They are many and they are powerful - we all use defence mechanisms.

I don't have many rules. One is to make my bed. Every morning I get up and create a high-thread-count tundra and a hotel-based pillow arrangement (two others: never kiss a married man and never wear three-quarter length pants).

Why do I bother with the bed? Simple. If I get up and make my bed then I have things under control and random bad sh*t will not happen to me or my kids.

I'm delusional, of course. Order, tradition and routine are all lies. They are defence mechanisms - lies we tell ourselves to ward off existential anxiety in an unpredictable world.

We lie to ourselves to evade pain. ("If you want to fool the world, tell the truth," said Otto von Bismarck, although I'm not sure he is a soothing historical role model.)


There are different sorts of defences and most sound like names of arthouse movies: repression, denial, displacement, projection, control. But my favoured defence is "thinking". Move right along! No disturbing emotions here! Only nice, tidy, dispassionate thoughts.

This week I have been thinking about anger.

I found this week's events strangely upsetting, like a child whose parents are arguing. I hate that everyone is so angry all of a sudden. You? Same? We may be be experiencing emotional contagion.

This works in part through what neuroscientists have labelled the brain's "mirror neurons", which enable us to unconsciously mimic the experiences of others. That is why one person yawning often leads others to do so.

Emotional reactions can also move from one person to another. Facebook manipulated the newsfeeds of 700,000 users to test the idea people can pass on their emotional states. When Facebook reduced the number of incoming positive messages from friends, the researchers found that users were less likely to post positive content.

If Facebook can deliberately make people sad, I think Twitter can make people angry. It is hard to go on Twitter and resist the groupthink. It is hard to stand up against the Twitter mob when it finds a jeer figure.

Personally, I don't really have anything against Max Key.

And Cameron Slater suffers from a mental illness but his psychic suffering doesn't get a lot of compassion on Twitter. Or anywhere really. Maybe that's because jeer figures can also be a source of connection. We can all join righteously together in hating Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager who bought a drug company and then increased the price of a life-saving drug by more than 5000 per cent.

It feels good to hate someone together. But the intellectual sophistication we use to feel righteous is a sham.

We are all "cognitive misers". We use as little of our brainpower as we can get away with. Like him; hate him - it's that quick. We are programmed to be lazy thinkers, to take mental shortcuts. These shortcuts get us to our conclusions more quickly but also occasionally send us off course.

Some of the angriest people have what is called a negative identity. If you don't know who you are, you define yourself by what you are not. You stand on the sidelines and laugh. It is hard to negotiate with someone like this. They don't want a solution. If someone is lying to himself and doesn't want to face the truth, your attempts to open his eyes may feel very bad to them, even hostile, and you can easily become an enemy. The truth is that getting more power warps your view of the less powerful; whereas having less power rarely distorts your view of the powerful.

Poor people really do see the world more clearly. This makes evolutionary sense - you need to see reality with less self-serving bias when you are struggling to survive. When you are high up in the pecking order - Marie Antoinette - you can afford to delude yourself. You'll still get cake.

That is why obtaining the perspectives of marginalised or oppressed people can help create more objective accounts of the world. Splitting is another defence mechanism: seeing people as all-good or all-bad.

Sometimes defence mechanisms help us to get by when to face the truth would render life unbearable. And emotional contagion is not always bad. Sometimes we need to get collectively angry, and when it generates positive emotions, it can spur us to create and collaborate.

But when emotional contagion seeks to generate anger only to criticise, condemn and to make demands without any chance of compromise, where no valid claims of others are acceptable, it generates hate and despair. That feels hopeless.

The final psychological defence mechanism if no other is available is perfectionism. That may be why when I feel I can't do anything to alleviate suffering in the world I just make my bed more neatly, with hospital corners.

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