Archives for December 2011

Reconnecting Our Present and Future Selves

Humanity has long been fascinated about the relationship between the past, present and the future – from Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ to the BBC TV series Doctor Who, there is a plethora of books, TV series, movies and other media on everything from time travel, to parallel universes, and exploring how scenarios play out as a result of the influence of many small decisions, actions or events.

In this TED talk about imagining ourselves over time, Daniel Goldstein looks at how our psychology affects decision making in the present, and the ramifications for our future selves.

Goldstein, a research scientist and psychologist who investigates how we can motivate people to make long-term ‘smart’ choices rather than short-term ‘fun’ choices, uses the example of Odysseus tying himself to the mast to protect himself from the Sirens’ song as an example of why we need ‘commitment devices’:

…a commitment device is a decision that you make with a cool head to bind yourself so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a hot head.

But Goldstein has spotted two flaws in ‘commitment devices’, such as contracts with yourself – firstly, they are disempowering, a reminder that you have yielded self-control to an external source of discipline. What about when we find ourselves in situations where there is no commitment device in place?

Secondly, you can always weasel your way out of them. Like gamblers who don disguises to get past their own self-imposed bans to casinos, you can always justify breaching your own rules:

You’re binding yourself, and you’re weaseling your way out of it, and then you’re beating yourself up afterwards.

Who hasn’t done this with something to which they are susceptible? Chocolate. Alcohol. Exercise. Credit cards. Smoking. Procrastination. Goldstein notes in his talk:

…as the 19th century English economist Nassau William Senior said, “To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will.”

…it’s difficult to resist temptation is because it’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self…the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now….And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams.

Goldstein goes on to talk about the application of this theory to financial savings, which – aside from being a sore point for many people currently reeling from financial impacts resulting from decisions that were beyond their capacity to influence – misses an opportunity to apply this thinking and theory to many immediate and longer-term social concerns, such as discouraging reckless driving and encouraging healthy lifestyle and dietary choices.

Extrapolating this from the self to the species, how could we scale up such an approach in relation to sustainability to compensate for our tendency to ‘discount’ the future, and to overcome our increasingly short-term psychological timeframes – the media soundbite, the next quarter’s financial figures, the three-four year electoral cycle? How can we possibly reconcile our present and future selves with this kind of mindset?

One of the intriguing aspects of Goldstein’s work is that he is working on ways to ‘change people’s relationship to the future self without using commitment devices…in particular, assisting people’s imagination and help them imagine what it might be like to go into the future.’

Visioning has long been part and parcel of many kinds of change-work, but are there practical, tangible ways to bring the future into the present that would ‘speak’ to people?

The Long Now Foundation has a number of projects designed to both capture people’s imagination and stretch out our conception of what we think of as ‘now’. The term ‘long now’ was coined by Brian Eno after a conversation he had with a New Yorker shortly after he first arrived in the US:

“Do you like it here?” (Eno) asked. “It’s the best place I’ve ever lived”, she replied. “But I mean, you know, is it an interesting neighbourhood?” “Oh, the neighbourhood? Well that’s outside!” she laughed.

At the time, Eno – who as a European was used to a bigger ‘Here’ of a neighbourhood, not an apartment – dubbed it this attitude ‘The Small Here’. He then noted that a similar, very local attitude to space was also in New Yorker’s attitude to time:

Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be passing through. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as “The Short Now”, and this suggested the possibility of its opposite – “The Long Now”.

Perhaps the best known of the Foundation’s projects is the 10,000 Year Clock, currently under construction in Texas, USA.

first prototype model, clock of the long now

  image showing how to read clock dial - year, century etc

 

 

 

 

Images of first prototype of Clock of the Long Now, completed 31 December 01999

I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.

Clock of the Long Now conceptualiser, inventor & designer, Danny Hillis

Such a clock invites us to lift our gaze from the daily tyranny of the way we’ve structured time, to look further into the future than even our own lives – and to remember that intergenerational equity remains a foundational principle of sustainability. If a clock can last 10,000 years, can we, as a civilisation? What would we need to do to ensure we’re going to hear that cuckoo the tenth time?

The Long Now Foundation is providing an important cultural counterbalance to short-termism, but to address our immediate personal and collective sustainability challenges, perhaps we need to find a happy medium of psychological time – one that is not too ‘close’ or short-term, but one that is not too ‘far’ or long-term.

We urgently need to find ways to adapt our personal, societal, political, organisational and economic structures so that we can reconcile our individual ‘here and now’ with our collective ‘long now’.

Have you ever tried any ‘commitment devices’ on yourself? Did they work? Why, or why not?

