How to overcome inaction and conformity bias caused by fear
Think about yesterday. How many times did you say yes only to avoid conflict or because you did not want to be the only one opposing a decision? Perhaps you accepted a teammate’s or your manager’s suggestion because that’s how things work at your job—although what you said yes contradicted what you perceived to be the best. Maybe you answered your partner’s request positively only because you feared it would lead to a discussion or even a fight if you said no.
For the past week, I knew I wanted to write about fear. I was always thinking about it at the back of my mind — processing. Until the last minute, I couldn’t make myself focus on a more narrowed subject. Fear is a too broad term. It is an emotion, yes, but humans classified it as rational and irrational—like phobias. There are learned fears and innate fears which could be the result of our survival. After long thinking and reading sessions, I decided that what I want to talk about is the behavior related to fear and not fear itself.
Fear is inevitable. Humans may not have survived without fear since it triggers our fight-or-flight response in the presence of danger.1 However, most of us live in civilized societies today. We don’t encounter predators at every corner of the city.2 Fearing of public speaking or challenging the status-quo are thus in no need of a fight-or-flight response. It requires us to take a step back, gain control of our conscious mind, and respond logically.
Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart
There is a motivational saying which you can find almost everywhere on the internet: “Live your life like today is the last day of your life!” The underlying goal is to persuade you to follow your passion. I find this rather unpractical. You should seize the day, but you need long-term thinking as well. Otherwise, you’ll end up at the same place twenty years in the future, where you left off today because you’ve been constantly distracted by your immediate needs and wants without planning for tomorrow.
I’m currently working as a software engineer at an enterprise firm. I can wholeheartedly say that this is a new experience for me. Unlike working in a small start-up or running your company, you cannot control everything in an enterprise. There are way too many things going on. The fact that you’re not in control creates a lot of uncertainty. What’s more, is that my firm has a strict hierarchy. The whole setup is an excellent driver of conformity bias which translates for an individual as the tendency to behave like those around them rather than using their own personal judgment.3
Lately, I’ve been working on changing my mindset at work. Unlike the “seize the day” cliché, I started utilizing a similar notion: “Work like today’s the last day of your work here.” I find it quite useful because it allows me to skip the inaction caused by uncertainty. If I won’t be here tomorrow, then most of that uncertainty has already been replaced by today’s reality. Furthermore, it also provides a sense of protection when it comes to challenging ideas. You can even challenge the CEO—what’s the worst that can happen if this is your last day?
While I see this approach's benefits, I’ve also been wondering if I’m just careless. However, I was also lucky enough to name this strategy thanks to Adam Grant’s book: Originals. He refers to a series of studies run by the psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor, who compared strategic optimists and defensive pessimists4:
If you’re a strategic optimist, you envision the best possible outcome and then eagerly plan to make it happen. If you’re a defensive pessimist, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you know this time could be different. You start picturing all the things that could go wrong. What if I spill coffee on the interviewer? What if I accidentally deliver the presentation in a foreign language? What if I forget my own name?
What they have found is that defensive pessimists perform no worse than strategic optimists. It is an excellent strategy to reap benefits out of fear when the feeling is inevitable. While I am an optimist by nature, I still feel anxiety and fear. Because the inaction and conformity I talked about earlier are by-products of our emotional selves. And according to the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund as of 2005, Ray Dalio, those emotions belong to our fundamental ego barrier:
Your deepest-seated needs and fears—such as the need to be loved and the fear of losing love, the need to survive and the fear of not surviving, the need to be important and the fear of not mattering—reside in primitive parts of your brain […]5
While utilizing defensive pessimism can be helpful, I would also argue that a simple perspective check may even take you out of that fear bubble you’re in. If you find yourself conforming to a decision that you wouldn’t willingly accept because you feel anxious about challenging it, ask yourself this: When you look back at this moment ten years from now, how big of a deal does it look like challenging it? The most likely answer will be: Not at all. Our feelings are often bound to now, and we can’t see past them. Testing them from a different perspective can help us overcome the immediate yet illogical threats.
How do you cope with your everyday fears? Do you think the inaction and conformity caused by our emotions prevent us from becoming the best versions of ourselves? Let me know in the comments.
We cannot ignore people who still live in constant danger. Some imminent examples include people living in warzones or women whose partners abuse. Unfortunately, more drastic measures are needed to solve such cases.
Conformity bias from Ethics Unwrapped, which is a publication of McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin