Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

There is a lot of chatter on economics blogs that the G7 plan isn't going to help. Cowen and Krugman to be exact; although, other blogs point to better views (calculated risk seems to have the best news updates at the moment for actual actions being implemented from the plan). So far it has all been financial fixes. Fair enough, but what of psychological ones? Top down governmental fixes onto swarming, fear-filled networks sounds like a monumental task. What is to be done? Well firstly, how do emotions spread? I consulted one of my favorite texts on this subject: Emotional Contagion by Elaine Hatfield et. al. 

Let's look firstly at what Hatfield and the others call 'the powerful communicators'. Those who are more potent at infecting others with their emotions. These individuals have three traits:

(1) They must feel (or at least appear to feel) strong emotions.
(2) They must be able to express (facially, vocally, and/or posturally) those strong emotions.
(3) When others are experiencing emotions incompatible with their own, they must be relatively insensitive to and unresponsive to the feelings of others. 

Let's look at individuals who are susceptible to emotional contagion. People are more likely to catch others' emotions if they:

(1) Rivet their attention on the others.
(2) Construe themselves in terms of their interrelatedness to the others.
(3) Are able to read others' emotional expressions, voices, gestures, and postures. 
(4) Tend to mimic facial, vocal, and postural expressions.
(5) Are aware of their own emotional responses.
(6) Are emotionally reactive. 

Hatfields and the others' work is at a micro-level among small group interactions. It is unknown if such generalities would hold onto massive populations of people. Nonetheless we could generalise and say the majority of individuals freaking out are those more likely to catch others' emotions and they are being driven by the powerful communicators (and each other). Read Krugman's post above, especially the last part on reading Paulson's body language. Krugman is susceptible to contagion and he is also a major opinion leader. A bad combination.  

How would you stop the contagion? 

A couple of strategies:

(1) Isolate the powerful communicators from the masses, especially if their communications spread fear.
(2) Isolate those susceptible to contagion from powerful communicators and the environment.
(3) Build a nation of emotionally intelligent individuals. 

There are possible others as well. Number one and two on my list are probably impossible and also may be counter-productive (after all, if things really are bad, then why shouldn't people know?). It also might be possible to counter the susceptible list by reversing their traits, e.g: (1) revert their attention elsewhere etc. Number three is a long term strategy and seems to be best, but it is not a short term fix. What does Hatfield and the other authors say on this? Well they say an emotionally intelligent person has three traits:

(1) The ability to understand and express one's own emotions and recognize them in others. 
(2) The ability to regulate one's own and others' emotions. 
(3) The ability to harness one's own emotions in order to motivate adaptive behaviours. 

I highly doubt such an all-encompassing emotional education would come about in the West, as those who consider themselves the most stoic and 'hard' would see such an education as 'soft', which is a shame considering that emotional control is a key to power. Robert Greene -- author of The 48 Laws of Power -- says that emotional control is the key to acquiring power, especially control of anger and fear. I don't know about other commentators, but anger and fear seem to be at quite high at the moment (especially in the financial and political world). If controlling fear and anger are key to acquisition of power, then losing ourselves to them will also lead us down a path of powerlessness. 

Update: Found this comment on Metafilter. The quote from Jeremy Grantham quotes another aspect of power that we ignore at our peril: ignorance of history. Here is the quote: 

Do you have any closing thoughts about how we got into this financial state?

I ask myself, "Why is it that several dozen people saw this crisis coming for years?" I described it as being like watching a train wreck in very slow motion. It seemed so inevitable and so merciless, and yet the bosses of Merrill Lynch and Citi and even [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke -- none of them seemed to see it coming.

I have a theory that people who find themselves running major-league companies are real organization-management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget. They are somewhat impatient, and focused on the present. Seeing these things requires more people with a historical perspective who are more thoughtful and more right-brained -- but we end up with an army of left-brained immediate doers.

So it's more or less guaranteed that every time we get an outlying, obscure event that has never happened before in history, they are always going to miss it. And the three or four-dozen-odd characters screaming about it are always going to be ignored.

If you look at the people who have been screaming about impending doom, and you added all of those several dozen people together, I don't suppose that collectively they could run a single firm without dragging it into bankruptcy in two weeks. They are just a different kind of person.

So we kept putting organization people -- people who can influence and persuade and cajole -- into top jobs that once-in-a-blue-moon take great creativity and historical insight. But they don't have those skills.


Jay@Soob said...

I like the honesty in that quote. I'd add that if you set up a black jack table where win or lose you can walk away with more money than you had prior to sitting down you can hardly expect people to not take advantage of it however morally corrupt it seems.

Adam Elkus said...

I posted on this a little while ago--financial market and media messages as a form of secular apocalypse discourse.