How can people cope, and how can religious institutions help, in the unprecedented times of COVID-19? As we keep physically distant to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread, how can we throw a lifeline to our physical rituals that connect us to other people, but must now be done in different ways? How can we be “Helpers,” in the words of Mr. Rogers, and feel that we are making a difference?
This conversation with Dr. David DeSteno, hosted by Temple Israel Center of Westchester, was streamed live on Zoom on March 17, 2020.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: So welcome everybody, and thank you for taking some time to be able to explore the important question of “How do we stay connected socially when we have to be physically apart?” My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, I am the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the worlds of religion and science. And naturally, a lot of the things that we’re thinking about right now are how we bridge the worlds of all the medical recommendations and the science and the data surrounding COVID-19 with the religious and spiritual and ethical and social worlds.
And so I have to thank Rabbi Annie Tucker, who is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel Center, where I belong, they are one of the hosts of this conversation here. And because we do have a lot of people on this Zoom, we’re going to ask you to stay muted if you are willing and then certainly there are going to be questions that are going to go through, if they do we’re going to ask you to just type them up in the chat and we will be responding there as well, and either David or I will be able to to read these here.
So I want to give a little bit of context and a little bit of some of what I’ve been thinking, and then introduce my friend and brilliant speaker here.
So we human beings have evolved to be social, and actually not just social, the phrase is actually use eusocial, “eu” from the Greek meaning “good.” and what that means, in a few different ways, but that the biggest thing that it means is that in order to survive as an individual member of homo sapiens, we need a community. We rely on each other. We need each other. And COVID-19 is totally and completely disrupting our ability to connect with each other. And so in order to stop the spread, experts have been recommending a phrase that I really don’t like, calling it “social distancing,” because what we need now is social closeness. And the problem is that with a virus having about a 14-day incubation period, and people walking around with mild symptoms but still able to spread [it], and with mass gatherings a way to be able to have the virus just jump from one person to another, you really have to be practicing, in my mind, physical distancing, but not social distancing.
And so, for posterity, I want to actually – because we’re recording this – I want to say that today is Tuesday, March 17th, 2020, and a huge amount of happened, even in the last week. So our synagogue, Temple Israel Center, has been closed since March 8th. We’re connected, we’re very close, to the Southern Westchester Jewish community there was – New Rochelle was kind of the epicenter of the New York section. And so synagogues started closing a lot during the week of March 8th. And then later in the week, some schools, public schools, started closing by Friday. Almost every synagogue that I knew closed its doors for in-person meetings with the phrase that we’ve really come to know, which is “an abundance of caution.” And then over the weekend, many churches started to that started to do the same thing. And there’s a very incredibly powerful picture of the Pope leading a mass to an empty St. Peter’s Square. And then yesterday, the CDC made a recommendation of gatherings of no more than 50 people through at least April 8th. So that means that synagogues and churches are going to have to be thinking of not only about weekly services, but things like Passover and Easter. And bars and restaurants in New York are open now only for takeout and delivery. The NCAA tournament has been canceled, most people we’re looking at, you know, Selection Sunday and looking at the 1st rounds, that’s not happening. For me, I’m a gigantic baseball fan, I’m hoping that we’re going to have opening day before the All-Star break that comes in. So with all this uncertainty and fear and forced isolation, we need each other more than ever. And so we also need to be thinking about some novel ways to be socially close when we’re physically apart.
So that’s why I’m so happy and honored to be talking with my friend Dr. David DeSteno. David is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and his focus is on prosocial behavior, and gratitude, and compassion, and the interplay between religion and health. And even as I’m saying those words, I can actually feel my stomach un-knotting a little bit. So he’s just a natural person to help us talk about both the emotional and practical ways to build connection, even if we’re all just stuck in our houses here.
So David, thank you for taking the time and exploring some of these questions. I have a few that I want to ask, and we’re just going to have a conversation but open this up for questions in the chat. And the first one that I really want to bring up is that: One of the great challenges right now with religion and ritual in particular is that the physical nature of ritual is what helps build community. Religion comes from the Latin, the word religio, which means to tie together. It builds a social glue. And everything from the Passing of the Peace, to kissing the Torah scroll, to hugs and kisses, they’re all designed to build connection. We need that physicality. So how do we rethink ritual and religion to keep social connection, even if we’re not together physically?
David DeSteno: Yeah, you hit on, I think, very many important points there. Before I get to that question, let me just take one step back and set a bigger frame, and then I’ll get to that. I think whenever we humans face disruptions, right, whether it’s a natural disaster or economic shock or many things, oftentimes we do one of two things, right. People will either stand together or stand alone. We can feel fear, and in the short term, fear can be useful, right, it make us more cautious, it can focus our attention. But in the long term fear usually doesn’t make us very resilient. What makes us resilient is the ability to cooperate together, to care for one another. Any of you who were around New York in 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New York and it decimated many of the neighborhoods.
