Feeling Fatigued? You’re Not Alone.

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Feeling emotionally fatigued? Imagine how players in the NBA playoffs must’ve felt last month. Following another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, players were faced with a difficult choice: protest the death of Jacob Blake, or play as scheduled.

Many chose to protest – a decision viewed by some as an empty gesture of the entitled, and by others as a courageous stand of the outraged. Regardless, as a behavioral scientist, I can tell you that these athletes – alongside many of us – are fatigued.

Right now, many Americans are experiencing something we call “identity fatigue” – exhaustion from everything we’re being asked to do. Wear a mask. Protest for social change. Hire a diverse workforce. Buy sustainable goods. Get out and vote. And don’t forget to do your job – from home.

Playing all of these identities – hero, activist, green consumer, possible contagion, mindful citizen, dutiful employee – is exhausting. It’s exactly how professor Roger Reeves described the pressures of protest on Black athletes in his moving essay, “Black athletes were exhausted with bearing the dead on their shoulders.”

“They were exhausted, so they stopped working,” wrote Reeves. “Exhausted by the pandemic and laboring inside the bubble that allowed the NBA to salvage its season and profits. Exhausted by the isolation. Exhausted by this latest summer of killings by the police and white supremacist vigilantes.”

Do you see it now? Reeves is talking about the compounding pressures of multiple identities on these athletes. I count at least four: Black American, citizen surviving the pandemic, hard-working employee, and mobilizer for social change.

How many rolls are you being asked to play?

Remember how tired you felt when your mom barged in on a Saturday morning, demanding you do the chores you’d been putting off all week? Now amplify that to a national scale – and add a racial reckoning, an ever-present climate crisis and a global pandemic.

This kind of fatigue can pose actual dangers. The UK government used it as a reason not to impose stronger regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus, arguing that too many restrictions would cause behavioral fatigue and lead to non-compliance. In the U.S., we’re being hit with so many changing demands at once that even the simplest actions, like wearing a mask, can get blurred.

Luckily, behavioral science can help us all fight the fatigue.

Practice Radical Acceptance. One study found that not fully adopting an identity can lead to burnout and fatigue. Self-doubt is a big part of this, as is playing “out of position” in multiple roles. Operating as an executive, a teacher’s assistant, and a Zoom technician all from your kitchen table can make it difficult to adopt one singular identity. The remedy here – rather than rejecting these new roles – is to practice radical acceptance. Yes, life is weird now – but accept it, stop fighting it, and move on.

Pick Your Sources. Consistent miscommunication and mistrust can push us to tune out the world. First, we weren’t supposed to wear masks, and now we are? No one knows anything, so I’m listening to nothing, right? Wrong. You can combat this tendency by being a smart shopper for accurate information. Don’t follow hashtags on Twitter, follow accounts you trust to tell you the truth.

Limit Your Options. We all love the freedom of choice, but having too many options can actually ruin your motivation to make any decision at all. It can also make you unhappier with the choice you do make. Some, such as Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, limit their clothing choices to free up brain space for work. Others cook ahead on Sunday, so they don’t have to decide what to make for dinner every night. You have a shirt that looks good on a Zoom call? Amazing! Buy one in every color.

Among many other things, this pandemic has reminded us of our interconnectedness and the potential of our actions to impact those around us – a realization at once empowering and exhausting. And as we continue on in face of these challenges, knowing what is causing this exhaustion might help us better manage identity fatigue and provide a healthier way to engage with the world.

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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How To Lose Your ‘Quarantine 15’

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The pandemic ruined a lot of things: graduations, vacations, family reunions, the economy, and maybe even your New Year’s resolutions. Forget losing weight, am I right? The Quarantine 15 is, says Yale’s medical school, a “perfect storm for people who struggle with weight.” We’re stuck with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future, so if we want to get rid of the weight, we need to change our behavior.

Lucky for you, I’m a behavioral scientist.

I am certainly not a physical trainer. My fitness level can be best described as “I played the oboe in high school and analyzed data in college.”,I’ve always been drawn to activities that use my brain more than my body and all have one thing in common: they’re activities where I get to sit. A lot.

As a child, I wanted to be carried so often my grandma told my mom to have my legs checked out for disease. There was nothing wrong, I just love sitting.

