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Distraction as a Means of Relief

A 2005 series of studies published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that perhaps people deal with threats by thinking about something else. This is essentially the Squirrel! Theory of stress management. That is perhaps too glib a summary and certainly not academic, I think it is fair.

The article, itself, is remarkably dense and considers a number of seemingly disparate concepts. The idea initially under consideration is the fact that people – particularly under some threat – exaggerate the extent to which others hold their personal views on any number of subjects.

They first note three major theories for this observed condition: (1) It might generate social support; you get others to like you. (2) Cognitive closure: there’s nothing to think about here, everyone has the same opinion. (3) Since threats undermine confidence in myself, exaggerating social consensus makes me feel better about myself.

They then went about threatening college students to see whether the third theory proved itself. They focused upon “defensively proud individuals”. While there are variants in the way in which this is expressed, “The common theme is that they all involve an explicit focus on an ostensible self-strength, which appears to mask vulnerability. Thus we see the three forms as manifestation of a latent defensive pride construct and, in the present research, expect them to be related to arrogant self-righteousness in the face of threats.” Ian McGregor et al., “Defensive Pride and Consensus: Strength in Imaginary Numbers,” Journal of Psychology and Social Psychology 89, no. 6 (2005): 978-96.
In the first study they gave two groups of psychology students a section to read on statistics. One paper was impenetrable; the other a simple explain of the importance of statistics. They were both told that the paper was something everyone knew (a “popular tool”). For those with the difficult page, the effect would be “you’re stupid.” They then asked them questions on moral issues such as abortion and capital punishment. Those who were humiliated by the researchers over estimated the number of people who held their particular views on the various issues.
A second study asked two groups of students to either vividly describe themselves in a frightening circumstance or a comfortable and securable place. They were then asked the moral questions. The frightened students again over-estimated the number of people who held their personal views on moral issues.
A third study threatened all of the students; but following the threat some students received praise. The students were then given two articles supposed written by a student who visited the United States from a foreign country. One version praised the US; one version complained and condemned. Being praised after being threatened resulted in less negative evaluation of the condemning “foreigner.”
A fourth study was conducted to determine whether the exaggeration of consensus was from “reflected glory” of the group or mere consensus with a group.
In the end, the researchers were left with the observation that under stress people can alleviate that stress by being affirmed personally or by imagining the whole world is on their side.
They then compared their findings to a number of other studies, and in particular to the results of terror management theory. But whereas terror management theory suggests that the defensive nature of such consensus under threat was ultimately as a means of protecting one against the fear of death, the various findings of terror management – and other studies – is we can only think about one thing at a time.

We propose that all of these findings can be economically explained from a thought-control perspective According to Wegner (1992), thought suppression begins with the search for distracting thoughts. The “distractor search brings a series of thoughts to mind until one is selected that absorbs attention,” at which point, “attention is drawn from the controlled distractor search to the absorbing distractor itself.” (991)

Since thoughts about oneself are easily available, they can act as useful “distractors” when faced with fearful conditions. The researchers suggest various neurological bases for this conclusion. But in the end, it means that one way to deal with anxiety is to distract yourself.
From a persuasion perspective, it might seem that fear will be an effective means of persuasion with coupled with consensus: First you introduce a disturbing matter then you offer up your product or service wrapped up in a consensus: Everyone loves X!
But the research is a bit more-tricky: If the affirmative is on a ground too closely related to the threat, it “fails to quell the threat because they [the affirmations] remind the participants of the threat.”
In their research, the authors of these studies argued that affirmations and consensus functioned the same way by distracting the one under anxiety. Thus, what applies to consensus would apply to affirmations.
But there is another possibility here: A product or service which resolves the threat (rather than merely distract from thinking about the threat) might be sufficient even if the threat and the consensus-approved product concern exactly the same thing.
In conflict, distraction is well known as a means of deflating a threat.
A final element of the article struck a theological note which the authors may not have considered:

PWe propose that threatened people may have turned to consensus in the present research for the same reason [diminish ruminations about threats]. Imagining widespread agreement with one’s own convictions may be self-soothing because self-righteousness is an appealing fantasy that can capture attention, make threats seem more remote, and allow them to fade from salience. (987)

Although the quoted language contains the clause “capture the attention”, the argument is not in distraction but in diffusion. The threat against me is not real, but I am righteous. But how could my righteousness have anything to do with the reality of a threat? The connection here is not apparent in the article.

In Romans 1, Paul makes a sustained argument from verse 18-31. It begins with the proposition that human beings know ourselves to be under judgment, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness.” In turn, human beings act to suppress subjective knowledge of that threat. The act of suppression then leads to a number of perversions and distortions of the human being in a whole catalogue of insanity and sin. The argument concludes with the observation that human beings not only do these unrighteous things, “they give hearty approval” to those who practice the same things.

Under the most profound existential threat, human beings respond with a forced consensus. However, the argument made in the quotation above, and by Paul, is not that the consensus acts to distract us; rather it acts to deny the fact of the threat. The more people who believe a thing, the more “objective” it in fact is. If all of us deny or believe some X then it is true. The threat is thus believed into non-existence.