masks to make eye contact with other people wearing masks, which is most other people, and say hello and how’s your day, while making eye contact. I feel like the manager of those grocery stores has the wisdom to counteract people’s tendency to avoid eye contact and otherwise feel deindividuated. So the wisdom to be derived is the knowledge of the susceptibilities and negative consequences of deindividuation and the wisdom to counteract it by systematic social changes involving moments of individuation for other people.


What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

I think that one piece of wisdom is to let go of righteous indignation. A big concern that I have is that the data about the pandemic and about its consequences and especially about its causes change daily and are extraordinarily difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, people are very quick to be righteously indignant towards friends and families and neighbors and other countries about the right behavior versus the wrong behavior. The consequence of that would be to lose really important relationships both within individuals and intergroup relationships. A piece of wisdom is to let go of that righteous indignation and recognize everybody’s difficulty in interpreting the data and adopting the right social and health behaviors right now.

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