Waiting Games

For so many people across the globe, 2020 has been a year of waiting and uncertainty. Waiting to see friends and family in far-flung locales. Waiting to hear about unemployment aid, or job opportunities. Waiting to hear about loved ones in the hospital. And even though the end of 2020 does not mean the end of these hardships, many of us are letting out a sigh of relief as we say goodbye to this difficult year. This week on Hidden Brain, we look at the psychology of relief and waiting, and how we can make periods of limbo less painful.

Additional Resources

Sweeny, Kate, Rankin, Kyla, et. al., “Flow in the Time of COVID-19: Findings from China“, Psyarxiv.com, March 26, 2020.

Sweeny, Kate, et al. “The Psychological Experience of Awaiting Breast Diagnosis.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 53, no. 7, pp. 630–641, 18 Sept. 2018.

Sweeny, Kate, and Kathleen D. Vohs. “On Near Misses and Completed Tasks.” Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 5, 3, pp. 464–468, 10.1177/0956797611434590. Apr. 2012.‌

Nova Science Now. “Kate Sweeny: Waiting Is The Hardest Part” PBS.org, PBS.org, 25 Feb. 2014.

Sweeny, Kate, “Waiting Well: Tips for Navigating Painful Uncertainty“, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, pp. 258–269, 2012.

Rankin, Kyla, et al. “A Better Distraction: Exploring the Benefits of Flow During Uncertain Waiting Periods“, American Psychological Association, pp. 1528-3542/18, 2018.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Hundreds of millions of people have spent the last year waiting. Waiting for it to be safe to enter workplaces, waiting to see if loved ones will survive their stay in a hospital, waiting to see if lost jobs will return. Perhaps you have caught yourself daydreaming about the moment everything returns to normal, when we can go about our lives without masks, sit in a crowded theater without worry, meet friends in our homes without fear. What will it feel like that day? Will there be a surge of joy, or will it be bittersweet? This week on Hidden Brain, the agony of waiting, and the strange things that happen in our minds when we experience relief.

Shankar Vedantam: In books and movies, the experience of relief usually follows a period of waiting. We're going to mix up that order on today's show. We'll look at relief first, and later in the show, we'll explore the psychology of waiting and what new research reveals about how we can wait well.

Shankar Vedantam: Our story about relief comes from Jamie Spurway. For five years, Jamie worked as a tour guide, mostly in the Middle East and Europe, but also in South Africa. One of the places he often brought tourists was called the Garden Route, where the safaris boast an incredible range of big game.

Jamie Spurway: You're seeing an extraordinary array of animals. Zebra, giraffe, rhino, hippopotamus, impala.

Shankar Vedantam: Jamie typically shepherded groups around in Land Rovers. They were completely open on the sides. No glass, no metal, no doors.

Jamie Spurway: You just put your hand out, and there's air. You feel close to the animals in a way that is exciting, but can also be quite scary at moments as well, because there's no sense, really, of anything in particular protecting you from them.

Shankar Vedantam: Jamie understood that this thrill was what paying customers were looking for. They wanted to get a feeling of being out in nature, among animals large enough to kill them, but without real risk. The chance an animal would attack was small, but there were occasional reminders that this was not just an excursion to the zoo.

Jamie Spurway: One of the Land Rovers that we used had a slightly V-shaped dent in its front, where one of the rhinos in their park had, in the past, charged their vehicle. It just shows you the enormous weight and momentum behind an animal like a rhino, that it was able to leave this significant sized dent in the front of the car.

Shankar Vedantam: As a fail safe, Jamie got used to having a rifle on hand for many trips, but not all of them. On one trip in 2005, his company contracted safari rangers to help with transportation and security. At the beginning of the trip, Jamie noticed something unusual about the rangers assigned to his group.

Jamie Spurway: In the two parks that we visited in the Garden Route, safari rangers didn't have a weapon at all. It was always in the back of my mind, this sense of, "Okay, I've been trained in recognizing that there may be the need to use a rifle to defend your group of travelers, of tourists." And then, in these particular safari parks, that means of last resort wasn't there.

Shankar Vedantam: It seemed unnecessary to bring this up, since the trip was going great. No charging rhinos, no rampaging hippos, no need for guns. One day, the group was in a safari park. There were too many people to fit into one vehicle, so Jamie split them between two Land Rovers. He rode in one with a driver and a set of parents and their young kids, while the rest went in a second Land Rover. They all had a great time for several hours. Finally, as the sun was beginning to slip over the horizon, it was time for one last animal encounter. It was time to see the lions.

Jamie Spurway: We went into the lion area towards dusk, because they're very sleepy during the day, but they start to get more active as the sun goes down.

Shankar Vedantam: The other Land Rover was just ahead of them when they got to the area with the lions.

