In this episode of Outrage Overload, host David Beckmeyer interviews neuroscientist Alex Corb, author of the bestselling book The Upward Spiral. Corb has studied the brain for over 20 years, and he has published papers on depression and neuromodulation. He currently works as a consultant for companies and organizations to help them improve communication about neuroscience and enhance employee well being. The conversation focuses on the neuroscience of outrage porn and how it affects the brain, as well as strategies for handling the resulting emotions. Corb explains that when we are confronted with outrage porn, our brain systems become activated, leading to an emotional reaction. He also notes that the response can be different for different people, and offers advice on how to better manage these emotions. Finally, he suggests ways to be less stressed out and achieve better outcomes.
Alex and the host of the podcast discussed the phenomenon of outrage porn and how the media has weaponized it to gain ratings and clicks. They discussed how research shows that people like and share messages with high levels of animosity or anger. Alex then explained what is happening in the brain when people experience this phenomenon. He discussed how it activates the amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response and releases stress hormones. He also pointed out the role of dopamine, which encourages people to seek out information that confirms their beliefs and biases. He concluded by noting that it is important to be aware of how our brains are responding to this kind of content, so that we can be intentional about how we engage with it.
This conversation looks at the way people exploit certain tendencies of the brain to make a profit, whether through fundraising or social media platforms. There are different brain systems involved in this, one of which is the amygdala which is responsible for processing information that is potentially threatening and needing action. This system evolved so that we can be better prepared to take action instead of waiting until the danger is upon us. It is also important to note that different messages resonate with different people, which is why it is segmented. It is necessary to understand the neuroscience behind these messages in order to optimize them.
Humans have a tendency to anticipate and be on high alert when they encounter certain situations or information. This is because our brains are hardwired to scan quickly for potential threats and respond accordingly. This response activates our stress response, triggering us to enact our habits. This is also supported by evolutionary tendencies towards grouping and us-versus-them mentalities. Humans are social creatures and need each other to survive, so our biology is designed to respond to social situations in order to ensure our survival. This means that humans often rely on their emotional circuitry to quickly identify potential threats and respond accordingly.
0:00:16 Episode 10: The Neuroscience of Outrage Porn with Dr. Alex Corb +
0:03:21 Interview with Alex on Outrage Porn and the Nervous System +
0:06:01 Exploring the Neuroscience Behind Social Media Profiteering +
0:07:51 Exploring the Role of Emotional Circuits and Social Dynamics in Decision-Making +
0:09:54 Heading: The Role of Social Connection and Trust in Human Well-Being +
0:17:40 Topic: The Impact of Tribalism on American Society +
0:20:17 Discussion on the Challenges of Interpreting Abstract Concepts such as Freedom and Liberty +
0:23:19 Heading: Recognizing Habits That Harm Us in the Long Term and the Need to Coexist with Those We Disagree With +
0:26:12 Interview with Dr. David Ballard: Navigating Outrage Overload and Mental Health +
This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions.
[0:00:16] David Beckemeyer: Welcome to Outrage Overload, a science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature. This is episode ten. Every podcaster has some dream guests, and when I started thinking about this episode, a particular neuroscientist came immediately to mind. So I took my shot when he said yes, that he’d come on the show, I mean, I was floored. He is the author of one of my favorite books and I’ve been following his writings for many years.
[0:01:09] David Beckemeyer: If you’ve never read The Upward Spiral and have never heard of Alex Corb, you’re in for a treat. Dr. Alex Corb is a neuroscientist, researcher, professor, and bestselling author of The Upward Spiral. He has studied the brain for over 20 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at Brown University and completed a PhD in Neuroscience at UCLA. He has published over a dozen peer reviewed journal articles on depression, neuromodulation, and other topics. He is currently a professor at UCLA in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.
[0:01:42] David Beckemeyer: As a consultant, he works with companies and organizations to help them improve communication about neuroscience and enhance employee well being. When I set out to cover this topic, The Neuroscience of Outrage Porn, I had this naive vision of a neat little Schoolhouse Rock cartoonish picture. When this happens, this part of the brain turns on kind of thing.
