3 Fundamentals To Tackle The Social Dilemma

“The very meaning of culture is manipulation,” is the quote that screams in your face while you watch the movie on Netflix, The Social Dilemma. Earlier this year, on the 4th of May, a family of three, a teenage boy and his parents had a usual evening during the pandemic lockdown, until the security of their residential society knocked on their apartment door. The security had come to inform the parents that their boy had jumped off from the house while the parents were spending time ignorant of the unfurling of action in the other room and of emotions in their only child’s mind.  A true story that is so close to home. 

“It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our behaviour and perception, that is the product,” is another quote from the movie the Social Dilemma. That summer evening on social media, the boy’s schoolmate, a girl, had accused the teen of abusing her two years ago. Within a few hours of the girl’s post, the entire social circle on various platforms had turned against the minor. The teen unable to prove it otherwise amidst the mounting pressure from his social circle took an impulsive step to end his life. And, he did. No, no one close to him, got a chance to make him think in any other direction. 

‘The manipulation of human behaviour for profit is coded into these companies with Machiavellian precision: infinite scrolling and push notifications to keep users constantly engaged; personalized recommendations use data not just to predict but also to influence our actions, turning users into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists,’ writes the New York Times about the movie, the Social Dilemma. Engineers and executives admit on the show that they have kept their children away from social media platforms. 

The truth is the real social dilemma is not about to-be or not-to-be on social media, but the dilemma is whether to blame our ignorance about emotional intelligence or accept being fooled by platforms despite knowing our emotional intelligence. We think we know it all and therefore can control our minds, but the truth is that the social media platforms know better than us on how to control our emotions. 

Most of you reading this article would have accessed this through one of the social media platforms. While the film is hyperbole in its presentation to make an impact, it is important to understand the Emotional Life Of Our brain, as scientifically explained in the book with the same name.

What is the emotional life of a brain?

Richard Davidson, a neuropsychologist, has detailed out how a human brain functions when it comes to emotional responses. An emotional style comprises six dimensions. Each of these dimensions is controlled by a different part of the brain. The dimensions are: 

  1. Resilience: How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
  2. Outlook: How long you are able to sustain positive emotion
  3. Social Intuition: How adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you
  4. Self-Awareness: How well you perceive physical signals that reflect your emotions
  5. Sensitivity to Context: How good you are at regulating your emotional responses depending on the context you find yourself in
  6. Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is, regulated by the prefrontal cortex

Everyone has elements of each of these dimensions of emotional style. Who you are is a result of the combination of these six styles. An impulsive person may have a combination of unfocused Attention and low Self Awareness while a shy person could be a combination of slow to recover on the Resilience dimension and having low Sensitivity to Context. 

One brain doesn’t fit all, each one of us has a unique emotional personality. We can address the challenges of being manipulated by social media through the understanding of our emotions, the will to change, and by practicing exercises. For this there are three fundamental steps to follow:

1. Awareness 

There are apps and tools to control the time spent on social media, but the awareness question that is being posed here is- ‘Are you conscious of emotional triggers that you receive from seeing posts of others?’ A feeling of insecurity or jealousy received through a few seconds spent on someone’s post can last in the mind for hours if your emotional style is slow to recover on the Resilience dimension. 

Tip: Be aware of your emotions.

2. Define an anchor 

I have a colleague who when enters a room full of strangers, easily manages to connect with everyone. Unlike her, many people find it difficult to sustain good conversations with new people they meet. It feels like a chore. Similar reactions happen on social media when you see a beautiful picture, get excited about it and then it quickly wears off and you feel bored. The capacity to remain upbeat is related to the Outlook dimension of emotional style. A thought anchor helps in keeping emotional styles, including the Outlook dimension in balance. For some, the purpose of their life acts as an anchor. A purpose is tough to find, but a simple question like what is the most important thing in one’s life works as a strong anchor too. For me, the answer is safety- the safety of my loved ones. If you find yourself perturbed, going back to anchors of safety, happiness helps.

Tip: Define your anchor. Visual cues like photographs of family, holidays work as reminders.  

3. Mind gym

Learning creates newer mental models and helps in understanding things better. For example, learning about empathy is directly related to Sensitivity to Context dimension in emotional style. Some people like a combination of running and reading while others like to spend time traveling and meeting different people as a way to expand their minds. These learning habits for the mind are cultivated consciously to strengthen emotional intelligence.Mind Gym is essentially conscious efforts made towards  learning a newer perspective through reading, writing, watching, teaching, travelling, gardening, music, etc. Any new perspective creates a new mental model and strengthens emotional intelligence. Read more about Mind Gym here.

Tip: Mind Gym is to make conscious efforts to build emotional strength. It comes from learning that is hard and needs discipline. 

The three fundamentals to be in control of our emotional intelligence are being aware, holding an anchor, and practicing exercises for the mind in a disciplined manner. These will work to quash dilemmas around the social network and platforms. Unfortunately, nothing can bring the teen back but hopefully, the energy spent on blaming social media will get diverted towards building one’s emotional strength.


P.S. If you wish to assess your emotional style as defined by Richard J Davidson, please drop me a message and I will send you the format.