Jamie Spurway: We pulled up behind the other vehicle, switched off our engines straight away, because that's always the practice. As soon as you switch off the engine, the animals stop paying any attention to you. What we were observing at first was... I almost want to say it was flirtation between the alpha lion and a lioness who was on the other side of the fence, so actually in another safari park, and I've never seen a lion behave in the way that this lioness was behaving. If a lioness could blow kisses, this lioness would've been blowing kisses. She was very clearly flirting, and the alpha male on our side was pacing up and down. It was very clear that he wanted to get through that fence, but there was nothing he could do, so he was looking very frustrated. In addition to him, there's four sub-adult males, essentially a teenager, very close to fully grown, but not actually yet a full adult.

Shankar Vedantam: For a while, the tourists in the two vehicles sat quietly and watched. The lions ignored them. They saw tourists come and go every day.

Jamie Spurway: The alpha male had, by this point, wandered off. I think he just got sick of the scene, annoyed by the frustration of not being able to get to the other side. If he could go for a cold shower, that's what he would've been away to do. Now, all it is is us and these four sub-adult lions, all male, as I remember them. What we were observing was, really, that they were playing like kittens. The comparison to kittens, of course, is wrong in the sense of size. These are very, very much lion-sized kittens, but it looked very, very cute. Most of the reactions from my tourists, I remember, were, "Aw, isn't that adorable?" to watch what they were doing. I suspect that we, in that moment, didn't really even think of them any longer as lions.

Shankar Vedantam: Eventually, the other Land Rover headed back to base for dinner, but Jamie's group wanted to stay a bit longer to watch the big kittens play. The kids were excited. It was all very charming. After a while, though, people started to get hungry.

Jamie Spurway: Our guide, who I remember was quite a young man, maybe in his early 20s, said, "Okay, folks. What do you think? Should we head back for dinner?" The group said, "Yeah, yeah. Okay. Let's do that." He goes to turn on the engine, to turn the ignition, and there's that sound that all of us recognize, but in this moment, meant something quite different from usual. The engine did that noise of it trying to turn over, but it didn't start, and I can't tell you how obvious the impact on the lions was. Suddenly, all four of them turned around, staring straight at us. Suddenly, it goes from adorable and cute and fun and relaxed to, "Oh, look. They're looking at us."

Shankar Vedantam: All of a sudden, the open sides of the Land Rover started to feel rather naked.

Jamie Spurway: We're in this vehicle, it's open-sided, and there's four lions very much intently staring at us. Then, the driver did what we were told never, ever do. Not only did he stand up in the vehicle, he got out of the vehicle, and opens up the hood. Now, the lions are pacing towards us, very slowly, but still with absolutely clear intent. They're stalking us, perhaps stalking him. They just looked like kittens a few moments before. Now, they looked like adult lions, like apex predator.

Shankar Vedantam: Inside the Land Rover, Jamie was feeling increasingly nervous, but he didn't want to communicate his misgivings to the kids, or even to himself.

Jamie Spurway: I think that I was processing it, even in the moment, as, "Oh, no, this is fine. This is safe," and telling myself, "They're sub-adults. They're not fully grown," and telling myself, "We're in a vehicle," doing this self-talk that is to keep me away from the edge of actual terror.

Shankar Vedantam: It took a child to voice aloud what Jamie was thinking.

Jamie Spurway: The youngest in the group, I remember her really expressing that child sense of, "Mommy, Daddy, is this okay? I can see the lions coming towards us."

Shankar Vedantam: Jamie tried to keep calm, but his body didn't feel calm.

Jamie Spurway: My heart was starting to beat quickly. I was getting that dry mouth, the sweaty palms, the stomach churning.

Shankar Vedantam: The lions were closing in, scattered in a crescent around the Land Rover. They were about 25 feet away.

Jamie Spurway: They're low to the ground. Their movements are careful and slow. We'll all have seen this in wildlife documentaries. When an animal is stalking its prey, it moves slowly to avoid the risk of startling the prey away, of scaring the prey away. They're moving very slowly, inching towards us, but the gap is constantly closing. You're seeing, as you're looking out at these lions, increasing detail in their faces. I wouldn't say that I did get to the point of seeing the whites of their eyes, but I do remember a sense of seeing this burning intensity in their eyes. They looked like they weren't blinking, as if everything in their being was focused on us.

Shankar Vedantam: Finally, the driver got back in the vehicle. To Jamie, it seemed blindingly obvious what the driver needed to do: Call for help. Now.

Jamie Spurway: I said to him some words along the lines of, "I think it's best, just in case, just in case, that you contact the base and let them know what's happened." I was trying to pick my words in a way that would convey to him a level of urgency, but not convey to the children the level of anxiety that I was starting to feel.

Shankar Vedantam: The driver finally got the hint. He radioed back to base and asked for help. Jamie and the driver and the parents and kids watched the lions slowly close in. It couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity before the other Land Rover got to them. When he arrived, the driver of the other vehicle revved his engine and drove circles around Jamie's Land Rover. This made the lions pull back a bit, but they showed no signs of giving up.