[0:02:06] Alex Korb: There is a telegram for you, ma’am, and the message is clear. It says there’s something bugging you and buzzing in your ear. The results can be quite itchy. So what is your reply? Tell you’re on the SWAT back line.
[0:02:29] David Beckemeyer: Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that and it can even be different for different people. And that’s why I have experts like Alex Corb on this show to give us the nuanced reality to my cartoonish visions. I’m your host, David Beckmeyer, and on this episode of The Outrage Overload podcast, we’re going to learn what’s going on in our brain when we’re confronted with outrage porn and ways to better handle the resulting emotions.
[0:02:52] David Beckemeyer: We will cover this in two parts. First, in this episode, we’ll focus on some of the brain systems involved and resulting responses. And in part two, we’ll take a look at what we can do to be less stressed out and achieve better outcomes. One bit of feedback I often hear is listeners looking for practical advice on how to better deal with outrage porn. This episode is loaded with great science backed advice, so let’s get to it.
[0:03:21] Alex Korb: You got yours and I got mine. It’s called The Nervous System, and everybody understands and you know that everybody better listen.
[0:03:43] C: Well, yeah. So I really can’t tell you how much I appreciate you making time to come on the show. I mean, I think our listeners are going to be I mean, to some extent this might be a super selfish episode because I’m going to love it, but I think the listeners will as well. I think it’ll be really fun. Thanks for coming on, Alex. I really appreciate you making the time.
[0:04:03] D: My pleasure. Glad to be here. Yeah.
[0:04:07] C: So we talked a little bit about what the podcast is about and how.
[0:04:12] David Beckemeyer: We have this odd perverse pleasure out.
[0:04:15] C: Of seeing people on the other side do things that make us angry. And of course, the media sort of has figured this out about us, so they use it, they kind of weaponize it and constantly feed us that stuff to help them get ratings and clicks and likes and reshares and all that stuff. And they just feed us this stuff. And then a lot of the other research that I’ve looked at shows how much we like it and we share it and we want more of it and that kind of thing. And it seems like there’s even some research saying, like, the more sort of animosity is loaded into these messages, the more we like it. So I would love to just hear about what’s going on in our brains with that and what is happening there. How is this happening to us?
[0:04:56] D: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot going on in our brains there. And one of the things to recognize is that these people who are trying to profit off that, either through fundraising or just very social media platforms, they don’t necessarily understand the neuroscience. They’ve just through testing all these different messages, have sort of figured out what are the different strings that they can pull. And it’s just basically they figure out the ways to exploit certain tendencies of our brains and there’s not just one tendency that’s going on. It’s like, oh, how do you balance your stress with your sense of connection with others, with taking action? And you have to really tune it in to optimize.
[0:06:01] D: And it’s also different between different people, which is why they have everything segmented. So that the one message that would make you take righteous action is different from what someone else is. But the main point I want to make is that there’s a lot of different brain systems involved in this. And that’s, I think, what makes it so interesting that it’s not just one thing, but one place to start is just with our stress response and how the stress system works.
[0:06:45] D: We have a part of our brain, particularly that’s involved in emotions, and the amygdala is a particularly important part of that. And its job, or one of its main jobs, is to pay attention to information or events that are threatening or potentially threatening or potentially out of our control that we might need to take action on. And the reason it evolved that way is so that we can be on high alert and better prepared to take action.
[0:07:29] D: So if you had to wait until you were in danger to take action, we would put yourself at unnecessary risk a lot. Like, if you had to wait until the lion was chasing you to start running, well, you might not survive as well. If you can anticipate and be like.
[0:07:51] Alex Korb: Oh.
[0:07:53] D: That field looks like place where lions might hang out and other parts of the brain are involved. Like, oh, yeah, that happens before. That reminded me of someone else. It can activate our emotional circuitry and put us on high alert. And that activation of our stress response and of the amygdala triggers us to enact our habits. And all this can be really fast and unconscious. And so when we see this information flowing in, our brain is scanning it even subconsciously, even before we can consciously process it for potential threats. And it’s going to take action based on those threats and make us feel emotions based on those threats in a really rapid way.