About two years later, the APA did research on the areas, and what they found was that one of the best predictors for which neighborhoods were the most resilient – which got up off the mat, got working again – was the extent to which people felt they could trust their neighbors and their neighbors cared about them. Because everybody is willing to lend a hand, to give a shoulder to cry on, lend money, to do whatever is needed to get everybody up and running.
And so the other response to disruptions like this is compassion and empathy and care. And in my work – I’m writing a book on science and religion – to me, what I’ve learned from that is a lot of the rituals and advice that religions give over time are ways and practices that help us foster that compassion. As opposed to going to fear, going to compassion. Because in the long run, people who are kind to each other, who share, who are honest and helpful, those societies have the best gains.
But as Geoff says right now, COVID-19 is scrambling all of that. Because the ways that we would normally be compassionate and helpful to each other, the ways that we would normally have social closeness, the rituals that we would do to come together and celebrate together, we can’t do! Because we have to stay, you know, 10 feet apart, or 6 feet apart, and less than 10 people at a time.
And I’m not saying that’s a problem – scientifically, that is clearly the right thing to do. And so I think we’re left in the situation of “How do we overcome this?” And part of me began to worry that people would begin to feel hopeless, or even nihilistic, because they can’t do anything. But then I was watching TV, and I saw those wonderful images of the Italians on their balconies singing together. Or the Spaniards coming out every night on their balconies and applauding in unison for the First Responders and the health care workers.
Those are nice signs, but what they’re really trying to do, very deeply, is when people do acts together – and you see this in ritual, right, when people sing together, when they bow and sway together, when they move together, it’s not just some silly act. It’s an ancient marker to the mind that here, those people doing that are joined. And there’s a lot of psychological work out there showing how synchronous action makes us feel bonded, makes us feel compassion for people who we don’t even know, and who will then want to work toward. I think the question for us is “How can we modify the things that we do, both the social gatherings and even the rituals that we do, so that we can still leverage those parts of the mind that work at a deeper level to make us feel like a community?”
One strategy I’m recommending to people, though this isn’t a ritual, is to do something that’s called “reciprocity ring.” And reciprocity ring is simply where everybody gets some friends together, or get some of your parishioners together, or individuals in your area. Have each of them bring somebody else who you don’t know. Create a virtual group. And then what happens is that each person within that group posts something that they need help with. Maybe it’s an elderly person who needs to get food but doesn’t know how to order through Peapod or whatever it is online, someone could help them. Or someone, you know, a single parent who needs some help financially right now, and will do something else for someone else that lost their job and they need money. And then every after my posts this, everybody in the group picks one of those and says “I’m going to help that, I can do that.” And then we all do it. And what you will quickly see is a web of interconnected help growing, a sense of gratitude among everybody for giving for getting help, and then what that gratitude does is it makes the person is receiving the help feel compassion. And they pay it forward.
We’ve got lab analog models that we have [where if] people receive help from someone, they feel grateful. But it’s not just they want to pay that person back, they will then be more compassionate anyone else around. And so the question for us is “How do we facilitate that?”
Geoff Mitelman: And you know, you talk about gratitude, and I’m seeing both pieces of this – and I think one of the one of the challenges of COVID-19 is how can we find those moments of gratitude? That’s, I think, a key piece. And the same time, the fear that happens, that I think is very real, whether that’s the fear of the virus itself, but I think even more the fear of the uncertainty. And I think it’s important to be able to honor both of those pieces. But I think the interesting thing is that uncertainty is – you can’t control that feeling, but gratitude is more of an action. You can show gratitude.
David DeSteno: Well, yeah you can – and I think you’re hitting on an interesting point there. So there is reason to be fearful, either of an anxiety either of the virus itself or the economic consequences of it, and the uncertainty that’s going to happen, it’s going to hit all down the line.
But I think Geoff brings up an important point, that is, emotions don’t only happen to us, we can curate our own. The reason you have emotions is to quickly shape your decision-making in ways that are usually adaptive.
And with fear right now, some level of fear is good. It will make you take precautions. But if it gets out of control, right, it can lead us to engage in behaviors that seem good in the short term, like hoarding food or panic buying of masks, but in the long term are actually more problematic for everybody, because it creates a communal shortage.
And so what we need are more pro-social emotions, what I like to call more “moral emotions,” the emotions that push us to be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. And you’re right, right now it’s hard to feel like there’s anything to be grateful for. But there are things in our lives, maybe we’re home with our with our family and people are safe, maybe we’re grateful for being spared certain economic shocks or having certain other things going on in our lives. And to the extent that we can focus on those, right, we can make certain moments of our life experiencing gratitude instead of fearfulness. And when we do, that will push us to engage in behaviors that are more communally oriented, more pro-social, and the benefit also is that it will help us actually sleep better, reduce our stress.