Jamie Spurway: They would be scared back, and then they would immediately turn around and fix their attention on us again. It was clearly not a long-term solution.

Shankar Vedantam: After a few concentric circles, the other driver pulled up in front of Jamie's Land Rover. Then, both drivers got out of their vehicles and started to attach a tow rope between the Land Rovers.

Jamie Spurway: Then, we've got the same problem. We're back to the beginning, because now, we've got two people out of their vehicles, and they're attaching the tow rope between us and the Land Rover in front.

Shankar Vedantam: The lions, meanwhile, were inching ever closer.

Jamie Spurway: By the time both of the drivers got back into their vehicle to start up the engine and try to pull us to safety, they're very close to us, as close as they'd ever been before, perhaps 10 feet or so away from us. When the driver in front starts up his engine, thankfully his engine worked fine, and he starts to pull forward to take up the strain between the two vehicles, there's this crack, and it's the tow rope snapping with the strain of trying to pull our vehicle. As soon as there's that noise, all four lions sprint towards us. Everyone's screaming, but they run between the two vehicles. They don't come for any of us. The lead lion picks up the tow rope in his mouth, sprints off into the jungle, and the three other lions follow him.

Shankar Vedantam: All this happened in seconds, and in those seconds, Jamie and the others experienced a range of emotions. First dread, then terror, and almost instantaneously after the lions disappeared, euphoria.

Jamie Spurway: I remember the tension that had been so strong before just breaking, and suddenly, people shifting very quickly from having just screamed a second ago to laughter. You're still in such an elevated state, there's still so much adrenaline going through your body that I suppose it's not natural to just go, "Ah, whew. Okay. Well, that's done now."

Shankar Vedantam: Already, the meaning of what had just happened was changing.

Jamie Spurway: I remember having a sense of being physically shaken, as in my hands shaking still from it, but there's just been so quickly a sense of not only are we safe now, but that was already quite a hilarious experience, quite a funny and positively exciting, rather than terrifyingly exciting experience. Really striking how quickly the mood shifted that way.

Shankar Vedantam: Something else was curious. When the group got back to base and sat down to dinner with the rest of the party, the emotional texture of what happened changed as the tourists told one another the story.

Jamie Spurway: It went from being the most scary part of the trip to being the absolute highlight. People's memory of it was, "That was amazing. That was fantastic." Actually, the other group, when we got back safe and sound to them, center, and had our dinner with them, on hearing the stories, many of the kids were quite jealous, the kids in the other group, because they hadn't had this close brush that we'd had. The way that we suddenly process it in such a different way is fascinating.

Shankar Vedantam: How is it a situation can be pure terror, and then moments later, a fun story you tell over dinner? What happens in our minds as we brace for the worst, and then suddenly find ourselves released from fear? That's when we come back.

Jamie Spurway: I remember having a sense of being physically shaken, as in my hands shaking still from it, but there's just been so quickly a sense of not only are we safe now, but that was already quite a hilarious experience, quite a funny and positively exciting, rather than terrifyingly exciting experience.

Shankar Vedantam: In the seconds after Jamie Spurway's near brush with death, the mood in the Land Rover shifted from pure terror to manic laughter. Why does this happen? Psychologist Kate Sweeny has thought a lot about this question. She remembers one time she was driving with family along a steep cliff in Norway. She was in the back seat, and at one point, they got dangerously close to the edge. At the very last moment, they pull back to safety.

Kate Sweeny: I started laughing hysterically. Emphasis on the hysterical part of it. Obviously, nothing about this was at all amusing, and I truly believed, any moment, that the edge was going to go, and off we would be.

Shankar Vedantam: Happily, for Kate and her family, the cliff edge held. As soon as they were down the mountain, Kate felt something nearly identical to Jamie's emotion after his brush with the lions: euphoria.

Kate Sweeny: From the moment we got off of the cliff edge, really through that evening, and really, really for the next few days, we were all just feeling so gleeful that we were alive.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking of something that I think is attributed to Winston Churchill. At one point, he said, "Nothing is more exhilarating than to be shot at without effect." He was talking about going up to the front and feeling bullets whizzing by him, but not actually getting hit by them. The sense that you've come close to something terrible, but it hasn't happened, doesn't just leave us feeling, "Okay, we're fine. Let's move on." It leaves us feeling almost exhilarated. What do you think that's about?

Kate Sweeny: I think that one of the things that happens when we have, let's say, a near-death experience, is that your physical systems, all of your physiology, is on alert. Everything is narrowed focus to make sure that you address the threat at hand. Your heart rate is up. Everything is amped up on 11. That doesn't just go away once the threat is gone. You have this, still, very heightened physical and emotional experience that's floating around in your body now without much of a target. I think one of the things that seems to happen, certainly from my own experience and from some research, is that the momentum is still there, but it changes the direction. Now, it's directed towards immense relief and elation, rather than terror. But the physical feeling is not entirely different.

