What effect can induce on us the constant media bombardment we are subjected to in this moment of sanitary emergency? In addition to the coronavirus contagion, which is transmitted by air, would it not be wise to also deal with such more subtle contagion, which is transmitted by ether, whose nature is certainly no less insidious?
The mere fact of being continuously exposed to certain words (or images) is capable of producing in us behavioral changes, even relevant ones, and this without necessarily being aware of it. This “ideomotor” effect is known by the name of “Florida effect”, due to a famous experiment conducted in the nineties by psychologist John Bargh and collaborators.
During the experiment, they asked students to form completed four-word sentences from incoherent five-word sentences. Some of these words evoked old age, such as “Florida” (the place where many American retirees move), “bald”, “forgetful”, “gray”, etc. Once the task was finished, students were asked to go to another room to carry out a second experiment. To do this, they had to go through a long corridor. The researchers, without being noticed by the students, then calculated the time it took the students to travel from one end of the corridor to the other. They discovered in this way that those who had composed sentences from words that evoked old age moved on average much more slowly than those belonging to a reference sample, who had received words without any correspondence with old age. It was then discovered through further experiments that this ideomotor effect also works in the opposite direction. For example, if for a while we walk slowly, for example at a third of the normal pace, we will become much more efficient in identifying words related to old age in a text.
These effects, called “priming,” are now well studied and can take on countless forms. For those interested in this topic I can only recommend the book by the Nobel Prize winner for economics Daniel Kahneman, entitled “Thinking, Fast and Slow “ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York).
Now, to return to the particular situation we are experiencing at the moment, we can ask ourselves: what effect is it having on our mental, and therefore on our behaviors, to let ourselves be continuously “infected” by the same news, which like a lullaby always repeat to us the same things, on the threat of the invisible danger that lurks in the air that we breathe, on the respiratory conditions in which a percentage of the infected find themselves, on the insufficient measures to stop the growth of the number of infected, on the lack of equipped places in hospitals, etc.?
Of course, it is important to stay informed about everything that happens, in order to act promptly and responsibly. In this way, we can minimize the risk of contracting the virus and protect every person we interact with. However, it is important to also protect ourselves from the “ideomotor” and “ideo-emotional” effect deriving from this constant media bombarding to which we are subjected. We are all participating in an ongoing psychological experiment, where, as small guinea pigs, we are repeatedly and assiduously exposed to words and images that evoke in us fear and sense of helplessness. Are we aware of this? Are we aware of what kind of emotions and behaviors are able to trigger in us these words (and images) when repeated in an almost obsessive way? Were the students who participated in Bargh’s experiment aware that they were walking more slowly in the corridor?
And let’s ask ourselves: does our immune system fight the virus better when we are immersed in an inner climate of fear, or when instead we are able to remain in a condition of calm and lucidity? The answer is evident.
So, let’s try, as far as possible, to pay more attention to the nature and quality of the impressions that incessantly influence and condition us. We live in the so-called “information age,” so never more than today it becomes necessary to worry about the hygiene not only of our physical body, and the physical spaces in which we stay, but also and above all the hygiene of our psychic body, and the “ semantics spaces” in which we find ourselves immersed, often in spite of ourselves. Let us try to avoid walking along that corridor like remote-controlled zombies, in the grip of an anxiety and fear of which we no longer know the real reason. As psychologist Eric Berne (the author of transactional analysis) would have said, we can break our transaction with terror, and to do this, a very simple gesture may be enough: press the button that turns off our TV, radio, computer, or even our smartphone! It is like beating a very powerful artificial intelligence playing chess, by making a move it would never expect: that of unplugging it!
Obviously, this is only the first step. When we are in a condition of greater external silence, we can reflect more carefully and go deeper. For example, we can observe that every crisis, as the etymology of the word indicates, presupposes the possibility of a new choice. If we do not panic, if we remain sufficiently lucid, we can use this privileged moment to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.
How stable are we able to remain in the face of life’s events? How many psychophysical resources do we really have? Are we able to face even dramatic events without collapsing? And in difficult situations, are we a reference person for others, offering support and solutions, or do we become part of the problem?
If we realize that we are lacking in terms of inner resources, what are we doing right now to improve our situation, so that the next crisis does not catch us unprepared? And again: when we turn off the television, the computer, the cell phone, when we create more silence from the outside, are we then able to cultivate an internal silence of sufficient quality? How high is the volume of our intrapsychic media bombardment? Are we able, even for only ten minutes, to sit with our backs straight, to pay attention and widen our breath, then to experience that we are simply alive, and that in our “here-and-now” everything is all right?