There’s a lot of work on emotions like gratitude doing that. And I know it sounds – it can sound hokey, but it’s not. There is really scientific evidence about that. And so the idea is try and cultivate those states. For anyone who is also interested in practices of mindfulness, whether it’s in a secular or in a religious environment, there’s a clear benefit of that as well, both in terms of reducing stress. And we also have data showing that engaging in contemplative practices also frees people’s minds to be more compassionate and prosocial.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think you bring up an interesting point, and an important point, particularly meditative elements. Because I think a lot of ritual and song and religion in some ways is designed to be able to turn off the rational part of your brain of, like, the chatter that happens. And from what I understand, a lot of the work of for example, Jonathan Kabat- Zinn, or acceptance and commitment therapy, that meditation is not designed to be able to say “Let me be at peace and be calm,” but meditation is being able to say, “I’m thinking, this I’m feeling this, ok this is a thought. This is a feeling. It’s not necessarily good or bad, this is a thought or a feeling,” and being able to just be present in a particular moment, and not judge that feeling, not judge that.
David DeSteno: That’s right, and that helps with emotion regulation. But we also find – I have some friends who are high-ranking monks, and what they’ll say is when you do that, what it also begins to do is to unleash a sense of caring for those around you. And we have empirical studies – after several weeks of meditation, people’s compassion goes up. But you bring up a more interesting point, which is this – so let me tell you this, not because I’m trying to in any way to give a pitch for my project, but it’s just something that I find fascinating that I’m working on. So the book I’m working on right now is tentatively titled “How God Works: a Scientist’s Guide to What Religion Already Knew.” And the idea there is that, you know, individuals like yourselves who are engaged in religious tradition, for millennia, you have been trying to help people solve the problems of life at all stages. And surely religion can be used for bad things, and it has been, and so can science, and this is not an apologia in that sense.
But there’s a lot of, I think, wisdom there and so when I was talking with Krista Tippett about that, so I was talking about how you know a lot of the ritual elements like singing together, moving together, reciting things in certain ways, they affect the mind neuroscientifically in a deep way. And she said “Yes, I call those spiritual technologies.” And I said “That’s the greatest term I ever heard!” And that’s exactly what they are.
And so I think there are tools from ritual that we can use and apply in these cases. One of the most basic ones is: engaging in rituals been shown to give people a greater sense of control. So people might say “Well, isn’t that illusory?” Well maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but what it’s doing right now is by giving you that sense, it’s empowering you, it’s calling you, and that will help you think more clearly, it will help your body’s stress response be better, and improve your health and your immunity. And so I think it’s interesting to think about what ways, what elements, that are used to comfort people to strengthen people in these times, to bring them together, do you use? And how can we use those in nontraditional ways, since the normal ways that we’re using those are being constrained by COVID-19?
Geoff Mitelman: You hit something really important, which is the level of control – that’s one of the things. One of the interesting things about ritual is that in some ways, you know if you did it right or not right. Like, it’s very simple: did you say this prayer or did you not? Did you did you sing this song or not?
And so much of what’s happening right now is so uncertain that being able to find and create those moments of control, they maybe allow us to be able to expand into the other ways of being able to say not what’s out there in the world – Stephen Covey talks about this – of the circle of concern, of “what am I worried about” vs. the circle of influence, of “what can I actually do in this?”
David DeSteno: What can you actually do, and those feelings of certainty in one domain bleed over into others, right, and that’s useful. I think another part – I look at people who cope with long-term illness. And in some sense – and this isn’t, hopefully, for everybody here, no one’s going to come down it and have a long term illness. But in some ways the social distancing and the anxiety we’re under can be considered a long term distancing, at least in terms of our mental health right now.
And what you find, right, is the ability to foster the positive aspects of religious coping, that is, you know, prayer to a loving God, to feel love for one another, those elements, a sense that there is a force in the universe that will help bring order and care, are very useful, as opposed to the negative aspects of religious coping, which people are thinking, you know, “This is a plague from God because we haven’t done enough, God doesn’t love me.” There’s problems in bringing up the anger and the guilt side. There’s really pretty good evidence in the literature suggesting that the positive aspects of religious coping can really help with anxiety and depression right now.
Geoff Mitelman: Absolutely. And actually, I want to offer people, if you have questions, just type them up in the chat, and we’ll start to field some questions to be able to respond to here. But you know, you talk about fear and emotions, and I think what’s interesting is that COVID-19 is very contagious, but what we often don’t also realize is that emotions are contagious. And so sometimes you want to stop the contagion.