Growing up in the internet age, I felt the pressure many of us do to look like the women on social media and popular culture. So when I did decide to exercise, I would set goals as high as the ones I put on myself for work success, not understanding that I’d been neglecting the former and training for the latter my whole life. Needless to say, putting the same pressure on my fitness that I did for my job meant I was setting myself up for failure against both. Sticking to a rigorous exercise routine never lasted for more than four months. If I’m being honest, closer to two. And falling off the wagon meant staying off the wagon for months, sometimes years, at a time.

Then COVID happened, and I got tired of sitting. I wasn’t walking to my train for work, frantically speed-walking between meetings at the office, or even running out for lunch. In the Before Times, I spent most of my day sitting, sure, but there were moments of movement.

Like many others, COVID became a time for me to reset my habits. It gave me the space to set a new mindset around exercise and finally listen to my own good advice that I’d been giving for years working in behavioral science. So far, it’s working. Ask me again in four (maybe even two) months, but for now, this is how I’m building better habits:

My BIG trick? Start small. In fact, don’t set goals about the outcome, just the process.

This might feel counter-intuitive, but when we set aspirational goals, we often set ones that are high and difficult to achieve – making it easy for us to fall short and give up early on. If you’re starting from zero, try encouraging yourself to take a half-hour walk three times a week. Success, then, is just taking a walk, not losing a specific number of pounds. Biggest reason people stop exercising? Failure. So set yourself up for easy wins.

Be easy on yourself. This feels obvious. Adopting an “it’s okay, I’ll try again tomorrow”, mindset will help you stay on the wagon. My advice? Just do more today than you did yesterday. And don’t set parameters on what days and times you do it. Just encourage yourself to get it done when and where you can. If you define success as just not quitting, you’re far less likely to end up like the majority of people who dump their fitness routine after just six months.

Ditch the desire for instant. In a world of Instagram perfect bodies, it’s easy to forget that those bodies took time. A LOT of time. Ditch the pressure you put on your body to see results immediately and think about exercise as a journey for your wholistic wellbeing, rather than a means to an Instagram-perfect end. If you put off enjoying things until you’ve achieved a destination, then you’re missing out the entire journey.

Slow and steady wins this race. By the time the pandemic ends, you’ll find that the result won’t be your real reward, but the habits you’ve built along the way. Have fun!

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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How Stores Can Improve Their Mask-Up Game

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Whether you wear a mask depends on many factors, such as your level of education, gender, partisanship, or – and I admit, this is a smaller category – whether you play catcher for a Major League Baseball team. A contextual factor more common, though, is whether or not the places you shop require them, which can put retail and grocery workers in the difficult and unfamiliar position of enforcing public health rules.

Whatever you think about masks, we can all agree that customer service means something very different than it did in January. Now the clerk trained to believe the customer is always right is having to, for all practical effects, play cop when the customer is wrong, leading to some dicey situations. Recently, police were called when two guys got rough because they were told they had to wear masks in a Manhattan Trader Joe’s. That’s precisely why Home Depot doesn’t enforce its own mask mandate.
“It’s too dangerous to forcibly or physically deny entry,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post.

“Employees should not be expected to put their safety and their life on the line for the employer. That’s an unreasonable expectation,” the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said recently in calling for stores to hire security guards to enforce the rules.

There is an easier way. Instead of escalating conflict with armed security guards, businesses can leverage insights from behavioral science to encourage customers to wear masks. To do that, we need to break down what we’re being asked to do in two buckets: first, knowing about the mask requirement before we enter the store, and second, actually doing so inside the store.

The tried-and-true behavioral science advice for getting people to put the mask on in the first place is to appeal to our identity, or sense of self and duty to others, which is tricky for the reasons explained above. The good news is that businesses can appeal to our identities as loyal shoppers and advocates as a loyalist of a brand. Instead of “You must wear a mask,” it’s “Trader Joe’s shoppers wear masks!”

Another proven tactic is to use humor to diffuse tension. Go on social media for any length of time and you’ll see signs from small businesses already using this gambit, such as the business that printed a notice allowing customers to enter without masks if they had their temperature checked, and wouldn’t you know it, they were all out of oral thermometers!

Once inside the store, things get a little trickier. I don’t know about you, but it took me months before I stopped adjusting the mask. To help us feel normal wearing masks, businesses can do what they are already doing to encourage social distancing – place physical reminders everywhere.

And we’re not talking scolding signs reminding us “Thou Shalt Wear a Mask!” Just as stores tape markers on the floor six feet apart and all employees wear masks to normalize this behavior, businesses could leverage in-store design. Think of all the in-store marketing materials you see now of models. Now, imagine if all those models were masked. That would send a cue to your brain that wearing a mask was not just normal, but perhaps even desired, something to be emulated.

