Remember the story of Henny Penny? She was scratching in the barnyard when something hit her on the head. Henny Penny thought the sky was falling and set off for the royal palace to report the crisis. As she hurried along, telling everyone she met, “The sky is falling,” she gathered followers—Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey. With each new addition to the entourage, the chorus, “The sky is falling,” grew louder. The group met Foxy Loxy, who offered to show them a short cut to the palace, but led them straight to his den where his hungry family awaited dinner. All because Henny Penny was hit on the head by—a raindrop.
Henny Penny readily gathered followers because it’s easiest to influence people when they feel a sense of crisis. Like most of the brain circuits compliance professionals exploit, willingness to take action in a true crisis is generally adaptive. When you hear a siren, you don’t spend time wondering if it’s a real emergency or whether the firefighters simply want a clear path to the donut shop. Better safe than sorry. You pull over and let the fire engine pass. Donations to the Red Cross rise in the wake of a natural disaster, as well they should.
But people can influence us by prolonging our initial sense of crisis, exaggerating an actual event, or even creating a false crisis. Sometimes their intentions, and the results, are good. Charles Duhigg writes that, after the 1987 Kings Cross fire in the London Underground, a government-ordered investigation resulted in many suggestions for change. Bogged down by long-entrenched procedures, the Underground failed to take up these suggestions. But the lead investigator extended the sense of crisis by holding public hearings and interviews a year after the fire. “By inflaming the sense of crisis, he created flexibility within the organization, and within six months, everything about the London Underground had changed.” Good intentions, good result.
But when a TV ad for security systems shows a masked man breaking into a house while telling us that an American home is broken into every few minutes, our autopilot gets the sense that that masked man will be at your window any moment.
Several years ago, I decided to see whether my local property taxes could be reduced. The first protest assistance company I checked with ran regular TV ads depicting people in great distress because of their taxes. When I actually read their contract, I didn’t like what I saw. So I then checked out a second company that had sent me a low key mailing. The second company’s terms were much better.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised that the company with the alarmist ads charged fees many people would either not notice in the fine print, or not understand. Sometimes vendors use alarmism or other compliance tactics because the merits of their products or services don’t measure up.
Many advertisements and sales pitches exaggerate the sense of crises in subtle ways without actually lying. Still other crisis statements are downright untrue, but they still get spread by the Henny Pennys of this world. Today’s Henny Pennys can go far beyond word of mouth alarmism. They tell us the sky is falling by email and on social media, reaching more Turkey Lurkeys, who spread the crisis statements exponentially.
Appeals for donations or other non-purchase actions often seek to inflame our fear or outrage. Such emotions may have helped the earliest humans deal effectively when another tribe attacked their camp, but they don’t always serve us in modern life.
I subscribe to a number of list servers for causes dear to my heart. I want to stay informed about news relating to these causes, but sometimes feel overwhelmed by the frequency of the email messages. For a time, I questioned whether I was giving more than was prudent in terms of my finances. Was I giving disproportionately to some organizations based on the composition or frequency of their appeals, rather than on the relative worthiness of their cause?”
Moreover, many of these email solicitations reflected an ongoing or new issue that was depicted as a crisis. Even if all these crises were real and unexaggerated, they began to get me down. Add to this the posting of similar messages on Facebook, and no wonder we sometimes feel that life itself is one continuous crisis.
It is neither normal nor healthy to live in a constant state of crisis, fear or outrage. Nor is it helpful. When we focus on negative words, repeatedly reading or saying them (aloud or in our minds) we can actually enable negative outcomes. Carl Jung said, “What we resist persists.” The words that help an organization raise the most money for a cause are not necessarily the words that help that cause when we repeat them over and over among ourselves.
Of course we want to be aware of problems so we can think about how to solve them. But once we have a vision of what those solutions look like, it’s better to think and talk about the solutions. Are you against pollution? Think and talk about clean air and clean water. Are you concerned about heart disease? Think and talk about healthy hearts. Mother Teresa said, “I will never attend an anti-war rally. If you have a peace rally, invite me.”
Here are some other tips for keeping alarmism from dragging you down, emotionally or financially:
- If, after seeing or hearing a sales pitch, you feel anxious, don’t purchase immediately. Take time to let your knee jerk reaction ebb. Then, do a little research. So an American home is broken into every few minutes. But how many homes are there in the U.S.? What percent of homes do the break ins represent? How often are homes in your city, your neighborhood, broken into? How do the costs and benefits of the alarm company that used the scare tactics compare with competitors’ products?
- Don’t take a Henny Penny approach to donations. Decide how much you can afford to donate to each of your pet causes, and how often. Keep a handy list of your donations—organization, date and amount given. When you receive a compelling appeal, find your last donation to the organization in question on your list. Then, determine whether donating again now would comply with your pre-determined budget and schedule. This doesn’t mean you can’t make an extra donation to the Red Cross in the event of a disaster, or a one-time donation to a non-pet cause, but only that you do so with the big picture in mind.
- When you’ve read or heard negative news, decide whether there’s anything helpful you can do, and want to do, about it. If so, do it. If not, move on. In either case, balance yourself by consciously giving thanks for several good things—a wonderful friend, good weather, a story about someone doing a good deed, and take time to rest in the good feelings those reflections evoke.
- For any given cause, there are usually multiple support organizations. If one organization typically uses inflammatory language to exaggerate everything as an outrage or a horrible threat, look for another organization that presents the issue in more realistic terms. Reward the behavior you want to encourage by donating to the organization with the realistic messages, and stop reading, watching and responding to excessive alarmism.
- If you can’t find an acceptable alternate organization, or the frequent alarmer is just too important for you to cut off, try to wait for them to send a solution-oriented appeal, then reward the behavior by donating in response to that appeal, rather than a more inflammatory one. Or go directly to their website and make a donation that is not responsive to any particular exaggerated appeal.
- Don’t be a Turkey Lurkey. Be careful what you repeat or share through email or social media. Check things out on Snopes.com or several different reputable news sources. Reward the behavior you want to encourage by sharing the realistic report, not the exaggerated (or even erroneous) one. And when you realize that all your Facebook friends have already heard about crisis X two or three times, don’t post a fourth story making the same point in similar negative terms. Post a solution, or nothing at all.
- And for every bad news story you feel you must share because it’s not widely known, balance with two or three upbeat items—good news, good wishes, or something humorous.
- Finally, speaking of humor, take time for a good-humored laugh several times a day.
Instead of Henny Penny or Turkey Lurkey, you can be the wise monarch in the palace, creating more solutions than crises.
 “Get Out of the Groove,” interview of Charles Duhigg by Carlin Flora, Psychology Today, March/April 2012