Shankar Vedantam: Intense terror and intense relief might seem like very different emotions, but they have something in common. They're both intense. The emotional overlap between the two might partly be explained by the fact that our bran categorizes feelings into two groups: high arousal and low arousal.

Kate Sweeny: For example, excitement and terror don't look that different in the body, so it's relatively easy, then, to switch from one to the other.

Shankar Vedantam: This might explain why Jamie's group shifted so quickly from screaming to uncontrollable laughter, from terror to euphoria. But it's worth noting something here. The euphoria we feel after a near miss, it's not pure joy. There's often an unpleasant aftertaste attached to this particular high.

Kate Sweeny: It's not just the heights of pleasure, but there typically is also a sense of... It's almost like an after version of dread like, "Wow, that was close. I really don't want to ever get that close again," and it sticks in your mind, even though you're obviously quite pleased that the outcome didn't occur.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Can you stay with that idea a moment? That idea is so fascinating, because simultaneously, we have a sense of elation and perhaps euphoria, but it's not something that we say, "This felt euphoric. I want to do it again." When we have these moments, we never say, "I want to do it again," even though it feels euphoric afterwards. It speaks to what you're talking about, which is that the euphoria is tinged, in some ways, with dread.

Kate Sweeny: Absolutely. One of the things that's at the core of most people's thinking about emotions is this idea that feeling is for doing. In other words, we have emotions because they are motivating, they help us to survive functionally, or to be well, in many cases. We can only ever guess at the evolutionary roots of specific emotions, but our best guess with that relief is that it is meant to be rewarding, in the sense that it's usually thought of as a positive emotion, because we didn't have the bad thing happen. We did something right that helped us survive. That's a good thing, but you also probably got way too close for comfort if you're having that feeling. It is adaptive, essentially, for relief to both feel good, reward the thing you did right, but also draw your attention towards the very distinct possibility that it could've gone a different way, so that you can avoid such a close call in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: As Kate studied the phenomenon of relief, she began to realize there was more than one kind of relief. We've looked at the, "Whew, that was close," kind of relief, the kind that we often associate with close calls and near missies. But there's also another kind that makes you go, "Finally. Thank heavens." It turns out this form of relief has an entirely different psychological signature.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate has a story from her own life that reveals this other dimension of relief. Some years ago, she planned a trip with her husband and her parents to Iceland. She was incredibly excited about the trip and didn't want to leave anything to chance. She planned every detail.

Kate Sweeny: As part of the planning, I had been really nagging, I'll confess, my husband to confirm that his passport wasn't expired, because he hadn't traveled in quite some time. I had traveled more recently overseas. Just trying to get my goat, he refused to show me his passport. He knew full well it wasn't expired, but he was enjoying getting me riled up about it. That had been the state of affairs for a few months.

Shankar Vedantam: The morning before their flight out of L.A., Kate logged on to the airline's website to check in. A message popped up on her screen.

Kate Sweeny: This really unusual message that I'd never seen before that said something about passport expiration. I thought, "Well, no. This can't be right. I've been very clear about whose passports are and are not expired."

Shankar Vedantam: Kate checked her passport for the hundredth time. It wasn't expired. In fact, it wasn't going to expire until three months after her trip, so why was she still getting that computer message?

Kate Sweeny: I did some hunting around, some increasingly panicked hunting around, and ran across the very unfortunate piece of information I had missed, which is that many countries, including Iceland, require that you have a passport that is valid for some period of time after your trip, in case you decide to just stay.

Shankar Vedantam: A passport that expired three months after the trip? That wasn't long enough.

Kate Sweeny: I felt sick. I felt absolutely physically ill. Panicked, certainly, but I think nausea was probably the primary feeling as it was really starting to dawn on me what was happening.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate made a few phone calls, first to her dad.

Kate Sweeny: He was like, "Sounds like a problem. Not sure what to tell you."

Shankar Vedantam: Then to the State Department. They confirmed Kate had made a mistake, but they also offered some good news. About three hours from Kate's home, there was a State Department office that did same-day passport renewals.

Kate Sweeny: I basically grabbed my purse and got in the car. I was absolutely frantic with terror that this whole thing was going to fall apart, and it was all going to be my fault. I also just could not quite get past the irony that I had been such a pain to my husband about his passport, and now, this was all happening to me.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate drove in silence, inching through three-plus hours of rush-hour traffic. When she got to the State Department office, there was a very long line. When she got to the front of that line and turned in her documents to get a new passport, she was sent to wait in another long line.

Kate Sweeny: During this period of time, I once again called my father, who is my first call for most, I don't know, life panic moments. He had the interesting idea of trying to reach the Icelandic embassy, which, on reflection, seems absurd, but seemed as reasonable as anything at the time.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate hopped on her phone to find a number for the embassy.