And the other thing is, Stephen Colbert talked about that he had done something that he used to call “viral marketing” and he’s not going to call it viral marketing ever again. So you know we can we can create – so there’s some viruses that we want to be spreading and there’s something we want to stop. And so what are the different ways in which we can either stop the spread of the unwarranted fear – I think there’s some valid fear, but how can we stop some of the unwarranted contagion and how can we spread some of the more positive contagious elements there?
David DeSteno: So that’s a good question, and you bring up a really interesting point. Emotions are very contagious, and there’s a reason for that. So let’s say, you know, Geoff and I are talking right now, as we are, and if you can see that his face looks just like mine when we’re talking face to face. Imagine if I were talking to you right now in your house and all the sudden I went like this. Right? That would be a very quick signal to you that I see something behind you. You would feel fear immediately, without even turning around and knowing what’s there. And that’s very adaptive, right. It allows you to react very quickly. And if my fear is warranted, that’s good, but if my fear is not warranted, if it’s miscalibrated or in the wrong context, that can cause a lot of problems, right. I mean, any emotion that you feel in the wrong intensity or in the wrong context is a problem. You do that too often, it’s what we call a disorder.
The problem right now is, there is certainly room for fear, but it’s also a problem of the regular media and social media. And I want to say this carefully, because it’s good that the media is giving us correct information. But what the media is doing is curating for you the worst-case scenarios of everything. And I understand why we need to be prepared, but there are a lot of people who, you know, are getting COVID-19, and unless they have certain conditions or are elderly or just unlucky are dealing with it okay. And there are a lot of people who don’t have it yet, and may not get it. That doesn’t mean “be complacent.” Please follow all the recommendations that, you know, Dr. Anthony Fauci and everybody is giving. But what it does mean is I think in some sense, your response may be getting way ahead of people. What we know is that when you feel fear, anything that seems more threatening, you believe is more likely to happen, which could get into a spiral. And if one person in your social media network starts to express that, it becomes normal to you. Just like when you saw my face showing fear, you’re going to see their face. Without a reason to doubt them, you will assume that is the appropriate level. And within networks, that fear can spiral. And so I think it’s really important to stay informed, but when you’re home, and you’re social distancing, and you’re doing what you should do, taking some psychological breaks, curating your emotional life by focusing on your family, or Netflix, or whatever it may be that brings you some joy and peace, is important. Because if you’re doing what you should do, that fear isn’t really going to help you. It’s going to stress you out, and all your associates more.
Geoff Mitelman: So there’s a great question that came up that links to what you just asked, which is “What you think of the long term psychological issues of this isolation are going to be, and what are some of the things that we might be able to do proactively, knowing that that we are social creatures, and isolation is going to be a big problem, and there may be some impacts down the road, what are some of the ways that we can do that?” And building on that, there are some people who don’t have a virtual community, they don’t have online networking. What are some of the ways that we can be reaching out to them as well?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I think, you know, those are important points. As Geoff said at the beginning, loneliness – we’re social creatures, loneliness is bad. In fact, ongoing deep loneliness is about as bad for your body in terms of morbidity as is smoking, we’ve found. So it is a problem. Right now, there is the more imminent threat of viral spreading, so I think we have to follow the recommendations, but I think what we need to do is: yes, do the check-in, the check-in is nice, but what I’ve seen a lot of people doing is setting up virtual offices, virtual hangout rooms. In the same way you have a water cooler at your office or a coffee desk or shop, people can leave it open and stop by to gather at different hours, and talk to each other in the same way they would at work. Go do your work at your desk, but in your other room leave your laptop open, or bring it with you when you move and go to the hangout room and see who’s there, like you might in the office. Spend more time and check in with others who you normally wouldn’t. I think the harder ones there are people who don’t have easy access, as you’re saying, to online connection right now.
