What Monsters, Inc Can Teach Us About Fear

  • Newsroom
  • >
  • What Monsters, Inc Can Teach Us About Fear

How 23-19 relates to community

During a scene set on the scare floor in Disney Pixar’s Monsters Inc, one of the scarers finds himself in danger after a white sock is spotted on his back. Thinking items from the human world can harm you, George Anderson’s colleague shouts ‘23-19‘, which beckons the CDA (Child Detection Agency).

“W” is the 23rd letter in the alphabet and “S” is the 19th letter, so the code seems like it’s meant to stand for “white sock.” There is nothing to fear from a 23-19, yet the scarers at Monsters, Inc are conditioned to fear the white sock that comes from the human world. Of course, we humans know that white socks are inherently harmless.

That said, it strikes me that we can learn from Monsters, Inc by identifying what our “white sock” might be. There are plenty of examples of 23-19 in real life that have us cowering in fear when we don’t need to be afraid.

Fear is a natural human instinct and can be beneficial. You have every right to be fearful in certain situations (for example, you’re surrounded by sharks in the ocean or you’re Indiana Jones stuck in a pit of venomous snakes). However, most often our fear is driven by internal or external sources and in many of these cases, fear is a fight or flight response when the answer is simply acknowledging the situation and working collaboratively to address the root issue.

At a tribal level, people are more emotional and consequently less logical: Fans of both teams pray for their team to win, hoping God will take sides in a game. On the other hand, we regress to tribalism when afraid. Often, what we’re afraid of (the white sock) is not something even remotely threatening – but it is change, it is uncertainty, it is the unknown. It causes the irrational 23-19 response.

Consider the economy as an innocuous example of a 23-19. The economy isn’t doing as poorly as you think due to second-hand pessimism. As the economy continues to suffer from high inflation, we see a paradox emerging.

We know that individuals and businesses report feeling bad about the economy, but they are still spending and making new investments. This divide between how consumers say they feel about the economy (bad) and how they’re acting (still spending) is called second-hand pessimism.

Usually, when consumers feel bad about the economy, they pull back on spending. But the latest data shows total spending rose more than inflation; retail sales grew at the same pace as inflation in September.

Inflation remains the biggest problem for the economy, but even as prices remain high, consumers are still spending. Economic forces can change quickly which means consumers could stop spending at strong levels and businesses could change their hiring and investment plans to match low levels of optimism. 

But for now, it’s a good sign that the pessimism is of the secondhand “23-19” nature where it can cause much less trouble than fear. 

When building tribal boundaries between “us” and “them,” some politicians and media outlets have worked to create virtual groups of people that do not communicate and hate without even knowing each other. Fear pervades Americans’ lives—and American politics. There are two types of people: those who tear a community apart, and that who can build it up.

It is incumbent on us to learn from Monsters, Inc to identify the 23-19 scenarios and to support those who build communities up rather than tearing us apart due to fear.


Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at VailValleyPartnership.com