Worldviews, change, the frustration of persuasion, and why people say mad things
Do you struggle to understand why people refuse to take on board ideas that are principled and sensible and would lead to fixing problems?
If so, your personality type probably has some overlap with mine. Congratulations and commiserations. ;)
Untangling this kind of thing has been a big deal for me. As some of you know, I was involved in the environmental and sustainability movement from the late ’80s through the ’90s and beyond, and part of the frustration of that was that people didn’t simply understand the explanations of the problems and move swiftly to solutions. No, it was all so much messier than that.
If we want to build a better world, we have to begin in people’s heads
So now I’m interested in how all that head stuff works – and how to use that understanding to help people building the upward path so you can bypass the frustration and make your messages more effective.
The content of this post, and the title, popped up when I was writing Crowd/Control. It became the beginnings of a future book, but I realised it’s important to get the basics out now, as it’s part of the foundations of what I talk about.
So read on for my take on a framework for understanding how people react to messages, based on years of observation and reflection.
Our brains are programmed to avoid work
One of the most fundamental operating principles of the human brain is to minimise its own processing.
Brains are amazing and powerful things. But running a body, coping with all our sensory input, interacting with the world and, perhaps most of all, handling social interactions are complex tasks involving serious amounts of data.
So our brains arrange their affairs to protect themselves from overload, and have a bias against incoming demands for deep thinking effort.
(Brains do like stimulation, in whatever form suits us: sensory, emotional, aesthetic, etc. But that sort of activity is different from real reflection and original thought.)
Habits, worldviews, bubbles
We form what computer folk might recognise as ‘macros’: pathways that say, ‘in this situation, go through these thoughts and actions’. Once we’ve worked through a situation a few times, these pathways start to build. Then when they get triggered we can just work through the chain without using any extra processing to work out what to do or how to do it. We have formed a habit.
Some habits are physical, and others are mental. Overall, the system has served us well, helping us run away from bears and build on past progress. But it has its downside as well: we can get stuck in wrong or unhelpful habits.
For instance, if we grow up hearing that those people are stupid/lazy/untrustworthy, we’re likely to absorb that – especially if we repeat it ourselves to fit in. Then when you encounter those people the habitual responses will kick in without any reflection involved. If people tell us we can’t do that sort of thing, or we try it a few times and fail, that could become a habitual belief.
These mental habits grow together like a bramble patch and form our worldview – or a component of it. So there are factual things like ‘elephants are grey’ alongside ‘nobody likes my work’ and ‘opera is awesome’.
The brain doesn’t really care what these elements are or where they’ve come from. Once they get in, they’re part of the Big Picture of the world.
And as the eastern religions have known for a millennium or three, we see the world not as it is, but as our minds tell us it should be.
A less academic-sounding way to think of this is as bubbles. We’re all walking around in our own bubble: our way of interpreting and responding to the world. All our interactions with each other and our environment – and the way we think about ourselves – are filtered and coloured by this.
Our bubbles have grown and changed throughout our lives, with all our experiences sorted and arranged into some sort of stable shape. Some bubbles are light and flexible; others are thick and rigid. And that is one of the key defining qualities of a person.
Worldviews are defensive beasts
Have you ever seen a wildlife documentary about groups of chimps? Something changes in their territory, like a predator approaching. The chimps start to become agitated. They call to each other. They pace up and down. Energy builds inside and demands to be acted out. They shout. They beat the ground or nearby objects. They jump up and down. They screech. And eventually they attack the offending thing in a terrifying burst of adrenaline.
That’s what happens in our heads when our worldviews feel threatened. Of course, humans are socially conditioned in a different way to chimps. We tend to react through speech and body language rather than physical violence.
I call this behaviour the chimp response. You might prefer a different metaphor, like having a grumpy bear in your head, or the spiny brambles I mentioned before.
The point is that if our brains perceive a threat to our worldview, they move to protect it. And often that takes precedence over truth, over clear thinking, over personal relationships, over connection with reality. It can be triggered if conflicting data comes in; if people challenge our attitudes or behaviour; even if something within ourselves, some small voice, cries for change.
When our worldviews won’t give, we may simply pretend the input doesn’t exist. Or we will say or do something to defuse that intolerable tension and signal ourselves that the threat has been dealt with – even if the something is objectively crazy and nonsensical. And then we feel committed to defend the crazy thing as well, rather than admit that there are faults in our thinking and behaviour.
In Britain, smoking is now prohibited in public indoor places. (I think this is fantastic and astonishing.) Before that, it used to be prohibited on buses, but on double-deckers people would sometimes smoke upstairs. I would occasionally feel brave or grumpy enough to challenge them, or people dropping cigarette ends or litter in the street. They’d come up with all sorts of responses: it’s a free country; I pay my taxes; someone will clean later. They might become angry or hostile: who did I think I was? It was a chimp response triggered by being told: ‘You have done something wrong – please fix it.’