If you know people, you know, even elderly neighbors, whatever, you know, call them if you can. Even if you knock on their door and stand outside 6 feet away, 10 feet away, spend a few moments chatting with them. That’s not going to replace the same level of social connection they have, but just to not feel completely completely isolated, I think, will be a major factor for a lot of people. In terms of long term what is it going to do, depends how long it goes on, and it’s certainly going to increase people’s stress. This is, you know, socialization is one of the ways we normally combat stress or you know when. We’re in uncharted waters. What I hope it does is when this is over, I hope this makes us really think about how to restructure our lives, because we’re all relying on social media for a lot of our socializations, and I think now is the best we have, and that’s good, but we’re going to see just how poor it is compared to normal face-to-face, a meaningful interaction. And so I hope we see a turn back to that when we can.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. I think people are going to be very hungry for physical interactions, and being able to see people’s faces. I saw a wonderful image that – I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think there was a priest in Italy who was preaching to essentially empty pews, but what he did is he asked all of his parishioners to send selfies, and he taped [to the pews] pictures of all of his parishioners, so that there was some sort of face to face element of this. And I think that’s a wonderful thing, because we deal with not just the physical elements, but the bodily elements too. And you know, there was a question that came up about level of anxiety and depression, because those are also very physical symptoms as well. I know that you’re not a psychotherapist, but any sense of both how this might impact people who are grappling with anxiety or depression, and/or some thoughts to be able to help address those questions and practical tools to help address them?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I mean, as I said, I’m not a clinician in any way, I study kind of normal behavior and decision making. But I think it will be a challenge. Clearly, just the threat of the virus itself, the worry about panic buying, about food shortages, is going to exacerbate anxiety, and anyone who normally doesn’t have it, and individuals who are prone to it, I’m sure it will exacerbate it. Depression, this sense of loneliness, will clearly go too. Again, the main thing is – so when I think about, you know, how does religion soothe the mind and the body, aside from – and I’m going to leave theology out of it, just because I’m not qualified to speak on the theological elements of it – but what it certainly does is it heals people by affecting their beliefs and by giving them community. And we know that to the extent we have beliefs in certainty, whether something will end, that there is good in the world, that there are forces, it reduces for us what is the tragedy of choice that is sometimes, for people trying to be in control of everything when you can’t be, causes extreme anxiety and stress. And so, some level right now of acceptance, whether it’s putting things in in God’s hands, in faith in the universe, if you’re a Buddhist, in nothingness and knowing what will be will be and not trying to worry about it, you know, all these traditions have some wisdom to them.
But I think to the extent that we can have beliefs in a better future, in a sense that we’re all in this together, even working together, that helps us relax a bit and not feel like we’re alone and isolated and trying to make every decision on our own. Right now, there are scientists using supercomputers to try to figure out which proteins and different medicines’ attack that might help COVID-19.
It’s funny, I’m sure that this quote is getting overused right now, but there’s the Mr. Rogers quote, right, “Always look for the helpers in times of crisis.” And there are a lot of helpers out there. And I think to the extent also, [that] each of us tries to be one in our own little way, and that gives us a sense of empowerment in doing something. It builds our belief and hopefully builds our sense of community. And I think right now, that’s the best we can do to kind of ease the mental strain that’s going to be on everybody.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you you talk a lot in your research, in your work, about compassion, both what engenders compassion, or what compassion allows in us, in others, and how that alleviates some of the stress and the anxiety. And I would love for you to talk a little about it – you mentioned a little bit here, of the meditation, how that engendered compassion.
But this is something that I think – we need a few different pieces with the compassion. I think we need compassion for others, I think we need compassion from others, and we also need self-compassion. I think we need to be able to, you know, –I’m a parent of a 6-year-old and 4-year-old, and so I’m getting a lot of “Oh my god, are my kids having too much screen time, I’ve never homeschooled them!” – like, “You’re doing fine,” being able to have compassion for ourselves.
What are the different ways in which we can both give compassion to others, make sure we’re receiving compassion if we need it, and most importantly, I think, compassion for ourselves, and what that might – how that might play out, down the road, if we’re able to actually work on that?
David DeSteno: Yeah, yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think, you know, one of my favorite things to think about here is that the Buddhists have this saying that “There is wise compassion and there is idiot compassion.”
The greatest way to understand what idiot compassion is is the example my grad student gives to me often, which is – he has a 3-year-old, and his 3-year-old loves to eat chicken nuggets, and if he doesn’t get chicken nuggets for dinner he throws a tantrum. And Fred said, “I could be compassionate and give him chicken nuggets, and try and stop him crying, which in that moment would be great, but it’s not in [the interest of] his long term well being.” And sometimes being compassionate means doing things that are hard in the moment for everybody’s best outcome down the line. And so what does that mean? It means if somebody’s compassionate, and they’re saying “Oh, I just really want to go outside, I’m tired of being in the house, can I go out to the bar if they weren’t closed where you are?” Like yeah, OK, fine, but no.
Do the hard thing, help people do the hard things right now that are better for everyone, including yourself. So when self-compassion comes up, people always tell me “Oh Dave, self compassion is just – you know. It’s a way out if you’re a loser, right, if you’re not working hard enough. You should be working every moment!” And I say “No, self- compassion means giving yourself compassion when you’re doing your best.” It doesn’t mean just saying “Oh, whatever” and not caring, right, and being gullible, but it means if you made a good effort to try at something, and if it didn’t go the way you want with it, that’s fine. Have compassion for yourself, you tried. Because shame is only going to make you feel toxic and not want to keep going. And we’re all failing. We’re all discovering new things.
