This is Your Brain on a Lack of Status
When you’re lower on the totem pole, you’re expected to be more sensitive to the needs of others; underlings have to wait their turn to keep the dominant ones happy, who are free to focus on doing whatever they want to do. Using the areas of your brain associated with mentalizing—thinking about what others are thinking about—is associated with more metabolically taxing, recently-evolved areas of the brain; there are real physical costs associated with the emotional labor of constantly being expected to think about what other people might do or say, especially when you’re not sure which set of rules they’re judging you by.
I ask researcher Cameron Anderson about gender differences—specifically how these status dynamics in interactions between all species correspond to the idea that women are higher on the trait of social concern.
“I’m aware of all of that, and I’m still doing it,” he says. “We have a 10-year-old daughter, and I’m watching myself reward her every time she shows emotional sensitivity to other kids. And I’m not doing the same thing to my 7-year-old boy.” Something can seem a little off when women confidently approach their own rewards by focusing on their personal projects, or failing to put other people’s needs first.
“A tendency to think too much about other people’s perspectives can lead to heightened anxiety,” says anxiety researcher Jacob Hirsh. Women are hit on multiple fronts, constantly being expected to consider others’ perspectives while deriving more of our self-worth from relationships. “Women are exposed to more conflicting expectations,” says Hirsh.an excerpt from Can You Learn to Be Lucky?
Incessant mental chatter—specifically the feeling that I need to consider these people’s opinions—is a stressful background noise that’s constantly running in a woman’s mind. It’s like living next door to a train station but never being told that there’s a train station, or never realizing that other people don’t live this way.
The Power of a Lack of Mental Chatter
You don’t get to see what life is like behind the curtain for someone else very often (if ever), and working with Chip Heath was one of the most eye-opening work experiences of my life. Probably the biggest reason was his relative lack of mental chatter, self-doubt, or considering other people’s perspectives. Over the course of our years of calls and group calls, I witnessed a brain that was unencumbered by having to spend time defending his decisions, deflecting unsolicited advice, or exposure to messages that he was, somehow, doing things wrong.
I work out. I meditate. I have a peaceful life that includes lots of long walks in nature with my dog. I’ve always been told that I’m a “mouthy” and a “handful.” When I was young, I never felt bad about raising my hand in class and asking a question—I always figured that I couldn’t be the only one who was confused. I was never inundated at home with beauty magazines, a catty mother, or impossibly complex standards about what a female was supposed to look like. I’m happy with my appearance—and yet, shit like this happens:
When I booked a photographer to get my latest headshot a few months ago, my first thought was oh, that’s coming up soon—I won’t have time to get Botox. I’ve never gotten Botox. But what put that thought in my head to begin with, when I don’t read women’s magazines or have any friends who’ve discussed getting Botox? Meanwhile, his publicity photo is at least a decade old.
I thought that I had the cure for anxiety. confidence In my book, that chapter ended like this:
Being able to control your attention is key‚ if not the key, to confidence. Self-affirmation, thinking about your own bright spots, and remembering times when you’ve won helps you add more points to the I GOT THIS side of the scale.
Attention flows up the status hierarchy, and not looking at someone sends the message that you are irrelevant. Not paying attention to people makes me look like a bitch, but ignoring the possibility of negative evaluation is precisely what’s required to get stuff done. In a simpler world, the entire story of confidence could be summarized thusly: approach rewards. The world tries to complicate that story, but it’s up to us to keep it to that.
Feeling comfortable and strong in your own skin without needing the approval of others to feel good—or not deriving your self-worth from what others say about your actions and appearance—builds the kind of confidence that can’t be taken away by random strangers. “You have a real problem, you know that, missy?” I turn away. Thanks to five billion years of evolution, the brain of the baller has mastered the fine art of not giving a flying fuck.
Controlling your attention has to be the answer: just pay attention to what you need to do and stop paying attention to what other people might say about you. Reading these words that I wrote a few years ago now makes me feel like I was gaslighting myself and other women.
The Other Marshmallow Study
You’ve heard of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow studies—kids given a piece of candy, who were able to wait and not eat it for 15 minutes, were ultimately rewarded with two pieces. These kids got great SAT scores, were less likely to go to jail, etc. etc.