Finally, we need to be constantly reminded that we wear masks most of all to protect the frontline workers doing the essential work, often for low wages. Their jobs expose them to a deadly pandemic every day they go to work so you can get what you need whether it’s in an ER, a grocery store, or even a coffee shop. We wear a mask so they don’t die because they rang up your Honey Nut Cheerios.

For all that divides us – and masks have certainly become talismans of division – this pandemic unites us. Regardless of whether we think it’s a hoax or a plague, we’re all dealing with it one way or another. And it’s reminding us that we’re all in this together that will ultimately be the thing that gets us through it, one trip to Trader Joe’s at a time.

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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Overwhelmed by Coronavirus Advice? Act Like A Toddler.

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We’re getting a lot of advice these days. Some of the tips for the pandemic are good, such as wearing masks. Some of it – like injecting bleach – is actually dangerous. As a behavioral scientist, I know that the advice I’m about to give you is backed up by years of research, but as a semi-functional adult I’m aware it’s going to sound pretty dumb.

To navigate awkward social settings during the pandemic, act like a toddler.

No, I don’t mean throwing a fit because you won’t buy yourself popsicles. When I suggest acting like a toddler to navigate awkward social situations, I’m referencing research that shows how well-suited preschool-age children are to this uncertain era and how badly our adult brains are conditioned to it.

Recently, I went out to eat at a few restaurants and was struck how awkward I felt. I didn’t know where to stand, where and how to sit, what the mask procedures were, and if I should be using the hand sanitizer on the host station. What was once an unconscious behavior has become more fraught than a middle-school cafeteria.

Making matters worse is that each restaurant had different rules of engagement. Some had special walkways with poorly placed signage on the floor marking paths. Others had bricks on the table that signified various stages of the cleaning process. (Customers had to turn the bricks over when they left, which is more of a code than a system.) Some had installed foot pedals for opening the bathroom door but not the signage to make their presence obvious. There were so many new rules that each time I felt like I was eating at restaurant for the first time.

Meanwhile, my four-year-old friend Wren has no problem adapting to the new rules. Wren’s face lights up if you talk about the parties you can throw after “corina,” as she calls it, but she never bugs her parents about going to the pool or the park. And she has no problem loudly calling out anyone not wearing a mask. That’s because by age three children begin to understand social norms and readily accept any behavior if everyone else is doing it. So if no one is going to the pool and everyone is wearing a mask, then that’s just the way it is. She’d probably love the rule about turning over brick.

My brain, unlike a toddler’s, is conditioned to deal with a social environment by following the usual cues that help us resolve uncertainty. These new social settings and their unestablished cues – here a food pedal, there a brick – cause uncertainty and anxiety.

The result is what social scientists call “peer discomfort,” or what you feel in a situation where someone is acting differently from what you perceive the rule is. Whereas a toddler’s brain loves clear rules, an adult’s brain trips over the cognitive dissonance between the difference what you see and what you know to be true, such as seeing people shake hands.

Another disorienting factor for an adult’s brain is called “audience inhibition.” That’s when you’re in an environment that used to operate under the old rules, such as a grocery store or a restaurant, where people now act in unfamiliar ways. The brain’s natural response is to be afraid of doing anything that might cause embrassment, leading to herd behavior. Do I wear a mask here? Should I use the hand sanitizer before or after I swipe my card? I’ll just do what that guy is doing.

A new study published in Scientific American suggests that to ease this widespread uncertainty, we need to create the expectation that we’re all expected to follow new social norms. We’re talking about creating clear guidelines on why we act this way now – to help other people, and so we don’t get kicked out of restaurants, grocery stores, and other old places where new behaviors are expected.

The core principle we need to reinforce is fairness: What’s good for the hive is good for the bee. If we’re aware of our place in the hive and how the hive operates, we can develop new habits and work through the temporary anxiety of feeling out of place at the local grocery store, where, it should be said, you should really treat yourself to the good popsicles. Wren would want you to reward yourself for wearing a mask.

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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There’s a Reason Opinions About Confederate Statues Have Changed So Quickly

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What you think about removing Confederate statues has less to do with your opinions about race and more with how you perceive the motivation behind removing them in the first place.

Jim Penniman-Morin, who majored in military history at West Point before serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew up seeing Robert E. Lee as a hero. Now, the ex-Army officer sees Confederal markers, such as military bases named after Confederate leaders, as disrespectful to the troops.

“It’s cruel to send an African-American teenager off to war from a base named for a person celebrated because of their disdain for racial equality,” he said. “No amount of nostalgia is worth causing a young soldier to feel unwelcome because of their skin color.”

Spurred by Charlottesville’s plans to remove a statue of Lee, the bloody Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 caused cities and schools all over the country to take a fresh look at whether Confederate history required public monuments. At the time, Americans leaned towards keeping them up, with 52% in favor of letting statues of Confederate leaders remain standing, twice as many as favored taking them down.

Now, many Americans, like Morin, have changed their minds after seeing George Floyd’s killing because the protests are not just one city at a time – it’s in almost all of them all at once. We all have access to the video of George Floyd’s killing as well as hundreds of incidents of police brutality. And now only 44% of us support keeping Confederate monuments against a growing 32% who want to take ‘em down. To see a net 14% swing in only three years on a subject that ended more than a century and half ago is, well, monumental.

Before we can understand why people are changing their minds, we have to look into the brain. When you break Confederate symbols down to their component parts, you see that a flag is just a dyed piece of cloth and a statue is simply a hunk of metal melted down to form a shape.

People care so much because that material is infused with meaning. From birth, our brain spends its time putting information into buckets. It’s how you can tell that big thing with four wheels in your driveway is a car or a truck. At the same time, and without our conscious awareness, culture encourages us to impose meaning, values and virtues on the objects we see, which is why you might think people who have a 2020 Ferrari have money or status and people with a 2001 Toyota have less.

Confederate monuments have a culturally significant meaning that signals virtue. For many, a statue of Robert E. Lee is a signal of preserving American history and local tradition, but for the growing majority of Americans, that same statue has evolved to symbolize oppression.

Likewise, the act of removing historical monuments sends a signal that is equally open to interpretation. When NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, some saw the declaration as an act of sincerity, others saw corporate bandwagoning.

Science suggests the way we perceive the motives behind removing or banning Confederate markers may determine how accepting we are of that change. If you think the motivation of those who call for removing statues, renaming military bases, or banning the Confederate flags comes from a sincere place, you’re more likely to be open to those moves. If you interpret them as politically or commercially intentioned, you’re more likely to disagree.

“If people think that the removal of flags and statues is out of political correctness or to garner votes for their side, then people are going to be less likely to support social change. But if people realize that these acts are not just lip service and that there’s an authentic concern behind them, then positive social change is likely to transpire” said Dr. Emile Bruneau, who directs the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

That’s what changed Morin’s mind. His brother-in-law, who teaches high school in Jacksonville, shared with Morin the feelings of Black students who drove by Confederate monuments every day to schools named for Confederate leaders. Those students got the message. Finally, Morin did, too.

“Those students were indeed receiving the message those symbols were always meant to convey,” said Morin, “and that’s not fair to them.”

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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One Positive Side Effect Of The Coronavirus

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If you noticed a lot more cash parked in your checking account lately, you’re not alone.

Americans haven’t been saving this much money since the Great Depression, and antiquated Depression-era values such as thrift and duty are making a comeback. But embracing those virtues doesn’t mean Americans have become more virtuous. The pandemic and resulting economic catastrophe have upended the how we respond certain behavioral cues.

In these unprecedented times, we’re behaving quite predictably.

The scale of this behavioral change is staggering. Before COVID-19, Americans ranked 19th in the world in retirement security. The personal savings rate had been inching up from 3.7% in 2007 to an average 8.2% in the first seven months of 2019 – but now it’s blown up: 12.7% in March and 33% in April, nearly doubling the previous record since they started asking the question in 1960.

When asked to explain this behavioral shift, most analysts blame shuttered retail outlets and vague credit fear for finally getting Americans to save, but the truth is that Americans aren’t making rational decisions even when making good decisions. We’re all simply responding differently to stimuli because the context in which we make decisions has changed.

Take the principle of time preference, for example, which plays a role in how one perceives an immediate or future benefit from saving money. Before, saving was for something in the future – retirement, travel, or uncertain calamities. Now, saving is for a clear and present economic danger as a quarter of all American workers have filed for unemployment.

Our tendency to forgot future benefits in favor of the here and now is something we call present bias. Present bias is the main reason Americans ran up huge credit card bills and failed to save for rainy days. We still have a bias for the present, but the incentives have flipped. Mind you, at 0% interest no one is saving for the future. COVID-19’s 2% mortality rate and the 14.7% unemployment rate incentivize saving for what might happen later today.