If we can find a way to influence people’s decision making for the wellbeing of their future selves, can we apply this to influence humanity’s decision making for the wellbeing of humanity’s future, and that of future generations? Would the same principles work?

Are you aware of any other projects or research that seeks to ‘compress’ time, or effectively brings the future into the present with respect to decision making? 

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A Taxonomy of Barriers to Change

brick wall with 'children' shaped as the bricks climbing over and around it

Image from Donna Perugini

One of the perpetual frustrations of change agents is encountering barriers to audiences ‘receiving’ a message, and/or effecting a change in behaviour.

Previously I talked about just one of many potential barriers – the importance of the messenger, and why this can determine how effective the message is.

Understanding the most common types of barriers and finding ways to address these is an essential part of any changemaker’s toolkit.

In the February issue of its magazine, UK based NGO Population Matters adapted a talk given by George Marshall of the Climate Outreach and Information Network.

Marshall had analysed responses to the climate-change message to help understand the barriers to its acceptance.

In the article, Population Matters CEO Simon Ross looks at how these same responses could be addressed in relation to population:

Risk – people respond best to threats that: are visible; have historical precedent; are immediate; have simple causality; are caused by another “tribe”; and have a direct personal impact. How do we best convey the risks caused by population size, which tend not to meet these criteria? Better, how do we endow our message with these characteristics?

Belief – people tend to believe things, not just on the facts, but when they suit their internal ethics, world view, social norms and behaviour. How do we reframe our message so that we avoid so contradicting people’s core beliefs that they reject it out of hand?

Attention – there are subjects of which people are aware but which it is not socially acceptable to discuss. This is also known as failing the “dinner party test”. These subjects are taboo, perhaps because they’re potentially distressing, or embarrassing, or controversial, or might challenge the audience’s behaviour.

Stories or interpretative narratives – the way we mediate information. What is the “story” or message of population growth about? It could be about resources, or the environment, or quality of life, or ageing, or gender equality, or poverty alleviation, or technological progress, or, less positively, national competition, immigration or political control. Of course, it’s to some extent about all of these things. Given this complexity and these very different possible narratives, how do we construct a coherent (it hangs together), convincing (it’s believable) and compelling (it makes people care) story?

Responsibilities – similarly, who should be doing something about population numbers? Possible answers include: women; men; wealthy countries; developing countries; the government; the UN; schools; teenage girls; even all of us. How do we construct a story that allocates responsibility for action in a way that is seen as appropriate?

Objections – reasons people give for rejecting our message. Examples: I do other environmentally friendly things; you have no right to tell me what to do; I’m not the main cause of the problem; I’ve done nothing wrong; I can’t make any difference on my own; it’s too difficult for me to change my reproductive behaviour/ speak out; society won’t accept change in its reproductive behaviour/ discussion on this; there are too many obstacles to changing reproductive behaviour. What can we say to counter these?

Distancing – some people will say that population is a problem that’s happening to someone else, or somewhere else, or that it’s buried in the past, or something for the future. How do we convince them that it’s important to them personally, here, and now?

Compartmentalising – some people will agree it’s a problem, and then ignore it with reference to their own behaviour. How do we persuade them to change their behaviour and what they say about population?

Positive framing – people may focus on perceived positive aspects of population growth. How do we ensure the downside is seen as more important?

Ethical offsets – people may say they’ve ‘done their bit’ by having only one or two children. How do we encourage them to do more?

Cynicism – people may decide to have more children before it becomes unfashionable. Can we persuade them to be responsible?

Agnosticism – people will say that the impact of population numbers is unproven. How do we convince them it’s real?

Denial – some will deny it’s a problem at all. How do we limit their influence?

This is not by any means a complete list of barriers change agents face in their work, and you may or may not agree with how Population Matters have adapted the original talk – for example, I would prefer to ask more questions about denial of a problem rather than seeking to limit such a group’s influence. However this ‘taxonomy of barriers’ offers a useful framework for many programs of change.

Furthermore, even presenting ‘facts’ differently to resonate with a range of audiences may not always be successful – in an article called ‘The Backfire Effect’, You Are Not So Smart (a blog and book about self-delusion and irrational thinking), noted the following:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Governments and people seeking to bring about change in any area, be it healthy diets, safe driving, climate change, have tended to operate on the basis that people will change their behaviour when presented with the facts, or when presented with the facts in a certain way. But check out this example cited in The Backfire Effect:

Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

Sometimes facts and information, and presenting them in specific ways for specific audiences can work, but all too often the result is that people dig their heels in further and resist change. People tend to not want to let go of their attachment to beliefs for various reasons – like any habit, its easier to keep what we’ve got than spend the mental energy working through something new; people may feel like being open to a new idea makes them ‘wrong’, which runs counter to what we’ve been taught all through our educational system – that being right equals success, cleverness, and self-esteem.