Kate Sweeny: It turns out the embassy in L.A. for Iceland is small, such that it also serves as a recording studio, so I had a few bizarre moments of calling this number and having the person answer, "Such-and-such recording studio," and me saying, "Okay," and I hang up. And then the next time I called, he says, "Wait, wait, don't hang up. Don't hang up. Are you trying to reach the Icelandic embassy?" I said, "Yes. I am." He said, "Oh, no. We do that, too. We do that, too."

Shankar Vedantam: The recording studio/embassy gave her the number of someone in Washington, D.C., which also didn't pan out.

Kate Sweeny: But after about, I think it was 10 hours total, right before the office closed, they called my name, and I had a passport in hand.

Shankar Vedantam: Compared to the relief she felt not going over the cliff in Norway, Kate did not feel elation or even excitement.

Kate Sweeny: It was just exhaustion. I think all systems were just spent at that point, and I just wanted to lay down.

Shankar Vedantam: Her mind was saying, "Finally." This feeling of exhausted release felt different from the surge of euphoria that Kate experienced after her drive along a cliff side in Norway. "Thank heavens that's over," feels different than, "Whew, that was close." Why do we have two different mechanisms in the brain to experience the same emotion? Do these different responses affect how we remember events, how we respond to similar events in the future? Kate decided to launch an experiment to find out. She recruited volunteers for a study that was ostensibly about music and emotions.

Kate Sweeny: We asked them a lot of questions when they first got there, some of which we actually cared about, things like their emotional state, and then a lot of distracting things that made them believe we were interested in their take on how music makes you feel.

Shankar Vedantam: The study was centered around a song.

Kate Sweeny: Feelings by Morris Albert, and this is a very sappy song. (singing)

Shankar Vedantam: Kate and her team divided volunteers into two groups. The first group was told they would have to listen to the song and then sing it as a research assistant recorded the performance. In other words, they were asked to do something extremely awkward and uncomfortable.

Kate Sweeny: That's mimicking, essentially, or creating, in fact, the experience of what we would call task completion relief. They did the thing, and now, "Thank heavens it's over."

Shankar Vedantam: In the second group, the volunteers were told the same thing. "Listen to the song, then sing the song on camera in front of a research assistant."

Kate Sweeny: And then, lo and behold, the recorder is broken, and they won't have to sing after all. It probably goes without saying the recorder was not in fact broken, but that set up the experience we were looking for, which is near-miss relief. These participants in the study thought they were going to have to do this terrible thing, and then were saved in the nick of time from having to do so.

Shankar Vedantam: The results of the study were consistent across the board. Volunteers who experienced completion relief felt uncomfortable before and during their performance. But what's fascinating is that, right afterwards, they moved on quickly with their day. This was something that Kate and her team understood as yet another evolutionary adaptation.

Kate Sweeny: If you do something hard or unpleasant and you survive it, there isn't that much of a function to ruminating on what just happened, because if you are asked to do it again, you don't necessarily want fresh in your mind how terrible that thing was. It's much more functional, we think, to simply experience the positive rewards of satisfaction, feel like it was a job well done, or at least done, and that might incentivize you to take on difficult challenges in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: But the volunteers who experienced the near miss, who didn't end up having to sing a sappy love song in front of a stranger, they reported something very different. Like Jamie in South Africa and Kate in Norway, these volunteers not only felt elated to have been spared, but spent time afterwards ruminating on what happened.

Kate Sweeny: It seems like when you have a near miss, a close call, it's useful. Rather than just moving on and pretending it never happened, we actually do spend a bit of mental energy thinking through how we can essentially ensure that we don't get that close again.

Shankar Vedantam: As Kate reflected on her own experiences, as well as the experimental findings, she realized there was an important component of the experience she had not yet studied. Not the part where you go, "Whew," or, "Thank heavens that's over," but the agonizing moments before the arrival of relief. The moments when the car was inching to the edge of the cliff, or the lions began creeping toward the Land Rover. The 10 hours Kate spent in the State Department office, unsure about whether she would get the passport in time.

Kate Sweeny: One thing I've studied is the idea of bracing for the worst, and it's a very functional form of expectation management that we do when we're waiting for some kind of news, where we embrace pessimism and really consider the possible negative outcomes so that we're prepared.

Shankar Vedantam: As the world deals with a seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, many of us have become experts in this kind of waiting.

Audio: Can being worried about the coronavirus make you more vulnerable to getting it?

Audio: It will be months before the general public gets access to this vaccine.

Audio: A recipe for anxiety and depression. ABC's Erielle Reshef.

Audio: It's a basic, truly primal instinct, and it, too, is contagious.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, the psychology of bracing for the worst, and new psychological insights on how to cope with dread and uncertainty.