Perhaps the most precious and strongly-defended part of our worldview is our personal identity: our picture of ourselves.
How do we think of ourselves, consciously or not? What sort of person do we feel ourselves to be? What are our values? Who are we connected to? What do we spend our time and energy on?
Of course, that self-image can be significantly at odds with reality. We can see ourselves as a kind person, but actually be quite unpleasant to others. We can see ourselves as strong or brave, but actually be fearful of challenging things or making changes in our lives.
We don’t tend to have negative overall views of ourselves. You can’t live functionally like that. Our brains paper over the cracks and make a workable picture. I think most people think of themselves as basically good and living a life that basically makes sense given their situation – even if it’s the result of a set of adaptations that lead to a result that really isn’t OK.
This becomes a big factor when you’re involved in any kind of movement for social change. If their personal identity is threatened, people will ignore you or go into chimp response. And unfortunately, when you say, ‘This is wrong’, or ‘You need to change your behaviour’, most people don’t treat that as a minor adjustment to consider. They hear, ‘You Are Wrong.’
In the 1990s when I was involved in local environmental campaigning, one of our issues was transport. And the key point was that car use generates pollution, uses energy and resources, creates congestion and makes our towns and cities worse for humans. We were saying, given all that, please use cars less and other modes of transport more.
But consider that from the perspective of someone who spends a lot of time driving – maybe for work, or a school run, or because they live in an area with fewer public transport options. Or, indeed, because they present a popular TV programme about cars. That repetition may have made ‘car driver’ part of their personal identity. So when we said, ‘There’s a problem with car use’, they heard it as a personal attack – and fended off the message.
If we are wedded to our worldview and find perceived threats stressful, the natural response is to find ways for it to be stroked and reassured instead.
That could be our choice of real-world social environments like organisation culture, circle of friends and leisure activities.
It absolutely is the ‘places’ we choose to spend our online time: the kinds of people there and the kinds of things they say. Tribes form there very easily. If someone criticises something a person has said or done, you can usually hop over to that person’s social media and see their ‘followers’ saying what a jerk the critic is and how the person is in the right. Because the followers feel connected to that person, the criticism feels like an attack on them.
It’s very obvious with UK tabloid newspapers that reporting news of events is maybe third on their list of priorities. Reinforcing the worldview of their readers’ subculture is much more important. (The other one is stirring up the readers’ emotions. It is likely that, although newsier, the Guardian and Independent have a similar thing going on and it’s less visible to me because I’m in their subculture.)
This is very understandable, but there’s a big downside.
If you spend all your time with your existing views being reflected back to you, it reinforces your worldview and your bubble becomes thicker and tougher. It becomes even harder to think beyond the confines of familiar patterns. And that is a vital skill if your life involves dealing with people whose background and life experience is very different from your own; or if you live in a fast-changing world, as we all do.
Why do people say crazy stuff?
You’ve probably come across ideas that stop you in your tracks and make you say, ‘What?!’ You know, like, ‘The government puts chemicals in the water to control our minds,’ or ‘Drinking yak urine cures cancer.’ (I made the second one up, but I bet if you searched you could find people saying it. Cheers, internet.)
Of course, it’s good to keep an open mind. A few of these stories will turn out to be true, and important things for us to know. But, in the wise words of Terry Pratchett, the trouble with having an open mind is that people come along and try to put things in it.
I think most of the crazy stuff is actually defensive blocks. People are confronted with facts and ideas that are uncomfortable for them. Their worldview cannot let them in, but they hang around, causing dissonance and stress. They have to resolve this somehow. So they look for an idea they can let in, something that fits with their principles about the world or the way they want/need the world to be, and they slot it into place in their structure.
Now when that uncomfortable thing comes their way, they rotate to face it with the defensive block and bounce it off. It’s not something they need to take seriously, because. And of course the block itself becomes a habit, which they will then defend as fiercely as the rest.
So there they are, in a castle that seems secure and comfortable from the inside. But from the outside it looks like an architectural monstrosity that shouldn’t be able to stand.
Here’s an example. There’s been a lot of work on environment, sustainability and climate change over the last 20-30 years. All of that says our way of life has been causing some big problems, so we need to make some changes.
I deliberately chose to say ‘our way of life’ there, rather than less emotive wording like ‘the way we live’. Even if your thinking is pretty flexible, did it make you twitch a bit? For a lot of people, this bypasses careful interpretation and looks like a threat to all the foundation patterns of everyday life. Of course, the patterns of everyday life tend to be part of our personal identity, so this can seem like ‘You Are Wrong’. It’s hard to tolerate.
