What No COVID Risk? No Climate Change? How To Overcome Toxic Denial

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It’s common these days for people to talk about denial. But less often do we hear what can be done about it.  Without a sound understanding of what denial is and how it operates, efforts to alter attitudes and behaviors founded on denial are bound to fail. Yet inroads are possible if they are based on an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon.

Denial is pernicious and can have dire impacts. Climate change denial leads to lack of action that would preserve a healthy planet. Mask denial leads to increased spread of and mortality from the COVID virus. Denial of sexual abuse leads to horrific instances where an abuser is allowed to persist in their malfeasance for years because those responsible for the institutions in which they operated—schools, churches, companies, scouts, etc) refused to face the terrible reality that existed under their own roofs.

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What can be done?

Here are seven steps for leaders, message crafters and policy makers to consider if they want to undermine denial that is threatening public health, the fate of the earth or simply individual well being.

1.    Understand what denial is and how it operates. Freud and the psychoanalysts that followed him identified denial as one of a slew of defense mechanisms—mental maneuvers people use to protect themselves from painful, bad or unwanted feelings. Denial is so powerful because it works. In the short run, warding off bad feelings by denying something scary or hard to comprehend makes the denier feel better. There is an immediate release of tension. No matter how bad the long term consequences of denial may be, the short term immediate positive benefit must be acknowledged.

2.   Analyze and identify with as much specificity as possible the bad feelings that are being warded off by the defensive action. Helplessness in the face of climate change? Inconvenience and fear regarding wearing masks? Guilt about personal responsibility? A good defense mechanism may serve to help a person (or group)  avoid a number of painful emotions.

3.    Understand that logic and information will never defeat denial. Public health officials and climate scientists have learned this painful lesson. Messaging needs to be emotional, personal, vivid, direct. Remember that denial operates because it protects against painful emotion so it can only be attacked by dealing with painful emotion in an emotionally vivid way. 

Consider this ad from the Lincoln Project, the coalition of veteran Republican strategists that have organized to defeat Trump in the current election.

The information presented isn’t new to the viewer. But the sonorous voice in the background reciting the names of the dead, combined with the visual images stop time for a moment. Thought the intention is to convey a message, “Defeat trump,” the ad would be equally effective if it concluded “Just Wear a mask.”

4.    Analyze the factors that are reinforcing denial in this specific situation. Since denial is so effective and efficient in diminishing anxiety and other rotten emotions, it doesn’t take much to keep it going. Groupthink—the tendency of people to jump on the bandwagon when a belief is popular among the people they relate to—can powerfully reinforce denial. Nullifying the effect of groupthink is difficult and leadership plays a major role.

5.    Don’t underestimate the role of leadership. If leaders are seen as braving the uncomfortable feelings and ideas that denial could be warding off, then those that look up to them will be more likely to find the strength to do so as well. Conversely, if leaders engage in denial either explicitly or implicitly, those they lead will double down on the position of avoidance.

6.    Empathize with the person who is struggling to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. Instead of just touting the importance and safety of vaccinations, say “I realize it’s incredibly hard to get your kids vaccinated when most of the Mom’s in your community say it’s bad for them.”

7.    Reinforce and applaud the courage it takes for someone to tolerate anxiety, uncertainty, guilt and bucking the opinions of their friends and families rather than resorting to the quick fix of denial. 

Without defense mechanisms, we would be paralyzed. If every source of anxiety or uncertainty were faced all the time in its full glory, we would not be able to get in a car, make an investment or even cross the street. Defense mechanisms like denial are irrational but protective. Avoiding fright, guilt, dread and discomfort feels good, in the moment. To outsmart denial it’s crucial to respect its power, appreciate its adaptive value, appeal to emotion not intellect and offer the alternative of braving short term anxiety and emotional distress for a long term gain.

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