We’re trying to tackle change through the head (reasoning, rationale) when what we need to shift is the heart (emotional attachments, beliefs). The example cited above was followed in the article by a quote from Sir Francis Bacon on the same issue – that people will throw out what does not ‘fit’ with their worldview, regardless of the evidence. In this situation, science does not matter. Facts cannot convince.

Bacon’s quote is from over four hundred years ago, we’ve known this for a long time! It is not new.

Perhaps we, as those who seek to change habits, must change our own – the habit of the manner in which we communicate?

Could this ‘taxonomy’ help address some aspects of your communications or change challengeAre there any important barriers that you have come across which should be part of a list of barriers?

Have you ever experienced a wholesale rejection of a communications approach and wondered why it didn’t work?

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The Irrational-ness of Irrationality

street artist in rome with crystal ball

Image Credit – Street Artist in Rome image by Julia Folsom via flickr

Insights into understanding the human psyche, and how it relates to behaviour change, can sometimes be made from what at first glance appears to be an unrelated incident.

On 11 May this year, thousands of citizens fled Rome because of a prophecy by a self-taught seismologist that a massive earthquake would strike the city on that date.

Raffaele Bendandi, who died in 1979, had correctly predicted earthquakes during his lifetime based on planetary alignments.

The level of panic was such that Rome’s city hall had to open a toll-free number to handle calls and calm people down.

How is it that this prediction became so real for many people that they would call the police for advice, or shut their businesses and flee the city?

A devastating 2009 earthquake that killed over 300 people in L’Aquila, barely 100 kilometres from Rome, may have been a factor. An event that was both recent, and which occurred close by, could well have made Romans feel that there was a real likelihood of the earthquake occurring – and Mr Bendandi clearly had some authority, based on his track record of previous successful predictions.

Was peoples’ reaction because the prediction was attached to a specific date and a specific place? Possibly.

Yet the anticipated date of 11 May was never actually cited by Bendandi in any of his documents, according to the president of the Bendandi Foundation.

Also, there is a long list of predictions that have been made about specific dates and places that never eventuated – and yet people continue to respond in similar ways to both existing and new predictions.

Students of psychology and social change will have a good opportunity to document and case study this very issue over the next twelve months. The New Year is almost upon us, a year synonymous with the date 21 December, 2012 and the Mayan calendar – and although there is a great deal of ambiguity and misunderstanding around the meaning of that date, it’s a safe prediction to make that there will be an increasing level of anxiety and concern about it up until the dawn of 22 December, 2012.

Now consider all of this in relation to climate change – or any other phenomenon that threatens human wellbeing and survival.

Sustainability communicators everywhere have been discouraged from using ‘doomsday’ approaches and apocalyptic messages (also known as ‘climate p*rn’) as methods of motivating people with respect to climate change because they engender fear and despair in people – ie. they don’t work. The gradual, non-specific, long-emergency, boiling-frog nature of climate change and other large-scale trends are also cited as barriers to action.

Yet when it comes to prophecies and predictions, ‘doomsday and apocalypse’ seems to be effective in terms of convincing people and motivating them to respond, and time scales somehow become irrelevant – the Mayan Long Count is over 5,000 solar years!

What the hell is going on?!

Why is it that people can, and will, whip themselves into a frenzy over what 21 December 2012 might bring in relation to doomsday theories, yet we cannot seem to muster the same urgent response to masses of data interpreted by thousands of people who have expertise in their area, warning us of impending catastrophe from messing about with the chemical balance of the atmosphere?

Is it that myth, prediction and prophecy are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we more readily respond to these than we will our best science? Prophecy is a story, and a story is common trait across cultures and time, its in our cultural DNA. For millennia, knowledge has been transmitted through story and myth, not data and reason. Science is new to us, only a few hundred years old by comparison. And we know that human beings do not operate on the basis of our rational brain alone.

Does the answer to addressing climate change, loss of biodiversity, and other sustainability challenges lie in creating a (faux) prophecy of some sort?!

But seriously – have we been going the wrong way about this? Can we somehow harness this phenomenon?

So change agents, activists – do not despair if your approaches don’t always hit the mark. It seems that even irrationality itself is irrational.

What other explanations might there be for fear/doom/apocalypse being a ‘turn off’ in relation to climate change, and a ‘turn on’ in relation to prophecy and predictions?

Have you encountered any similar paradoxes in your work? 

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