These experiments were conducted in other scenarios with VERY INTERESTING results. In some, researchers studied kids who were “disadvantaged” (received free lunches, had absentee fathers). Initially, none of them could wait. But after, the researchers showed them the candies that they would have received if they had waited. They demonstrated trustworthiness. And that’s when magic ended up happening:
This single, tiny intervention was enough to completely reverse the lopsided effects when those kids were tested again. “An interesting and perhaps more important analysis… indicates that disadvantaged children cannot categorically be termed ‘nondelayers.’”
Researchers seem flabbergasted at the idea that developing a self-control intervention—getting these kids to delay gratification—is difficult, but when you look at the big picture, 99% of their experiences with untrustworthy adults have repeated the idea that waiting is for suckers.1Walter Mischel. “Father-Absence and Delay of Gratification: Cross-Cultural Comparisons.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63, no. 1 (1961): 116-124.
Most of the other people who have prominent theories about self-control and delaying gratification don’t acknowledge the social factors at all.Laura Michaelson
Michaelson’s studies show how many other factors are involved in our decision to delay gratification, including the perception of researchers, or the generalized trustworthiness of adults.2Laura E. Michaelson and Yuko Munakata. “Trust matters: Seeing how an adult treats another person influences preschoolers’ willingness to delay gratification.” Developmental Science 19, no. 6 (2016): 1011-1019.
These other marshmallow studies show the obvious: our behavior depends on how others have treated us in the past.
The Slow Suffocation of Unsolicited Advice
This past year, I’ve been paying closer attention to the dynamics of my social interactions—how they make me feel, who said what, etc.—and am blown away by how draining it is to get unsolicited advice. A lot of unsolicited advice comes from people who seeking validation for their way of doing things, but fail to consider how it makes the other person feel.
My advice in the book was Ignore it! Just ignore all advice and opinions. Get on with your day. But that’s like telling kids who were surrounded by untrustworthy adults when they were young, “Just wait this time: good things will happen. You can trust the world now.”
I realize, now, that my advice was as tone deaf as these self-control researchers.
Can you imagine telling someone you genuinely respect “you know, you might want to consider changing your behavior, Malala”? How about “You think you’re so tough Mr. Ernest Hemingway, but here’s how you really write a sentence.”
Best case scenario? The message is “You’re clearly unaware of this piece of information that I have—otherwise, you’d be doing it a different way,” or “I think my way is better, you might find this helpful,” or “maybe this way would be better.”
These are all just another way of saying “I’m looking down on what you’re doing.” Or, quite simply: “You’re doing it wrong.”
Even when we’re coming at it with good intentions, we’re suggesting that the other person is deficient—in knowledge, in ability–and should be corrected.
Advice-givers are assuming a certain level of status (you wouldn’t correct your boss), or validation for their ideas under the guise of helping someone else. But they’re seeking validation at the expense of someone else. When we get sudden advice, we’re subjected to the feeling of being criticized, being controlled, or second-guessing ourselves—that someone disapproves of what we do.
Why Unsolicited Advice is Never Helpful
For researchers who want to study the effects of social stress, the Trier Social Stress Test has been an experimental mainstay for decades.
Standard protocol for the Trier is to give subjects three minutes to prepare a speech meant to convince others that they’re the perfect candidate for an open position before giving a five-minute speech to an unresponsive panel of people sitting in front of you. Next, you’ve got to do something with numbers (for example, subtracting 17 from a large number, many times, and starting from square one whenever you make a mistake).
The Trier—ten minutes of trying to convince unresponsive others of your self-worth followed by verbal math, all while having absolutely every aspect of your performance analyzed—has been the gold standard for researchers testing stress for over twenty years, and further cements my theory that neuroscience is really just a bunch of people trying to figure out what the hell went wrong in high school.3cf. Johanna U. Frisch, Jan A. Häusser, and Andreas Mojzisch. “The Trier Social Stress Test as a Paradigm to Study How People Respond to Threat in Social Interactions.” Frontiers in Psychology 6, no. 14 (2015): doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00014
Think about that: researchers reliably induce stress in others by putting them in a situation where they feel like they’re on the verge of receiving criticism. It’s behavior meant to shape others in some way by exerting agency, authority, or displeasure.