Shankar Vedantam: Before we can experience relief, we invariably have to go through a period of waiting. As many of us have learned, this can be uncomfortable, distressing. It can make sleep difficult, distract us from work, and leave us anxious. Psychologist Kate Sweeny has studied the experience of waiting. She's examined people who've developed strategies to wait well, and others who crumble under the pressure of uncertainty. Some of her insights also stem from a lengthy personal experience of being on edge. During her sixth and final year of grad school, Kate began applying for research jobs at universities.

Kate Sweeny: Those jobs are incredibly hard to get. There're just not very many of them and there's lots of people who want them, so I knew it was a long shot, but I wanted to give it a try.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate spent most of the summer and early fall on the onerous tasks of preparing and completing job applications. In the fall, she submitted her applications and held her breath.

Kate Sweeny: Ultimately, I had some initial good luck. I got five different interviews.

Shankar Vedantam: From the beginning of November to the beginning of December, Kate flew all across North America, interviewing at the University of Miami at Ohio.

Kate Sweeny: University of Iowa.

Shankar Vedantam: The University of British Columbia.

Kate Sweeny: University of Illinois at Chicago, and then last at University of California, Riverside.

Shankar Vedantam: The hiring process for an academic job involves much more than just an interview. You often have to give a prepared lecture, have detailed discussions with students and faculty, and engage in extended Q&A sessions. It can be grueling.

Kate Sweeny: I was exhausted by the end of it and ready for it to be over, but I'd had a good experience, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances.

Shankar Vedantam: But as the answers rolled it, Kate's positive attitude started to falter.

Kate Sweeny: This'll be a parade of failure. University of Iowa, I didn't hear from for quite a while, and then ultimately found out that the position had been offered to someone else and that they had accepted, I believe, or if they didn't. In any case, did not come to me.

Shankar Vedantam: It was the same for all the other universities she applied to, except for one: the University of California, Riverside.

Kate Sweeny: It was within two weeks after the interview, just before the holiday break. I got the call that I was the second choice, so could've been worse.

Shankar Vedantam: The reason the university called to tell her that she was the second choice was that the candidate who was the first choice had said she needed time to figure things out. The university promised Kate to be back in touch once they heard back from the other candidate, which meant Kate was left in a state of limbo. She was going to have to wait.

Kate Sweeny: We now set off into holiday break with her making a decision, me having no control over either the decision or the timeline, and knowing that I would have at least a month to wait.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate's stress manifested in ways many of us can relate to.

Kate Sweeny: I would wake up naturally in the middle of the night, but rather than easing back into sleep, my mind would seize upon some worry about what would befall me if this job didn't work out, and trying to play the odds of whether it would come my way. It definitely made sleeping soundly pretty challenging.

Shankar Vedantam: When she wasn't spiraling into doubt, she would bargain with herself, trying to find a reason to not want the job. She told herself it would be better to find a postdoctoral job, a temporary position that's more like a fellowship.

Kate Sweeny: I think, more than catastrophizing, I was looking for any way out of the absolute torture of uncertainty that I was experiencing.

Shankar Vedantam: After Christmas, Kate continued to wait and wait and wait. Finally, in January, she heard back from the school.

Kate Sweeny: Around 5:05 on a Friday, I believe, I got an email from the chair of the department at the time. I'm sure, just not thinking quite clearly on a Friday, that this was going to set me into a tailspin, but he said something to the effect of, "I have some news. I think you'll be pleased. I'll call you tomorrow." I remember I had plans to hang out with some friends from my graduate program, and I just called them and said, "I'm useless. I can't. I just have to go to sleep as early as I can and hope for tomorrow to come."

Shankar Vedantam: The night lasted forever, and then...

Kate Sweeny: The next day, the rest of my life began.

Shankar Vedantam: The head of the department called to tell her that the other candidate had decided not to take the job, and that they wanted to offer the position to Kate.

Kate Sweeny: I think I knew in that moment that the cool thing to do would be to play coy like I had lots of other options, but I did not do that in the least. I think I exclaimed with joy. He said, "Oh, good. You're enthusiastic about taking it?" And then I calmed down right away and said, "Well, of course, I'll need to hear the details." But I think I was probably doing a dance of joy as I was saying that.

Shankar Vedantam: The experience of having to wait for something is universal, but surprisingly, Kate found, very little research had been done on it, and almost no research had been done on how people could manage the anxiety and uncertainty of waiting.

Kate Sweeny: I think one of the things is, it is difficult to study, because so often, these waiting periods are, by definition, in fact, temporary. It does take some pretty significant creative work on the part of researchers to figure out how best to create those experiences if you're doing so, for example, in the lab, or find them out in the wild and actually catch them as they're happening.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, one reason it's hard to study waiting is that waiting tends to be unpredictable. You don't always know that you're in for an extended period of waiting until you're actually in it. That made it difficult to study using the experimental tools of modern psychology.

