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Hurricane Matthew: The Psychology of Unity

Just when we all needed a break from the daily media shit show about the presidential candidates, a good, old-fashioned natural disaster comes along and brings with it a newly-resolute faith in humanity. Why does it take a tragedy to bring out the best in people? Psychologists have a name for it: The Psychology of Unity.

Social connection is a fundamental human need. Mary Shelley explored this idea in 1818 when she wrote Frankenstein. The novel isn’t really about a scientist and a monster (I promise). It’s really about our attempts at connection with others and individual identity as contingent on sympathetic social interaction.

The need for social connection intensifies under stress, and research shows that when people face outcomes beyond their control they tend to act as if they can gain fate’s favor by making “Karmic Investments.”

The study found that feeling out of control may act as a reminder of one’s mortality, which leads to greater generosity and helpfulness.

We witness this phenomenon every time there’s a tragedy, whether natural or manmade.

Doug Bernard wrote a very compelling piece regarding the shooting at Orlando night club, Pulse in June that explores how social media plays a part in this need for connection:

“Increasingly, especially in times of tragedy and trauma, social researchers say people turn to their online communities for news, for solace, to share painful experiences of confusion and sadness, and reach out to friends for emotional support and counsel.”

However, this acts as a double-edged sword for a number of reasons, not the least of which is confirmation bias (the topic of my last blog post).

An article on Shrink Tank from June looks at how the Olympics (while not a disaster in the textbook definition) acts as a unifying event.

“Once every four years, the majority of Americans get a welcome boost of unity. With the start of the summer Olympic games patriotism spikes and we temporarily have a common goal within our borders.”

The author explores patriotic symbolism, stories of perseverance, and common enemies as explanations and concludes, “The Olympics belong to all of us.”

Maybe that’s the heart of the issue: we can be divided along philosophical lines for all of the daily issues, but when it comes down to what’s really important (at the base of Maslow’s pyramid), we are all the same. It’s too bad it takes a good, old-fashioned disaster to remind us of that.

The good news is; people have stopped talking about the presidential debate for a hot minute.

A quick analysis of yesterday’s hashtag usage for a block of time shows that potential reach of social engagement about “Hurricane Matthew” was almost double that for “Trump” and nearly 4 times greater than that of “presidential election.”

There is, in fact, hope through tragedy.

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