There’s a Stranger in My Room

Scratch anyone in the right place and you’ll find insecurity.  We are hard-wired to fear rejection and to be suspicious of strangers. In fact, recent brain imaging studies show that social rejection is processed by the same areas in the brain that process physical threat. Yet, at the same time, human beings are extraordinarily social.

In our ancestral home in Africa, we survived by being hyper-social. As animals we were not physically fearsome, but we were smart, could cooperate, and thereby ward off predators, hunt and collect enough food for all. Our literal survival depended on sharing and collaboration with each other. At a visceral level we still know it.

According to Evolutionary Psychology, social rejection would have been equivalent to a death sentence to our ancestors. Deeply felt fear of this would have been selected for and those genes have been passed down to you and me.

The genes of humans who didn’t worry about this are no longer with us! So, we still carry within us more or less the same genetic blueprint as our stone age forebears, even though our world is infinitely safer.

So, we are very, very concerned with what other people think of us. It comes as no surprise then that social media is like crack cocaine for our species. Even when we know we shouldn’t care what others think, we very frequently do.

We find worst case scenarios running in the theatre of our mind, and many of these are upsetting social scenarios. It’s not only that the village may reject me, but strangers, unless we know otherwise, may be aggressive, dangerous or even mortal enemies.  We are after all, a warlike species.

What are the implications of all this? Well, they are numerous.

One is, we are great social performers, actors in a never-ending stage play. We spend much of our social life in managing the impressions of others. We play to the gallery, trying to lift our esteem in the wider ‘village’.

It is the rare person who, in catching their reflection in a shop window, has not from time to time made some sort of adjustment of their face, hair, clothes or posture.  Of course, with social media and selfies, this type of impression management has expanded exponentially.

And when our mind is idling, in daydreaming mode, our default mode network is generally engaged with autobiographical and social dramas. This widespread and highly interconnected brain network is constantly exploring social scenarios creating endless ‘what-ifs’ and action-packed movies in our mind.

One result is unless we have evidence that someone esteems us, they are potentially to be feared.  What we really don’t like is not being able to get a read on what someone thinks of us.

One consequence of this is that our social lives are characterised by well-worn norms and rules. We are all in a dance together that we navigate largely unconsciously. When we are in sync with each other, we tend to relax.  When we are out of sync we feel uncomfortable.

So, here’s a thought experiment: Imagine you are in a largish room.  As you enter the door closes behind you and as you check the handle, it is obviously locked.  At this moment you realize there is a stranger in the room.  What would you do?

Hundreds of people I’ve presented this situation to spontaneously say: ‘talk to them of course!’   I then suggest that the person looks normal.  They don’t appear to be a triple axe murderer or threatening in any way. However, imagine they don’t respond to all at all. They look right through you. No aggression, no action. Just complete non-regard. 

How might you be feeling now in this situation?   Or, further, if we were to shrink the room to the size of an elevator, how would you be feeling now? 

Everyone says ‘uncomfortable’ on a scale from nervous to downright scared.  But why?  There is no hint of aggression nor of danger. 

This thought experiment shows just how much we need our social moves to be reciprocated. We are deeply wired and programmed to pick up a complex array of signals: body language, vocal tone, verbal implications and so on. We need to be able to anticipate socially and we tend to interpret a lack of feedback as threatening.

This experiment is indeed strange and unusual precisely because of this absence of our usual high degree of social coordination.  Our fears are proportional to the degree of unusualness. 

In ordinary circumstances if we were to have this kind of strong negative emotional response to a stranger, we probably should ‘trust our gut’. The person may in fact be socially deviant!  Our perceptual system may be trying to keep us alive! We should proceed carefully. 

Our fight-flight system is biased in favour of false negatives rather than false positives.  In our ancestral environment one false positive, one overly optimistic appraisal of safety, could mean the end of us!

On the other hand, we should be mindful of this bias in our system towards fearfulness when dealing with ambiguous social feedback.  Knowing that we tend to over-interpret such an ambiguity as threatening, we should gently remind ourselves that our world is pretty safe. 

And then we ought to gather feedback as objectively as possible to get a read on the character and intentions of the other person. 

We should also proceed in the knowledge that we all have potential for good and evil, for kindness and meanness.  Our own state and our own behaviours can influence the other person.  If we are negative towards others, it makes it more likely they will be negative towards us.

It follows that we can have some say in how other people show up around us.  We can change the odds by being an enabling space in which other people find it more natural to be their better selves.  We can appeal to the better angels of their nature, and we can do this by striving to be our best self.