It is extraordinary how so many things in life seem to be either black or white. Despite the complexity of modern society many seemingly want to view every social, environmental, moral, and economic issue as either being from one political standpoint or another. Parties of the centre, and those who proudly nail their colours firmly to the fence, are cursed with being neither one thing nor the other. Hideous events like the massacre in Connecticut result in both sides of the “argument” reaching a consensus amongst themselves, unable and unwilling to understand or accept the other side’s point of view. On the one hand, people are arguing that a society without guns is a safer society, and on the other people are saying that if only the teachers been armed then this horrible disaster could have been averted (Just watch how sales of guns in the US increase as people react to a very human desire that it shouldn’t happen to them.)
So how is it that normal, decent human beings can be so bitterly divided over an issue like this? How can two people look at the same event and come to radically different positions? Two recently published books have helped me understand this issue (The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and The Social Animal by David Brooks both cover this issue.) The point is that specialists are beginning to understand that we are products of our intuitive and emotional self to a far greater extent than we think. Our rational self is often there to make post hoc rationalisations of decisions that we’ve already made. It seeks out corroboration and dismisses any contrary ideas. What we feel and think is almost entirely the product of our socialisation: the culture and the familial environment in which we were nurtured. This includes a need to belong which in turn leads to seeking out tribes, us and them, be they political parties or football teams, a need that is buried deep within our subconscious.
What all this means is that the one thing guaranteed to not affect the debate are facts. It is a fact that more Americans are killed by guns every six months than in the all terrorist attacks and Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts in the last 25 years. It is a fact that the US has the highest per capita ownership of privately held firearms with an average of nine guns for every ten Americans (the next highest is Yemen). America also has the second highest incidence of gun-related murder (after Mexico). Using standard techniques of correlation it would appear to most people that the fewer guns around the safer you are and the more guns available then the greater chance you have of getting harmed. But they are only facts, and our tribal, emotional self has already subconsciously determined our position so that we seek out supporting facts and ignore those that don’t fit.
All of this has profound implications for communicators and for those seeking to influence social change. Rational argument rarely impacts attitudes to smoking, drinking, eating, and exercise or even towards political leaders. Telling, preaching, and directing is not the way to create sustainable social change. But if top-down rational communications can’t change attitudes what can? The answer is that there is no one answer. In the same way that money is rarely the long-term answer to solving poverty, behavioural and attitudinal change is the product of a complex web inter-connecting ideas and issues none of which, on their own, provide the solution. The trick is probably to try and create the environment in which people feel comfortable; comfortable with themselves and their position and unthreatened by material or social pressures. Self-supporting and self-sustaining communities are more likely to produce feelings of security and therefore more likely to support positive behaviours. It’s not simple, and it’s certainly not a short-term fix. But if we continue to try and change the world with facts then we will, like Dicken’s fact-obsessed character Mr Gadgrind, remain living in Hard Times.