[0:08:44] C: Right, so there’s a lot we also seem to have this talk to a lot of psychologists that kind of talk about the sort of evolutionary tendencies towards sort of grouping and USS and thems and all that and it seems like some of this messaging sort of seems to play into that too. They’re somehow kind of reinforcing that this person we’ve already decided is kind of a them or bad and they’re just kind of reinforcing that we made the right choice.
[0:09:09] D: Yeah well that is this whole other system that interacts as well with the emotional circuitry that I just described but that’s about the fact that humans are a social species and we need each other to survive and thrive. I think sometimes people think of our biology as kind of being like a plant like oh well if you just give a person the right chemicals you give enough water and food then you can survive.
[0:09:54] D: But that’s not really true when it comes to people. Like if you just raised a child in extreme isolation and this unfortunate this has been seen in people in very unfortunate circumstances that the brain just doesn’t develop properly and oftentimes kids just don’t survive if they don’t have people to connect with and nurture them. So even if you give them enough water and you give them enough food that’s not enough to fully develop as a human and in some cases to even survive we need connection with other people in order to get us to connect with each other.
[0:10:52] D: Our brain utilizes a couple of different systems that had evolved for other purposes. One, it makes it really enjoyable and rewarding to connect with people and be supported by them. But two, it makes it really stressful and painful to experience social rejection. And so there’s this deep connection between our social connection and our stress response, whereby connecting with people helps calm us down and feel better, particularly when we are threatened.
[0:11:36] D: If we’re threatened by some other group of people it primes us to strengthen the connections of the people who we identify with, who we are already sort of connected to and that’s why trust plays this crucial role in human well being that you really have to know, well, who is it that you can trust? Because then connecting with them makes you safer and makes you feel safer and reduces your stress. And who can you not trust? Or who’s the bad person or the bad guy?
[0:12:19] D: And that’s who you should activate your stress response and make you more on edge. And we have all of these shorthand ways for identifying who that is because in the old days, things were much simpler. Oftentimes, I think, when stuff that we do in modern society doesn’t make sense, it’s always helpful to think about how the brain evolved in this way because it usually makes a lot more sense. And so all this makes a lot more sense if you think about the brain 50,000 years ago when we lived in small tribes of 50 or 100 or 150 people.
[0:13:13] D: And if you were excluded from the tribe, well, that was basically a death sentence because you’re left on your own and you’re going to die. That’s why it activates the same systems as being attacked by a lion. And, well, how do you know who to trust? Well, it’s the people that you’re around all the time, who you interact with all the time, who you know, and who should you not trust? Everybody else, because they’re potentially a threat.
[0:13:45] D: And this tribalistic urge that we have, well, that was a real feature of the brain that helped us survive and evolve. And so that’s one of the reasons we have it. It’s just that in an advanced, large, multicultural society, well, that sometimes gets in the way. And so we can’t just rely on people who we know directly and who interact with. So we use all these shorthand markers of, like, well, do they say they’re Republican or a Democrat? Or like, do I know them? Do I watch them on TV a lot, or did my friend recommend them?
[0:14:38] D: And how much of myself do I see in them? How how much do they look like me? And we use all these sort of shorthand metrics which sort of trigger those same tribalistic tendencies, and we may not even be consciously aware of that because these emotional circuits and these habit circuits often act really quickly before we’re even consciously aware of them.
[0:15:04] David Beckemeyer: Right.
[0:15:05] C: Yeah. Then there’s definitely a lot of research that shows most of the time we’re definitely not aware from what I’ve seen, where things like, yeah, you sort of can’t control it. And then that kind of gets to this. Is there a way to recognize it? And is there a way to sort of figure out is it helping me or hurting me in this scenario? Because it seems like I think there was some other research I was looking at that sort of talked about how outrage itself seems to have evolved to almost like, be an enforcer of norms.
[0:15:33] D: Right.
[0:15:34] C: And norms play into this moralization right. And it seems like when things kind of cross over, particularly if we think about the politics, maybe in America particularly, but it’s kind of going on other places too, where it’s like we’ve sort of gone from the other side is no longer simply the loyal opposition, they’re sort of now our arch enemy and it’s become moralized. Does something change kind of in our brain about that too? Does that have an effect that we’ve kind of moved how we think about that in some way?