So having self-compassion is hugely important for your own physiological response, and for those around you, especially your kids right now. I think for kids this is a highly uncertain time. And having compassion for them, even if there weren’t an issue of the virus right now, their routines have been upended like never before. And so to show compassion, and to teach compassion, a wise compassion which means don’t just give in to whatever you want to do that makes you feel good in the moment, but compassion that makes you act in ways that benefit you and other people around you, I think, is the important way to go. And what we know is engaging in those types of pro-social behaviors typically results in better responses from your HPA axis, which is your stress response system in the body in terms of hormonal outputs and sleeping and everything else that we’re going to need to be to be healthy.
Geoff Mitelman: And that leads to a great question, because I think one of the things that’s really challenging right now is we’re focused so much on the short term. And we don’t know what the long term is going to be. We just – we don’t. I mean, that’s Yogi Berra’s line about “It’s really hard to make a prediction, especially about the future.” And we’re just, you know, we don’t know what it’s going to be. And so there was a question that said that “When we’re doing something difficult for the common good that might engender the possibility for meaning and even more humility and gratitude…” and I’m thinking about, you know, people are saying, the number of people who are willingly least self-isolating or staying away from bars, no one’s – there is not martial law. People are doing this because they’re recognizing that we have to show compassion for other people. “To what extent is this crisis itself going to be a possible vector for psychological well-being?” Is this, you know, is this a possibility?
David DeSteno: I think it can be. I guess kind of the beginning right in these crises there’s there’s two responses: there’s fear and hostility, or there’s compassion and empathy. And you’re seeing both play out right now like you’re saying there’s if you go on to Twitter and look at, you know, #CovidKindness, there’s just threads of people doing wonderful things for each other. And there’s also people, like, wrestling each other for toilet paper and all of those things, and price gouging. If you read David Brooks, he’s talking about it’s going to be the fear, because he’s making the argument that yes, people often come together in the face of tragedies, but in the face of pandemics, there is that sense of contamination and fright. Because in a flood, I can see there’s floodwaters, I know that I’m safe. But COVID-19, I don’t know where the germs are, I don’t know if you have it, and so there’s more forces pushing us apart.
I hope David Brooks is wrong. I think the question for all of us is what can we do to foster, to tip the scale more toward those people who are showing kindness? Because one or the other is going to hit a tipping point, you know, and we need to figure out how to make it more long-term. So can this be a vector for kindness going forward? I hope. But getting there is going to have to attend upon people having those emotional response, engaging in sharing and supporting and not panic buying. All those things help us get through it together.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, there’s, I think, an element of institutions – I was talking with my wife last night about this. [There are] some of the companies that are really doing, you know, the Yiddish word “menschy,” acting very “menschy.” And there are some that are saying like “Nope, we’re keeping the profits right now.” And I think that a year from now, the menschy companies are going to have are going to survive much better. I will – some of it may be PR, for sure, but I’m going to be much more willing to support a company that is acting well right now, and thinking about that larger societal good. And if there’s a company that is so focused on the short term, I’m going to be much less willing to support them.
And I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of religious institutions too, of trying to think: there’s a lot of fear, how can we also think not just short-term, because I’m sure fear deals with the immediate piece of this – [but] how, as much as we can, to think sort of the medium and long term as well? So any thoughts of ways to help us think on a longer term, you know, not just the immediate temporal piece? Are there any suggestions or tricks or ideas to think about how we can be thinking about this in the medium and long term?
David DeSteno: Well, what I’ll say is, our brains are designed basically to be much more sensitive to immediate threats and rewards than future ones. We tend to discount future rewards and threats a lot, which is in some ways why we’re where we are, because, you know, would you rather have a tax cut or would you rather invest that money in infrastructure we need to do these things? “Oh I’ll have the tax cut! That’s never going to happen, and if it does it won’t be so bad.”
And that’s just part of the way we’re built, I think. For most of human life on Earth, you don’t know if the food is going to be here tomorrow, you didn’t know if you were going to be here in six weeks. And so it’s not that that system of thought doesn’t have a reason, it’s just that we kind of need an update to the way we live now.
I will say that to the extent that we feel these emotions, that we cultivate emotions like gratitude and compassion, what we found in our work is they combat the tendency to devalue the future. That is, if you’re feeling grateful, I can show you that people are more willing to invest money in longer-term future benefits than they are for getting money in hand to go buy the iPhone right now.
And so I think to the extent that you cultivate these emotions, they instill in us a sense of moral responsibility and make it easier for us to value the future. The hard part is – and Dan Gilbert, a friend of mine who is a psychologist at Harvard, talks about, you know, we have this problem also called affective forecasting, which is trying to predict how we’re going to feel about future things. And we don’t really have the bandwidth to simulate what it’s really going to be like then. So the only way to really do that is to begin to have more accurate simulations of what’s really going to happen. And unfortunately, now because we’re living – we’re going to live through, not a simulation, but a very real-time event that’s showing the tragedy of not long-term planning and long-term investing more, hopefully because that is real – “wow, it’s real” – we can learn from not in use that to make those plans before it kind of fades. But for most of us now, the idea the 1918 flu is like “Oh yeah, that’s never going to happen again.” Yeah, it is.
