How does the brain respond when faced with a crisis, and how do we overcome our instinct to flee, in order to manage the crisis successfully? Understanding this can help brands successfully rehearse and manage a social media crisis.
Fear of failure is probably the biggest threat to handling a crisis successfully. The neuroscience of what happens to us when faced with a crisis determines how we behave. Our brain chemistry changes, and it is only through practice and preparation that we can overcome our natural instinct for short-term solutions, and ride out the storm.
Human evolution means we are the descendants of survivors. We outran our predators, and our brains developed to enable us to survive. This means we are highly attuned to threats. Within 11 milliseconds of perceiving a threat, our brain chemistry completely changes. We are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, to ready us to run and to fight.
The brain perceives a social threat in the same way as a physical threat. And all that cortisol and adrenaline might be useful in outwitting a predator, but it’s not as useful when we’re in front of a computer, responding to an angry mob on social media.
So what does this change in chemistry in response to a threat do to our brain?
Let’s first look at a basic model of the mind. System 2 is our rational mind. This is the part of our mind we take to college, the part that reads the manual. Let’s say this has the processing power of an encyclopaedia. System 1 is our primitive brain, or “monkey brain” as it is often called. Let’s say, relatively speaking, this has the processing power of the universe.
System 1 is finely tuned to threats. And when we face a threat and the brain chemistry changes, a number of things happen:
Our mirror neurons (or ‘social wifi’) shut down. We can’t tell what others are thinking and feeling, and we don’t care that much either. We become very inward looking.
- Others have mirror neurons too, which respond to our shut down. This creates emotional contagion (what we might call ‘spreading an atmosphere’).
- System 1 takes over. Our monkey brain runs the show. This means concentration is difficult because that’s what System 2 controls. For example, reading a manual is not what we want to do. We want to react on instinct.
- System 1 focuses on the short term, not the long-term implications of our actions. We will do almost anything for short-term survival in this situation (remember this is what our brain chemistry is telling System 1: survive now, at all cost). Short-term benefits taste particularly sweet in this state and might even be the only options we can see. This isn’t the best option in a crisis; rational, long-term thought is required; there are real long-term consequences of our actions.
During a crisis, we need to be calm, have clarity of vision, and be creative in our problem-solving. With threat response brain chemistry, this is going to be challenging. This is the crux of why, neuro-scientifically speaking, an experiential, realistic learning and training simulation model is our best chance of success. It is the same reason why flight simulators, space shuttle simulators and battle simulation exercises exist, and it's why training is essential in handling a social media crisis.
The key is to reduce the perception of likelihood of failure and thus the perceived threat. We do this by:
- Associative learning. This is the most powerful way to create lasting learning that will endure in whatever circumstances and brain chemistry. The combination of learning plus emotion means there is a kind of ‘epigenetic lock’ to the learning. It’s said that everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when we learned Princess Diana died. These details become unforgettable: the emotion locks them in. This is what we do with experiential learning.
- Rehearsal. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to create enduring connections when we physically rehearse certain steps or processes. This means that if we practice something, we can programme our brains not to forget it. If we stall a stick shift car, we ‘automatically’ put it right despite often being in a highly stressful situation at the wheel of a stalled car. This is why pilots train for crash landings using a simulator.
- Building team confidence. Working together as a team is vital: not only must you have confidence in yourself but also confidence in others. Rehearsing a situation as a team develops confidence through the whole team. This is most obvious in the armed forces and emergency services. Unit cohesion matters. And your brand and comms team will thank you for it.
What we are building in a crisis rehearsal is resilience. The confidence to know that you will cope, that your team will cope, that you can do this and that you know how to do this.
The release of anxiety lets you respond to a situation calmly, with courage, and with the confidence to take controlled risks in order to manage any crisis for your business. In particular, it will help you react with the requisite speed to control a social media crisis.