For some, especially in the USA, the defensive block they’ve seized on to explain it and make it go away is that the whole thing is a government conspiracy to take their money, property or freedom. If you tend to distrust the government anyway, you have a framework to support this.
So instead of putting a modest amount of time, attention, energy and money into making constructive changes, they’re putting a large amount of those things into building movements to justify fending the changes off.
Obviously it makes some sort of internal sense to them. But to other people with a different perspective they’ve bent themselves out of shape.
Bubbles that detach from reality
As bubbles thicken they interact less and less with reality and eventually detach themselves and start floating off into strange realms of their own. To the people inside, everything seems fine and normal as their view of the world continues to be reflected back to them.
They have lost the benefit of the checking effect of contact with other people, which stops most of us straying too far into the jungles of our personal weirdness. But if everyone around you has the same worldview and the same blinkers and blind spots, you’ve got yourself an expedition.
This is topical at the moment with politicians in the UK, and I think in the US too. We’ve got a lot of people in those positions who have come from wealthy backgrounds with connections to influential people.
Many of them find it impossible to understand the lives of people who have very little and struggle to pay basic household bills. These experiences are alien to them, and they end up saying really weird things to try to defuse the dissonance. They have spent too long in the echo chamber and their bubbles have detached.
The total solution diversion
If you get into discussions about change with people who haven’t fully bought into the change position, sooner or later you’ll hear a version of this.
‘That protest achieved nothing. It was a waste of time.’ ‘We can only help a few people – it won’t make any difference.’ ‘The UK’s carbon emissions are insignificant next to China’s, so there’s no point in us saving energy.’ ‘All politicians are the same, so there’s no point voting for anyone.’ And the big one: ‘The human race is too messed up. It would be better if we all got wiped out.’
What they’re actually saying is that they are only prepared to consider a total solution, presented to them on a plate, tied up with a bow.
Such statements are perplexing if you’ve looked at any change processes from the inside (personal or societal), because you know that most change is an accumulation of steps – a process. Some are bold leaps, more are baby steps.
And also, you never know what effect your actions might turn out to have. But you can be pretty sure what will happen if nobody acts.
From that perspective, a total solution statement seems like a not entirely sane attempt to avoid engaging with the topic while appearing to be sympathetic to it.
Why do people do it? I think it goes back to the non-processing directive. Our values may mean that we feel disposed to supporting action on an issue. But as it becomes clear that the issue is complex and messy, with lots of steps to understand and sort out, our brain’s ‘too much work’ indicator starts flashing. If we get too involved, we’ll get sucked in to a lot of extra thinking. So we do a bit of paddling to remain on the socially acceptable periphery.
Total solution statements are a distancing tactic. They’re kind of saying, ‘Well, you haven’t actually found the solution yet. When you do I’ll be right there helping you press the magic button.’
It’s also about avoiding responsibility. If we admitted that this actually was the solution, we’d be bound to do something about it. By keeping it indeterminate we avoid provoking our processing monitor or our values. We can keep our emotions stirred up in a low-maintenance socially acceptable way.
How bendy is your bubble?
I think the mental flexibility to adapt our worldview, accommodate new input and change direction is one of two or three defining qualities for this phase of human development. (The faculty of compassion is another.)
It relates strongly to the two worldviews, mindsets or movements I talked about in Crowd/Control. People in the crowd movement have this flexibility, and it enables them to see and navigate the upward path, finding new ways of doing things and working together. People in the control movement are locked into patterns that no longer serve. They cling on hard and defend vigorously, causing great harm and also accelerating reactions against them.
In the longer term, it’s important to find ways of growing people’s bendy bubble skills. Childhood education is clearly important for this, but we also need to help adults to unlearn bad habits.
It’s partly about vulnerability. If we’re willing to admit we’ve made mistakes and hold our words and actions lightly rather than getting attached, we’ll let go of the need to defend them and be free to learn and move on. It’s about clearing the tangled path from our true values to our agency in the world.
When we recognise that this is the way humans operate, we can adapt our efforts at influence to be more helpful for our audience and less frustrating for ourselves.
It leads to a model of influence like water. Instead of challenging people head-on, we have to be aware of their chimp triggers and find ways to flow around those and connect with what’s important to our audience. Shared values and visions give us a way into their world, from which we can build a consensus about things valuable enough for them to welcome aboard.
Have you recognised situations in your work or personal life in any of this? Have you recognised yourself? Does it help you understand why things unfolded as they did? Will it make a difference in how you share your messages? Please do share stories in the comments.
The book version
This post did eventually get expanded into a book, and you can check it out here.