Loss aversion is another trick our brains play on us. We are more likely to act to avoid losses than we are to realize wins, even when the odds are better for a win and a loss wouldn’t hurt that bad. Before, loss aversion explained a lot of big bar tabs and splurging while on vacations. We expected to have good times and were willing to spend more so our experiences could meet those expectations. Now, the equation for loss aversion have dramatically shifted in the other direction as we’re focused on avoiding losing much more tangible things: jobs, housing, basic financial viability, even our lives.

No one can say for certain whether Americans will continue to save money when this is all over, partly because no one can say for certain when this is all over. How long we wait for a vaccine and whether we face successive waves of infections until then will likely determine whether the society that survives will return to rewarding displays of conspicuous consumption.

In today’s world, we admire essential workers nearly as much as we value essential products themselves. Will we recreate the Roaring ‘20s if the economy comes roaring back?

Right now, the best thing Americans can do to protect their financial security is to hoard money. Luckily, the behavioral cues incentivize optimal personal outcomes amid suboptimal public turmoil.

With so little to celebrate these days, we should take a moment to at least acknowledge this: It might have taken a deadly pandemic and economic cataclysm, but Americans are finally saving money.

Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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Why Graduation Feels Empty

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Nick Culver worked for years to get to this point, endlessly practicing his French horn, performing, and studying theory, all to graduate this month with a music degree from Michigan State University.

For most of us, the big event at the end of college is wearing a cap and gown and walking in a graduation ceremony in front of our family. For Nick, the pinnacle of his studies was the final recital in front of his peers. But because of COVID-19, he couldn’t even practice with his accompanist, much less perform for an audience.

What should have been the high point of his college career was him playing alone on a stage to an empty concert hall with a virtual audience. “It was also crippling to look at my four years and say, ‘This is what it has amounted to,’” he said.

Nick’s special – few can perform “Irremediable Breakdown” by Nathan Pawelek solo to an unseen audience – but his feeling of emptiness is common to millions of people who were expecting senior proms, graduation ceremonies, and final performances.

It doesn’t make the feeling any easier, but cognitive science has an explanation. It’s called the peak-end rule. Regardless of how long, hard, painful, or happy an experience was, your judgment of that experience will be determined by the most extreme moments or what came last.

The peak-end rule is why going to Disneyland evokes memories of the time you met a real-life princess or the day ending with a parade and fireworks – not the long lines and high prices. It’s why companies send you thank you cards when you buy something or condolence cards when your pet dies. That way, your last memory isn’t spending money or putting your dog down.

These peak-end moments make such an impact on us because they elevate moments of happiness, instill pride by capturing us at our best, provide insight into ourselves, and connect us to each other, such as with parades, weddings, baptisms, and graduations. And for poor Nick, you take away the events created to give affirmation, fundamentally changing the college experience.

Colleges and universities have other problems – namely, how to gather large numbers of students in lecture halls, cafeterias, and stadiums without infecting them – but leaching the graduation experience of the peak-end will have a dampening effect on how alumni remember their college experience, leading to lower college ratings and alumni giving.

Already, we’re seeing ill effects in the recent graduates. Members of the high school class of 2020 report feeling lost. College students, lacking the traditional transition from campus to adulthood, are losing their support network without receiving the expected boost that comes with the public displays of parental pride. Even worse, some were pushing toward finals with graduation as a reward. Now that’s gone, and so is their motivation. Today’s trauma and burnout will likely lead to generation at greater risk of developing clinical anxiety and depression.

“Not having a physical graduation or the activities that typically accompany it did a number on my ability to accurately perceive my own life and the future, mainly in that my actions only existed in a vacuum,” said Nick. “There were entire groups of people I realized I would not see again, and many individuals that I wished I could spend time with and collaborate with.”

Obviously, feeling lost is nothing compared to graduating during a pandemic and into the worst job market since the Lindy Hop was popular. But that doesn’t make this any less real for the 3.7 million people graduating high school and the 3.9 graduating college. They’ll feel the absence of the pomp and circumstance for the rest of their lives.

We’re human, and we adapt. Some colleges are holding graduation ceremonies on Minecraft. Sallie Mae is holding a virtual graduation. Both Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey are offering virtual commencement addresses to the Pandemic Class, and Michelle Obama is hosting a virtual prom. Some schools are even mailing their graduates caps and gowns with their diplomas and – I kind of like this touch – yard signs and commemorative face masks.

This creativity provides hope for us all. No matter how long this goes on, we, too, go on.

Copyright 2020 Lilly Kofler distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.

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