Kate Sweeny: What we were really looking for was a waiting period we could study practically, that was long enough to watch some of these processes unfold, that we were interested in, and that had fairly high stakes.

Shankar Vedantam: After brainstorming, Kate's team identified the perfect group to study: California law students waiting on the results of their bar exam.

Kate Sweeny: Typically, in California, most people take the exam in late July, and then they wait. The wait is considerably longer than it is in many other states. It's four very long months. They all get their results at the same time. It's posted online whether they passed or failed in late November. They can all go online and check. In the interim, of course, they're all hearing from all their friends who took the bar exam in other states and are already getting their results, which simply, I think, adds to the torture, particularly because, in California, we have one of the lowest pass rates for the bar exam in the United States. It's also an incredibly stressful waiting period for the folks who endure it, given that their professional future essentially rides on this exam, and it is pretty hard to pass.

Shankar Vedantam: Now that they had the perfect group to study, Kate and her colleagues came up with a research plan.

Kate Sweeny: We were interested in whether waiting has a shape to it. Is there any predictability to when waiting is the hardest and when it might be a little bit easier? We found, in that context and lots of others, it seems to be hardest at the beginning and the end, and a little easier in the middle.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate was also interested in finding out how people with different temperaments reacted to the stress of waiting, so she launched another study. She followed a group of women as they waited for the results of a biopsy for breast cancer.

Kate Sweeny: It's not an easy study to run, as you can imagine. We're asking for time and emotional attention from someone who's having a probably not great day in their life, so we try to get as much as we can from what little time we have with them.

Shankar Vedantam: Before the women had a biopsy, Kate and her team tried to figure out each woman's baseline emotional state by asking questions about their personality, health history, and coping strategies. Then, the week after the procedure, they'd check in on the women to see how they were dealing with uncertainty.

Kate Sweeny: We're really interested in just figuring out who is more resilient to that experience and why. What are they doing right?

Shankar Vedantam: What Kate's team found was that there are some people, especially those who tend to be optimistic in their day-to-day lives, who are much more comfortable with the uncertainty of waiting.

Kate Sweeny: One of the things that is most consistent is, if you generally expect that the thing you're waiting for is going to turn out well, waiting is a whole lot easier. Having said that, that makes you feel good while you're waiting, but if the unfortunate turn of events occurs, that the outcome isn't what you hope for, being so optimistic as you're waiting can really set you up for some pretty shattering distress and disappointment. Unfortunately, one of the things that we've really revealed in our research and haven't been able to quite reconcile in terms of how to advise people is that a good waiting period will often mean underwhelming good news and potentially shattering bad news, whereas a really worrisome waiting period means elation in the face of good news and maybe a little less of a shattering experience with bad news. It's not quite clear that you can split the difference.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, you can choose to be optimistic at the front end and run the risk of feeling let down at the end, or choose to be pessimistic at the front end, have a miserable time as you wait, but limit the emotional downside of bad news. That doesn't sound very helpful. It sounds like you just have to pick your poison. But Kate thinks the finding does contain an important insight.

Kate Sweeny: If I had to give advice about balancing the trade-offs of distress while waiting or distress after, it would probably be all about the timing. One of the things that we know from our research is that, for example, bracing for the worst is good at the moment of truth, whatever that might mean. If that's minutes or hours or days, but close to that moment where you're going to find out the outcome.

Shankar Vedantam: Put another way, optimism prepares you for waiting, but pessimism prepares you for bad news.

Kate Sweeny: Try to stay positive, be as optimistic as you can, as long as you can, and then grapple with the potential for bad news towards the end of the wait, in hopes that that will buy you that buffer from bad news and that elation over good news.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate has developed an entire toolbox of strategies like this. Another has to do with the feeling she experienced as she was waiting to hear back about that job: a loss of control.

Kate Sweeny: As I've thought about what makes waiting so hard and what makes it different from other kinds of stressful experiences, I've come to the conclusion, and we now have some data to support this, that it's the combination of not knowing what's coming, being uncertain, and not having control, so not being able to do anything about your future or about your outcome. It's those two things that are really difficult in combination, so if you can grab hold of a little control over your fate by at least being planful about what you'll do if the bad news comes, that can ameliorate a little bit that challenge of not feeling like you have control.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate did a version of this when she was waiting to find out about the job at UC Riverside.

Kate Sweeny: Maybe I don't want to start a faculty position right away. Maybe it'd just be better if I started off with a postdoc.

Shankar Vedantam: There's another benefit to thinking this way. It allows you to shift perspective on what the bad news means. It allows you to see that even bad news can have an upside.