Geoff Mitelman: And you know, I’ve come to really believe that a lot of the origin of morality comes from sharing meat on the African savannah, because there was a risk of trying to be able to get meat from other people, and the best place to be able to store meat is not underground, but the best place to store meat is in other people, right. “I tried this it worked, I got it you may not get it tomorrow, so I’m going to share this with you,” or other people saying, “Ok I tried and I didn’t do it, oh, but somebody is going to trust me and and I’ll be able to receive this here as well, that we are wired to be trusting of other people, we need to be trusting of other people, because of this level of uncertainty, of what resources there are going to be going down the road.
David DeSteno: We are, but I think that’s also, as I will show you – I agree with everything you said, but I can show you our studies when we give people the opportunity to to cheat in anonymous ways, they will too, because for the brain there’s no cost in that, right. The only cost is the shadow of the future. And so I think there’s an interesting paper, a couple years back, now, on this, in my world it’s called “The Big God Paper,” and the idea really is if you look at the idea of the importance of religions that emphasize large, moralistic, all-knowing gods, those play a huge role in allowing our societies to become more complex. Because in small hunter gatherer societies, if you cheat, people are going to know. But if society becomes more complex, like you’re saying with the meat, the ability to free-ride, the ability to cheat, the ability to do these things, becomes easier, it becomes easier to hide.
Yet, for the societies to be resilient and to function, we need everybody to be more fair, to be more honest. And so the idea of religion as a spiritual technology to kind of foster honesty, foster compassion and trustworthiness, is a way that makes society possible, that allows us as humans to achieve what we’re achieving.
Geoff Mitelman: Well you know, you talk in your book that’s coming out about the relationship between religion and science. There’s a chapter, I know, about religion and health. And I’m assuming you wrote this long before COVID-19.
David DeSteno: I just finished it right before this!
Geoff Mitelman: Oh, man. So you describe it as both as either a vaccine or as a medicine, and as a vaccine, as you said, it can keep us in good health, and as medicine it can be used when an illness strikes. So you know, how does that work? And what’s the element of the social nature of religion, to be able to say – there’s this thing where vaccines do herd immunity, you know, there’s a social element of the religious nature of this. So I would love to hear you expand on it.
David DeSteno: I mean, we talked a little bit about – I write about this, I just kind of see it through our discussion, but yeah, the idea is if you look across societies and people who are more religious (what I mean by more religious, I don’t mean just self-reporting stronger belief, I mean being actively engaged with your religion and its practices), that is correlated with lower mortality in any given period, longer life, lower addiction, lower cardiovascular disease, all of these things. And I think the reasons why are multiple, right. And so in that sense, religion is a vaccine. Those who are actively engaged through their beliefs in how they should treat their body, what they should eat or drink, how they should – what they view as likely to happen in the world, in terms of stress responses in belief systems. Religion is healing, it’s also healing through having a stable community that will actually protect us in lots of ways. As I said, loneliness and isolation are major contributors to morbidity. That’s as a vaccine.
In terms of medicine, what it is is how do those rituals in the moment, healing rituals, how do they work? Can they work? And again, it’s not for me to say “is there divine intervention.” You know, as a scientist I can say there’s not really any clear evidence for faith healing. But we’ve all seen things we can’t explain.
And so, you know, in this book, my goal is to not come down on that either way, it’s just to look at other ways these rituals may work. And we know practicing rituals give people a sense of control, and we know even issues of placebo can work really well. Now, a placebo’s not going to get rid of a cancerous tumor, right, or it’s not going to solve if you need a ventilator. But it does give people senses of control. From what we can tell, it does help the body heal itself by strengthening immunity, by reducing anxiety and depression.
And what’s really fascinating about the placebo effect is it works, even when you know it’s a placebo. So open placebos work, if – if – they’re combined with a ritualistic element. Basically, “I’m going to take this medicine in this way, hold it this way, drink it this way,” whatever it may be, [and] if the provider who is doing it is someone who I believe shows empathy, and cares about my concerns, and if I believe there is some benefit to the placebo. So what that means any ritual you’re doing – and again, I’m not commenting on the theological or divine aspects, but there’s another way. Anything that you’re doing, if people believe it has some benefit, and there is a ritualistic element to it, will give them some calm, will give them some belief, will give them some peace, which in some ways has been shown to heal the body. Now, by no means should you not seek medical treatment or a line that is anything else. But I think to pass the idea of the benefit ritual practice can give us psychologically off as nonsense is also throwing out an arrow in our quiver.
