In the Grip of Human Instincts

Have you found during the Covid endemic that everything seems heightened? Many, many people with whom I’ve interacted in the past months have conveyed to me how they feel exhausted—almost numb—by life under such pervasive, continuous stress. These Covid-context conversations keep reminding me of our human instincts...and how they often lead us astray.

Hearing on the news from so many epidemiologists and public health officials makes me feelGrip-of-human-instincts.jpg like I’m watching a “human behavior lab” play out before my eyes. In a recent client encounter, the small team’s discussion turned to a shared sense of pure burnout, in part because they felt they were experiencing a relentless linear pattern that would only continue in one direction. Feeling the weight of that assumption, they were hunkering down and just trying to survive as best they could.

I’m not intending this to sound melodramatic…but the exhaustion was palpable to me….and we’ve been here before…

…unless we are mindful, we’re likely to feel that we’re completely in the grip of these instinctive feelings; we may never realize that by remaining unaware (or, worse, disinterested in positive, plausible alternative views) we’re actually contributing to the very pattern that seems to lock us in to feeling disturbed.

As you know from our past exchanges, I’m drawn to the question of possibility, choosing to illuminate all the strengths and tailwinds we have going for us. Yet, during Covid times, I routinely encounter people for whom the mindset shift to the good, the better, and the best is still too big a leap.

What I’ve been doing of late when I recognize people struggling is to gently invite them to pause, center, and then shift (thank you for that coaching, Norman Wolfe). The pause is crucial because it interrupts the otherwise instinctive flow of thought. Why is it so important to interrupt this flow (especially since its happening to us unconsciously and, in so many ways, we rationalize that it’s serving us well)?

Because the mindset shift won’t happen without you becoming aware of the current pattern of thinking.

Shortly after its publication in 2018, I devoured Hans Rosling's book, Factfulness: 10 Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. This amazing Swedish medical doctor, professor of international health, renowned public educator, TED Talk superstar, adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, cofounder of Médecins Sans Frontièrres and the Gapminder Foundation, died in 2017 shortly after completing his book.

He was such an astute student of human behavior. I wonder what he’d be saying to us today against the backdrop of several interlocking global crises?

Rosling does us an exquisite service by reminding us of our patterned behavior, born of our shared human instincts. Here’s my notes about the ten he identifies and steps we can all take to interrupt the pattern…so we can ultimately pursue the shift.

Rosling’s Ten Human Instincts that Block Our Best Thinking and Acting

1.     Gap Instinct

That irresistible temptation to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between…. The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement. It is the first instinct on our list because it’s so common and distorts the data so fundamentally.

  • ​​​​Factfulness is…recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.
  • To control the gap instinct, look for the majority; beware comparisons of averages; beware comparisons of extremes; remember, looking down from above distorts the view….everything else looks equally short, but it’s not.

2.     Negativity Instinct

Our tendency to notice the bad more than the good.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.
  • To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news (which is kinda what news is); understand that things can be both better and bad; good news is not news, so when you get bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you.

3.     Straight Line Instinct

The assumption that a line will just continue straight.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality.
  • To control the straight line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes—S-bends, slides, humps, doubling lines; no child ever kept up the rate of growth it achieved in its first six months, and no parents would expect it to.

4.     Fear Instinct

A terrible guide for understanding the world. It makes us give our attention to the unlikely dangers that we are most afraid of, and neglect what is actually most risky.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.
  • To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks; the world seems scarier than it is because your own attention filter (amplified by your media diet); understanding that risk = danger (real, not hyped) x exposure.

5.     Size Instinct

Directs our limited attention and resources toward those individual instances or identifiable victims, those concrete things right in front of our eyes.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number.
  • To control the size instinct, get things in perspective; compare things; remember the 80/20 rule; divide—amounts and rates can tell different stories.

6.     Generalization Instinct

Mistakenly grouping together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different. It can make us assume everything or everyone in one category is similar. And, maybe most unfortunate of all, it can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.​​​​​​​
  • To control the generalization instinct, question your categories; look for differences within groups; look for similarities across groups; but also look for differences across groups; beware of “the majority”; beware of vivid examples; assume people are not idiots.

7.     Destiny Instinct

The idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.​​​​​​​
  • To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change; keep track of gradual improvements; update your knowledge; talk to Grandpa to be reminded of how values change; collect examples of cultural change.

8.     Single Perspective Instinct

A preference for single causes and single solutions.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.​​​​​​​
  • To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer; test your ideas; understand the limits of expertise; be open to ideas from other fields; love numbers, but not only numbers; beware of simple ideas and simple solutions.

9.     Blame Instinct

The instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. This instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future.
  • To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat; look for causes, not villains; look for systems, not heroes.

10.  Urgency Instinct

The call to action makes you think less critically, decide more quickly, and act now.

  • Factfulness is…recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is.​​​​​​​
  • To control the urgency instinct, take small steps; take a breath; insist on the data; beware of fortune-tellers; be wary of drastic action.

My longtime curiosity about appreciative inquiry and my more recent study of reinvention provides traction in grappling with these instincts. AI jumpstarts the mindset shift toward a co-evolutionary search for the best of what is. Reinvention comes alongside that mindset shift to embrace the toolsets and skillsets to guide a relevant response. Together, they propel cascading lift.

I'm on a mission to bring this powerful blend into serving from wherever I am--and whomever I'm with--in every moment. Purposeful intention.

Wanna come along? Let me know how you’re navigating these instincts and how you’re shifting. Let’s learn from each other.