Kate Sweeny: One of the things that we know from research on trauma is that people who are able to find some sort of silver lining, some kind of benefit in something bad that happens to them, a loss or a trauma, they tend to be better off. If you can figure out something good that came of something bad, that's a typically good coping technique for wellbeing. But in my lab, we study waiting, so I wondered if maybe it's the case that we can set up those silver linings in advance so that they're ready and waiting for us when or if the bad news comes.

Shankar Vedantam: To test this, Kate and her team asked the group of women waiting on their biopsy results if they could see any kind of silver lining in finding out that they would require treatment. That was a gentler way of asking, "Is there any upside to finding out that you have cancer?"

Kate Sweeny: What we found is that almost 75% of our sample said yes, they could. They did not yet have a diagnosis, but they could imagine seeing some kind of silver lining if they found out that they had cancer. Their silver linings, when we inquired about them, ranged pretty broadly. Some of them were more social, so things like serving as a role model for their daughters, being more connected to friends and family. But then also, some were more personal, like appreciating life more or appreciating the time that they spent with family more, or thinking more carefully about their health. The kinds of silver linings people identify are really wide-ranging, and of course, depend on the context, but people do seem very readily able to identify those silver linings, even in advance.

Shankar Vedantam: Again, be optimistic at the front end of the waiting period and pessimistic as you get close to the moment of truth. Come up with plans on how you can adapt if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and think in advance about the silver linings of bad news. All of these strategies, of course, are needed now more than ever.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel that, over the last several months, the entire world, in some ways, has been living your research. I'm wondering if you can just talk a moment about the global experience of waiting and holding one's breath in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kate Sweeny: I absolutely agree that we are all in a sort of collective moment of uncertainty, and very stressful uncertainty. It's different from some of the things I've studied in a way that I think makes it extra challenging, which is that it's open-ended. If you take the bar exam, you know that November 25th or whatever, the result will be there. If you get a biopsy, you know your doctor is calling you in a week. With COVID-19, we're all in this suspension, essentially, and that, it seems, makes waiting a lot harder in some ways, because you can't plan, really, and you can't put your mind on hold and just wait it out until the results come, because there is no result coming, exactly. It's isolating us from other people, which is not good for wellbeing, it's disrupting our schedules, so I think we are not coping especially well.

Kate Sweeny: That said, we have a little bit of data that are hot off the presses from a study we ran, a survey that we sent out in China in February of how people were feeling, and to some extent, how they were coping, and we found a few interesting things. In short, the thing that seemed to be the most helpful, especially if you were in quarantine during that period of time, was to find good distractions. In other words, get into a state of flow, where you are fully absorbed in some kind of challenging activity in a way that really gets you out of your head and helps time pass quickly. That seems to be maybe the best strategy in that kind of moment.

Shankar Vedantam: Kate found in her survey in Wuhan that experiencing a sense of flow, where people forgot about the pandemic because they were deeply engaged with some other activity, this was associated with significant improvements in wellbeing.

Kate Sweeny: If those folks in quarantine said they were experiencing flow, they looked just like their non-quarantined counterparts in terms of wellbeing. Whatever people were doing to find flow, I suspect it just made the time pass faster and more pleasantly in a way that didn't create quite the sense of claustrophobia that quarantine might otherwise create.

Shankar Vedantam: What should you do to achieve this ideal state? Kate has devised a simple question to help people figure out how to reach a state of flow.

Kate Sweeny: In fact, when I'm helping people identify their own flow states, one way I do that is, "What is the thing you know you can't start if you have to leave the house in 15 minutes or a half an hour because you will lose track of time?" That's such a baked-in part of the flow experience. When time is the enemy, because you are just waiting for some kind of news to arrive, it's going to make that happen faster, at least in your own perception.

Shankar Vedantam: For those of us who want desperately to be out in the world, seeing friends and loved ones, time is the enemy. We stare at the clock and then stare some more. We bargain against the pandemic in our own heads and fantasize about what we will do when it's over. It sometimes feels like the past year has been one long psychology experiment. One thing I found useful at times like this is to imagine we actually are in a psychology experiment, but instead of thinking of ourselves as the guinea pigs, it's helpful to think of ourselves as the scientists. Instead of looking at the world with frustration, turn the tables and look at things with curiosity. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Tweak your daily routines and see if they make a difference in how you feel. A pandemic is a useful reminder that there are big, powerful things in our lives that we cannot change, but that doesn't mean we are powerless. We always have the power to change how we respond.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero for this episode is Dan Osit. Dan is chief operating officer of Stitcher Media. For many months in 2020, Dan and I explored what it would be like for Hidden Brain to work with Stitcher as a distribution partner for our podcast. We went back and forth with different proposals and counterproposals. During all the waiting, I was always struck by Dan's intelligence and his emotional intelligence. He helped set up the working relationship between our companies that shapes so much of the work we do every day. If I was less selfish, I would recommend Dan as a diplomat to solve thorny international problems, but that would mean I wouldn't get to work with him. Thanks, Dan.

Shankar Vedantam: For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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