Geoff Mitelman: Well you know, that leads us into one last question that I would love to have you respond to, which is: What would you say to either religious leaders, or people who identify as religious in some way, about how they can stay close socially, even if they’re separated physically? And what are the benefits that they’re likely to be able to feel if they’re able to, in some way, and somehow, stay close socially, even if they’re all stuck on their couch?
David DeSteno: Be close to their flock, or to each other, as professionals?
Geoff Mitelman: Both.
David DeSteno: Both? Well, I can do both. I don’t know, think professionally right now, you know, like what we’re doing as faculty is creating virtual faculty, because we’re all dealing here – Geoff and I were talking before this, but I’m moving all my classes online, and how do I figure out how I’m going to do this? So having a space for you as a professional, right, and can get support from other colleagues who are facing the same thing. And you know, it’s a place for sharing ideas. You know, “I try this, right, with my parish or my temple, it looks good in my temple or whatever it may be.” I think having that professional shared space is very useful.
With your flock, I think the best thing you can do is try to organize outreach, right. That you yourself cannot talk to everyone, but if you can organize subgroups or chains of command of individuals checking in with others – I think that’s useful, right. Figuring out how to delegate, how to form those connections. And then also figuring out how you can have virtual services, and how those how those might work. Again, I don’t have great answers, because these are kind of uncharted times. But I think those are important steps.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, and that’s – you know, it’s an important piece for the religious leaders, and that’s – just thinking about this as you’re talking, I think a lot of religious leaders feel a lot of pressure to be able to do everything. And by definition, a social community is multiple people. And so being able to be the catalyst, being able to engender and encourage the social connections between the communities, and also, you know, I think this is something everyone can be able to do, which is to build connections with the people that we know, but also to make sure that there are other social connections that are happening as well.
David DeSteno: Well, that’s right. I think, so the people in your – Geoff, what do you call it? So in Christianity, it’s a parish. What is it in Judaism?
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, it’s a synagogue, or I would even say, more broadly, I would just say community. Because I think, regardless of whether people are religious or not, everyone’s trying to build some sort of community in their life.
David DeSteno: So in your community, those who are what I would call not early adopters, but those who are technologically savvy, are probably going to do this. I think another role that someone who’s the head of the community can think about is who is being left out, and how can we bring them in. Again, the elderly, right. So, you know, does anybody have an extra iPad or something that they can pop in one of these places, or hook something up for someone? Or how can we get them online? I think those are the people that you as a leader of the community know might be falling between of the cracks, and those are the folks who aren’t actively engaged in the online aspects of your community. And I think there is an important way to kind of play an important leadership role.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s – a key piece is that it’s leadership, but you don’t actually have to do everything, right. I think that’s leading and showing examples, and also showing self-compassion, right, of like, we are in uncharted territory here, and being able to say we’re doing the best that we can.
And how do we make sure that we try to be contagious in the most positive senses, of being able to –
David DeSteno: That’s another really good point. So another colleague of mine, Bob Frank, who’s an economist at Cornell. He has a new book out last month, you might have seen, it’s called – I can’t remember, but it’s basically about how peer pressure can be used for good. And the idea that is we want to model what people around us value. And oftentimes we think about that as peer pressure in the negative way, right, you want to be a cool kid, so you’re a teen, you want to be what the other people think is good – that’s not always a good thing. But you can – “Under the Influence,” that’s what it’s called – you can model things that the group – pro-social behavior, kindness, that if enough people do it, enough people give them a virtual slap on the back for, becomes something that other people want to do to feel proud of themselves, too. And so I think I think the contagious element can work that way as well.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. I think, you know, of the word that you said – we’re in uncharted territory here. And it’s wonderful that we’re all here virtually, and we’re going to share this online for people to be able to see. One of the wonderful things is that [with] asynchronous technology, people can watch this whenever they want.
And it is not going to be the same as being in person. That’s just – there’s no substitute for that. But there’s a line that that’s going around in the Jewish community, which is “gam zeh ya’avor,” “this too will pass.” The world may be different in some way, but there are some parts of our human evolution and part of our religious nature that’s not going to change. There are still going to be needs that are going to be met, and our needs that are going to have to be met that people are going to be looking for. And for the next few weeks, it’s going to be a challenging and scary time, for sure. But there are ways that we’re going to see some potential benefits down the road… and my son is coming in here as well. So Dave, thank you so much for taking the time here this afternoon.
David DeSteno: Thank you, Geoff, for organizing this.
Geoff Mitelman: And for all of you, thank you for taking the time this afternoon, and we’ll be sharing this here. You can check out Dave’s information at DaveDesteno.com, and you can follow us at SinaiandSynapses.org. My son is coming in here, this is one of the wonderful things of being able to have some social connections here. So thank you so much for taking the time.