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'Stay home, stay safe'; 'The new normal' — Psychological ploys alter thinking about post-virus life?

“We’re all in this together. Stay home. Stay safe. We’ll get through this. It’s our new normal.”

These words have been repeated so many times, you’d think they’re used for selling the latest super food. They’re not selling a super food, but it is possible they’re trying to sell us something.

My wife and I were drinking our coffee in bed one morning when she (a NICU nurse) didn’t have to go into work. I’m a mental health professional. We’ve been having our first cup of coffee in bed with one another since shortly after we were married. Just before the news shifted to commercial, the news anchor stated, “Stay home. Stay safe.”

The commercials came on, with one after another using the phrases I mentioned above. That was the moment I first realized how often those phrases were coming at us. Of course, once you notice something like this, you can’t not see it or not hear it anymore.

Welcome to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, a unique experience where something you recently learned suddenly starts "appearing" everywhere you turn.

Whether the coordinated use of these phrases is some sort of nationwide scheme created by a group behind “the curtain,” or it is a simple coincidence, we’ve been primed, and it’s had a visible impact on people’s thoughts, words, and actions.

Any coordinated effort that uses this approach would be what is known as behavioral priming. Though its effects are controversial, psychologists, researchers, and marketers have tested behavioral priming since the middle of the 20th century.

If you’re not familiar with priming, it is the ability to influence someone’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors without them knowing about it, through exposure to a previous stimulus. For example, repeating the phrase, “Stay home. Stay safe.” could be a form of priming, as it has the potential to impact the way people think (or don’t think and just do), speak, or act.

Obviously, behavioral priming may have benefits in altering personal behaviors that someone considers personally negative, such as smoking or overeating. However, it can also be used, as we will see, for sinister purposes.

Dr. John Bargh, Director of Psychology at Yale University, wrote definitively about behavioral priming 14 years ago and has researched it for more than 30 years. Is it being used against the American people now? (Photo: YouTube screen capture, Google Talks)

As John Bargh explained in his article, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology back in the mid-2000s:

“The past 25 years have seen amazing empirical advances in our knowledge of the kinds of psychological concepts and processes that can be primed or put into motion unconsciously. Social norms to guide or channel behavior within the situation; goals to achieve high performance, to corporate with an opponent, or to be fair minded and egalitarian; emotions that shape our reactions and responses to subsequent, unrelated stimuli; and of course, knowledge structures such as stereotypes and trait constructs for use in the comprehension and encoding of often ambiguous social behavior. And social behavior itself can be produced unconsciously in the same fashion.”

“Still more recently, though, priming effects of even greater complexity have been discovered, such as in the nonconscious activation of deep cultural ideologies and other interpersonal relations … “

—Bargh JA, 2006

Consider this statement: “We’re all in this together.”

If you hear this over and over, and unconsciously believe it, then it means those who don’t follow the conventional recommendations aren’t in this with you. They’re outsiders. They are easy to target and hate and slander. It feels okay to treat them as outsiders because people believe they have the support of their pack to do so.

Or take this one: “Stay home. Stay safe.”

This implies that by staying home, you’re doing something that helps protect people. To not stay home then, would mean putting others at risk. It sets the stage for people to easily buy into the idea that if you don’t stay home, you’re selfish.

There is absolutely nothing to prove either statement is accurate. Recent data, in fact, shows the opposite. Sixty-six percent of hospitalizations in New York are from people who have been sheltering in place and then came out into the world when restrictions began to be lifted.

Yet, if you asked the average person what they should do to protect themselves and others, they would say, “I should stay home to stay safe.” Moreover, they probably won't be able to say what that is the best strategy.

The way behavioral priming has played out over the last two months is that people have been willing to snitch on their neighbors for not staying home, not social distancing or even not wearing masks and gloves. Why? The people they report obviously aren’t in this with us, they aren’t “staying home, staying safe” because they aren’t behaving like us.

Behavioral priming can lead us to believe something is a fact even without evidence to support it. It would explain why some people feel it’s okay to throw stones at those who believe in something other than staying home. They want to slander doctors who suggest we’re actually safer being at work. Maybe their strong emotion comes from the fact that they’ve been well-primed over the past couple of months.

Is this the new normal, always wearing face masks, using effective social distancing, telelearning, never shaking hands again? Who gets to decide, and why? (Photo Illustration: Tiffany Lauffer/Jackson Laboratory)

And finally, what about this? “A new normal.”

What a perfect phrase to prime you to accept a life that will forever be different from the life we lived up until 2020. If you believe whatever we’re told to do next is the “new normal” after hearing that phrase a thousand times, we’ll be less likely to question whatever that suggested normal might be.

I’m not saying this is some sort of global conspiracy, or that a group of evil-minded people decided to take advantage of the situation we’re in right now to create a different way of living.

It’s possible somebody simply threw a few phrases together, and they took off faster than a controversial video on YouTube, but with far less pushback. Maybe it was just a coincidence.

I’m only asking the question, “What if?”

What if the phrases we’ve constantly heard have shaped the way we think about our actions, the way we judge others’ actions, and the way we might accept life in the future, if it becomes different from what we’ve experienced in the past?

What if there are motivations behind all of this that aren’t pure? The only way to find out is to ask questions. The weird part in it all is that once people begin asking questions, they’re often met with an onslaught of hate and anger, which makes you wonder even more if there isn’t something behind it all.

What if, by you simply asking, “What if?” you start to feel less concerned about the Wuhan coronavirus and more about where we’re headed as a country?

Of course, I could be way off base with my questions. If I am, I don’t mind. I’m simply asking questions worth considering. Wisdom comes from asking questions, not from simply following along with whatever we’re told.

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