Because the mental, physical, and psychological effects of constant social stress are real and profound, we tend to self-select into positions where we feel like we’re less likely to get stressed or criticized. We go where we feel safe. 4Allen, Andrew P., Paul J. Kennedy, Samantha Dockray, John F. Cryan, Timothy G. Dinan, and Gerard Clarke. “The Trier Social Stress Test: Principles and Practice.” Neurobiology of Stress 6 (2017): 113-126.
Being in a less-than-safe place means having to edit yourself and stay quiet. It means anxiety for fear of getting called out. It means a constant running tally in your mind of possible responses to what you’re doing. It means constantly second-guessing yourself, about stupid things, and using your precious mental energy to try and choose or do the right thing—the magical thing that will somehow escape comment from every single person you know.
When you’re criticized, micromanaged, or somehow the recipient of a social stressor, we may fight back (resilience!). It’s easier, of course, to accept our fate as underlings—that our opinions and work simply aren’t as valuable. The slow suffocation of constant, unsolicited advice is a crisis of confidence.
Escaping the Cycle of Crumbling Confidence
Most productivity advice is about computer apps, knowledge management systems, time management, or, quite possibly, health. In the long run, trying to get more work done isn’t going to help until you address the root cause of what’s slowing you down or making you feel stagnant in the first place.
Mental chatter, self-doubt, second-guessing ourselves, and the feeling that our work isn’t valuable—like the feeling of “I can’t trust adults” that some kids have—come from somewhere. Before we can change something, we first need to be aware of it.
We usually don’t realize we’re being micromanaged until we get another job. We may not realize that our family has dysfunctional dynamics until we see another family’s positive, non-sarcastic interactions. We may not realize that we’re still letting someone’s opinion from middle school gnaw at us until it comes out in a therapy session.
In my book, I wrote that the answer to confidence was to simply ignore the advice and feedback that you’d heard from others. But now I realize that this is like telling those kids to ignore their entire upbringing, which would let them wait for the second marshmallow.
Constant unsolicited advice and criticism shape us by revealing what the people close to us think of as acceptable behavior.
Our environment and experiences have been molding us since the day we were born. Changing the shape that our environment has allowed us to take doesn’t happen over night.
These past few weeks, I’ve told some people (a work accountability friend; a chairperson at a weekly group; a mentor) that I’ve noticed their constant advice and directing. One asked me that it was my responsibility to tell him at the time, but giving advice is the last leg of a lengthy series that includes THIS PERSON NEEDS TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO and I KNOW BETTER, and I’m too busy for anyone who constantly has those thoughts running through his head.
It continued. So I cancelled coffee with the friend. I quit the group.
Getting constant unsolicited advice leads to a crumbling of self-confidence: a nagging sense of self-doubt that leads you paralyzed, desperate for input and feedback before you start or continue.
The real advice?
When you’re raised to constantly be attentive to others, care about their opinions, and then given a million pieces of conflicting advice, you have to go nuclear. The only way to truly escape this cycle is to get as far away from the people giving it as you possibly can. Stop feeling guilty for cutting others out of your life for failing to respect your autonomy and choices.
We can’t just ignore what we’ve been told: we have to rewrite the scripts of our lives.
Call people out. Love yourself. Surround yourself with others who lift you up.
- 1Walter Mischel. “Father-Absence and Delay of Gratification: Cross-Cultural Comparisons.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63, no. 1 (1961): 116-124.
- 2Laura E. Michaelson and Yuko Munakata. “Trust matters: Seeing how an adult treats another person influences preschoolers’ willingness to delay gratification.” Developmental Science 19, no. 6 (2016): 1011-1019
- 3cf. Johanna U. Frisch, Jan A. Häusser, and Andreas Mojzisch. “The Trier Social Stress Test as a Paradigm to Study How People Respond to Threat in Social Interactions.” Frontiers in Psychology 6, no. 14 (2015): doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00014
- 4Allen, Andrew P., Paul J. Kennedy, Samantha Dockray, John F. Cryan, Timothy G. Dinan, and Gerard Clarke. “The Trier Social Stress Test: Principles and Practice.” Neurobiology of Stress 6 (2017): 113-126.