[0:16:06] D: Well, it’s interesting. I think it’s sort of like that’s kind of the more natural state. We kind of feel like why has it become this way? That’s sort of the more natural way that the brain is and that most of the world is that way. There’s this great researcher, I’m blanking on his name now, but he coined this term about weird people and he wrote this book about the weirdest people in the world. And the problem with a lot of psychology experiments is that they’ve been conducted on weird people.
[0:16:48] D: And he’s using weird in a particular way as an acronym for Western educated, industrialized Rich and Democratic. And those elements of our lives actually change the way our brains develop and they change how we view other people and how we view people who are part of our network or people who are not part of our network. And the sort of default functioning of the brain, which is the way that most people in the world are, is that you have separate rules for how you behave and interact with people who you are closely connected to versus other people.
[0:17:40] D: People who you’re connected to you should trust, and people who you’re not connecting to, you shouldn’t trust. And it’s just this weird feature of America that we’re actually the most trusting of strangers of any country on Earth. And so we’re kind of like why are we devolving into this bizarre thing where we’re seeing everyone as enemies? And it’s like well, the better question was like how were we possibly able to not see it that way? And in some ways well, that’s probably a rosy view of the past.
[0:18:31] D: There’s always been sexism and racism. It’s just the ways that our tribalism have been expressed is different now because of social media and our awareness and connectedness with other people. And a lot of that stuff was it was going on before. We just weren’t as in the broader media or the white elite media weren’t aware of all this stuff. And now we are aware of it. It was going on all along and now it’s affecting us more.
[0:19:13] C: Yeah, I mean, there’s sort of this barrage of it, I guess, and so it’s hard to step away or get away from it for a little bit or prioritize your outrage.
[0:19:23] Alex Korb: Right?
[0:19:23] C: I mean, there’s only so much empathy. Anybody has always dialed up to ten there’s no place to go.
[0:19:29] D: Yeah, that’s the problem. How relevant things are and how much we should prioritize them is really hard to know because our lives are so complex. And again, in the olden days, 50,000 years ago, it was much easier. Life itself was more difficult, perhaps, but the choices that you had to make were less gray. They’re clear, like, well, you got to survive and do what you need to help your tribe. And it’s like, fairly straightforward.
[0:20:17] D: That’s all you need to do. And everyone in your tribe was kind of all on the same page, and they’re all sort of working for the same thing. And now the thing that we’re working towards is a much more abstract idea of freedom and liberty and happiness. And even what we mean when we say those words is different between different people. So we could use the same words. But if I use the word freedom sorry, if you use the word freedom, then I have to know, do you mean the same thing as me? Can I trust you? And be like, oh, yeah, we need more reproductive freedom or whatever versus like, oh, are you trying to mean something totally different?
[0:21:16] D: In which case I need to argue against you? Or even, are you just pretending to mean the same thing as me so that then I’ll trust you, so then you can take advantage of me? And it’s really hard to know these things. And by the way, I think both sides like to see themselves as morally superior.
[0:21:44] C: Oh, yeah.
[0:21:44] D: And I think that is one of the things that keeps us stuck is that it feels so good and it so activates our reward system to have this righteous sense of indignation. And it makes you feel powerful and connected to your tribe. And that’s great that it makes you feel good, but it’s helpful to take a step back to realize, like, oh, but just because something like feels good in the moment doesn’t make it good for me. And they can become addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol do, that they’re not addictive because they’re bad for us. They’re addictive because they help us.
[0:22:42] D: It’s just that they only help us in the short term and in the long term, they harm us. But the habit region of the brain doesn’t make a distinction between, say, good habits and bad habits. All habits benefit us in the short term. It’s just that if they also benefit us in the long term, we call them a good habit. And if they harm us in the long term, then we call it a bad habit. But it’s crucial to recognize, like, we do these things because they feel good, because they benefit us in the short term.
[0:23:19] D: And the only way to sort of to step out of that is to recognize like, oh, this is actually hurting me in the long term. The more that you view the other side as evil. Well, if your goal is a multicultural society where we get along, then you’re getting in your own way of that, because you have to figure out a way to coexist with them. And it oftentimes means we have to change our habits.
