Have you walked into a team and almost immediately felt stressed, calm, happy, anxious and wondered why? Psychological mirroring is an unconscious process whereby we act like others we are in the presence of. Watch those who enjoy the company of each other and see how they seem to imitate each other, smile or frown as the other does so, adopt similar body postures and movements. Similarly, watch those who don’t enjoy each other’s company or are nervous about the other. You may observe a similar, sometimes asymmetrical, dance – as one raises their voice so does the other, as one steps forward the other steps back.
Psychologists have a range of theories to account for this phenomenon. We know of mirror neurons in the brain, wired to seemingly mimic the behaviour of others, for example. We know of unconscious processes whereby we seem to take on the feelings of those around us or experience feelings from the past because of reminders in the present. We are very attuned to the mood states of others, with empathy being the ability to experience another’s mood as if it were, to some extent, our own.
The effect is multiplied at a group level. If a team or group has a significant number of people who feel down or anxious, that will spread. In the same way, cheerful group members can positively affect the mood of the whole group or team.
Less well known is the impact of ‘customers’, ‘service users’ or ‘beneficiaries’ on a team or group. The mental health field is
very familiar with the tendency for teams that deal with severe mental health issues, such as psychosis or personality disorders, to themselves become split, paranoid and sometimes delusional. Workers can experience difficulties in thinking with their customary clarity. Clear work boundaries, coupled with therapeutic and operational supervision, is crucial to counteracting this tendency.
Aid workers, by the very nature of the job, seek to support people who are extremely stressed; people are often in fear of their lives, their livelihoods, their very identity. The mirror effect can be a subjective experience of stress for the team out of proportion to the objective stress the team is under, sometimes to the extent that the team functions as if traumatized. Features of the traumatized brain include a sense of urgency and immediacy, a lack of context and a focus on the immediate. A sense of time or timeliness is lost.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky examined a parallel phenomenon – fast and slow thinking. The difference is experienced by how we come to the answers to two sums: 2 x 2 and 17 X 56. The first answer comes quickly, effortlessly and is clearly right. The second comes slowly, with effort and (often) needs checking. The first is the kind of thinking we need when riding a bicycle (try to think carefully about your bike riding skills next time – you will wobble!), the second the kind of thinking required to set up a feeding station even if we have done it multiple times before.
The traumatised mind is analogous to type one thinking. Fast, immediate, unconscious and correct. If the mirroring effect is added, then the thinking becomes stress or fear related and work must be done at all costs to reduce that sense.
Think of an operating theatre, a trip to your dentist, a pilot of an airliner. Each professional is not only competent but calm. They are working against the clock in a pressured environment where things can go very badly wrong in an instant. The last thing the patient or passenger needs is a trauma-based mind wielding the scalpel, drill or at the controls. When pressure or the unexpected comes, they need Type 2 thinking to kick in; for the airline pilot, Captain ‘Sully’, to look round and calmly plan an emergency landing on the Hudson river.
So what are some implications for the humanitarian sector?
The first is thorough, practical training. All too often, training is about a topic rather than training in the topic. It is not helpful to just read about a fire extinguisher, it is helpful to practice using one. In HEAT training, accelerating through gunfire has to be practiced repeatedly. Managing an influx of refugees needs to be rehearsed, not just theorized in a similar way to the large-scale scenarios run by the Red Cross. Wherever possible, activities that can be done automatically should be so, thus leaving more bandwidth for complicated problem solving. Captain Sully was flying the plane, using the radio and watching the instruments automatically whilst scanning the landscape for plan B.
Decision-making needs to engage Type 2 thinking, to be slow, unhurried and yet delivered within a tight framework. A sudden bleed on the operating table needs a Type 2 decision to clip a particular artery not just any artery or the one nearest. This involves the ability to slow down, take a breath and not snatch at a conclusion. In a group, it may involve regular team huddles, team decisions, reflective practice or informed supervision.
If the team is being traumatised vicariously then that needs attention. Staff may need to rotate their duties, to slow down before going off duty, to take their rest breaks and to pay attention if they begin to feel like or over-identify with the beneficiaries.
Finally, those in charge need to lead by example of calm, measured responses, thereby instilling the culture that is required for good decision-making and healthy engaged staff when in the midst of extraordinary stress.
We are built to reflect the moods, behaviour and attitudes of others as social beings. Usually this works well. In high stress environments it can go wrong, and we become overwhelmed. Paying attention to practical training, the architecture of decision making, the impact of secondary trauma and of team culture can mitigate these effects and help to keep humanitarian workers human and humane.
If you would like to discuss the risk or impact of psychological mirroring in your organisation, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a range of audits, assessments, consultancies and support available to support leadership and staff.