[0:23:56] C: Yeah, I think somebody I was talking to was talking about I think it was Pete Ditto was talking about how our democracy goes against all these natural tendencies. But in the American system and the way we’ve laid it out, we sort of need to be able to interact and collaborate in some way with people that we pretty much have big differences with. And it’s so anti to our nature to want to do that.
[0:24:28] D: Yeah. When it feels difficult, I like to remind myself of this quote. I think Obama’s chief of staff had this written on his, like, a desk plaque or something, which is just hard. Things are hard. So that when it feels difficult, we have so much strife and discord and there’s so many problems in the world. Yeah. There’s nothing that says this should be easy to solve. So we often, unfortunately, though, get stuck because we can envision a world in which it’s easy to solve or where we remember other instances when we were unified.
[0:25:24] D: And this ability to imagine alternate realities is an amazing feature of the human brain. But it just means that sometimes we can easily imagine a different world where, like, well, why don’t everyone treats each other with kindness? But then all that succeeds is often to make us dissatisfied with the world that we have right now. It’s perfectly fine to have an idealized idea of where you’re trying to get to, but you can’t take action on that.
[0:26:12] D: You need to know, what can I do now to help me get there? And if there’s nothing that you can do now, then envisioning this alternate reality is unhelpful. I often describe when I coaching clients, when I help people who are smart, passionate professionals who get stuck in overthinking or just want to be better leaders or better at sales or whatever, it really comes down to these two key things, which is identifying like, well, what is most important and what’s less important?
[0:26:48] D: And what can you take action on? Or, in other words, what can you control and what can you not control? And until you’re clear about that landscape, you’re always going to be distracted by things that are out of your control or unimportant or both. And when you fully understand these things, and it makes you able to prioritize to devote your limited resources of attention and time and energy and money on the things that are most important that you actually have some control over.
[0:27:33] C: And maybe that’s part of one of the challenges for our current culture, is that there’s so many things we feel like we don’t have control over, and we still consider it kind of important, but we kind of feel like, I don’t know what to do with it, or how do I do anything?
[0:27:47] D: No, exactly. And this lack of control activates our fight or flight stress response. That’s a response throughout the body where heart rate goes up and we’re ready to fight or flee or even freeze, like just be paralyzed and not do anything. Because sometimes that’s the safest thing. And the amygdala is constantly paying attention for threats. And one of the things that it’s paying attention to is like, what is potentially out of my control?
[0:28:25] D: And sometimes just things pop into our head. It’s like, oh my God, I can’t control. What if I don’t have enough money for that? What if someone doesn’t like me? These are things potentially we don’t have control over. But the more that we consciously direct our attention or that other sources, like our social media platforms, are directing our attention towards things we can’t control, it’s making that problem worse. Because the more that we pay attention to things that we can’t control, the more out of control we feel and the greater reactivity of our amygdala and the rest of the emotional circuitry and the stress response, which pushes us back into our old habits.
[0:29:10] D: And so there are many people that can profit off of that.
[0:29:16] David Beckemeyer: On that cliffhanger, we’ll end part one.
[0:29:18] C: Oh, man, I love this stuff.
[0:29:20] David Beckemeyer: It keeps getting better in part two, where we continue the discussion of outrage porn and its negative effects on our mental health with more practical actions we can take, like the importance of being honest with ourselves about priorities and limitations and the benefits of prioritizing our values.
[0:29:34] D: Aside from the physical things, like the mental things you can do is really one clarify in your mind, what are the things that are most important to me? And chances are, if you’re feeling stuck somewhere, you’re wrong about that. Somewhere you think something is really important, but it’s actually not.
[0:29:54] David Beckemeyer: This interview is a must listen for anyone feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the constant outrage in today’s society.
[0:30:11] E: That is it for this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast. For links to everything we talked about in this episode, go to outrageoverload.
[0:30:19] David Beckemeyer: Net.
[0:30:21] E: If you’d like to help the show with a financial contribution, you can also do that on the website. Those contributions help us pay for services like transcription and other things that help us maintain quality on the show and also allow us to avoid advertising and keep the show ad free. Okay, watch for a new episode in.[0:30:41] David Beckemeyer: A couple of weeks.