Creating Change

I wrote my first blog on how people are challenged by the growth of technology. My basic points were:

  • Technology is creating new powers and new situations which our minds and bodies are often not equipped to manage, and that process is accelerating.
  • This stress creates uncertainties and (at least for me personally) anxieties which push us to seek what we trust.
  • Scientists and engineers who contribute to the acceleration of technology and knowledge must fit into an ecosystem with others such as artists, legislators, educators, manufacturers, etc. so that we can together create a coordinated system that builds trust and understanding into the growth process of our society, and perhaps our planet.

There are a lot of aspects to this argument, and I hope to be able to explore them in more detail.  I also hope to get feedback from any readers who have expertise and experience in other areas for balancing my bias from being trained in the neuroscience and technology realms.  In today’s blog, I want to explore aspect of adapting the individual and creating individual change.

A friend recently asked me, “How do you change people who don’t want to change?” He was concerned about the rift in the US with different groups getting into extreme viewpoints driven by submersion in bubbles of “fake news.” He wanted to “help people see the truth.” At the time, I focused my reply on the truism that people have to want to change.

Specifically, three relevant strands of research came to mind.

  • The Stages of Change model of Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente (now updated to the Transtheoretical model) describes the stages they believe people go through when making change. This starts with “precontemplation” when you don’t believe that you need to change and see no problems. This progresses to “contemplation” when you see a possible need to change, but don’t really believe it is worthwhile or possible, then “preparation” and “action” and so on. The authors focused on the idea that each stage represents a different mind set and requires a different approach to move on.  Their work started with nicotine addiction, but they broadened their ideas and application as described in their book, Changing for Good.
  • The work of Miller and Rollnick on Motivational Interviewing, described in their book, Motivational interviewing. Although they also describe a couple of “phases of change,” their focus was on developing specific techniques to help build intrinsic motivation to change. In particular, they emphasize a non-judgmental, open approach that creates an interaction which fosters exploration and change. Although developed in the context of alcohol counseling, I feel these techniques are useful to help create many kinds of positive discussion and growth.
  • The work of Robert Cialdini, described in his book, The Psychology of Persuasion. He goes into the psychological tendencies that make people susceptible to being convinced of things they normally would not be convinced of. These include things like expectations of reciprocity, bias towards attractiveness, bias toward what others do when we think they are like us, bias towards scarcity, especially if we think something is being taken away, etc.  We see these at work when a salesperson dresses nicely, notes things in common with us, or tells us that the sale on an item is ending today.

Although there are persuasion techniques which people can employ to try to change someone’s mind, I believe the best way to address divergent beliefs is to meet people where they are and understand where their beliefs come from and how they make up a part of who they are.  Not only does this respect who the person is, it also makes for deeper change if change occurs.  Additionally, it creates the possibility that in truly listening to and understanding a different point of view, you may change something in what you yourself understand or believe.

Of course, my personal beliefs in this matter reflect some of my past experience.  I have worked with psychotic and schizophrenic people with beliefs that didn’t fit my reality or those of many around them.  Respecting and listening to them did not mean I would join them in psychosis or that I could not tell them that I did not agree with them.  Yet by building a bridge founded on understanding a common truth, of fear, threat, desire, or other human aspect, I think I was better able to help them see where I stood and why I believed what I did, and create a safer and stronger place to open them to other ideas and perceptions.

Listening to be heard
In silence is the word

In the end, this often comes down to common values. We have to find common values to work together.  I was born in America from immigrant parents and grew up with values that include a particular ideal of democracy: that every member of society should be able to have some say in how our lives are governed.  Minority opinions are important as enshrined in a Federal system that allows different states and locales to create different laws and vote differently while balancing this equally against a national system that unifies diverging priorities under a single law. It is messy and inefficient, just like people are, but it is an effective way to have many different religions living together in the same house: a reflection of how this nation was founded.

As a brain scientist, I see the parallels to the inefficiencies of having both an emotional brain and a rational brain living together in the same skull.

It would be wonderful if every difference in understanding could be bridged.  There are some gaps between ideas, between nations, between cultures that are so wide that people give up on the idea of reaching across.  It takes work and commitment and time and trust.  Returning to my concerns about technology, I suggest that our modern communications technology contributes to increasing some of these divides when it makes things easy, fast and automatic, thus decreasing the traits we need to make such a bridging effort.  We no longer feel we have to time to really explore a person’s habits or beliefs and simply rely on initial impressions or stereotypes.

Graphic illustrating split between Republicans and Democrats from 1949 through 2012
Split in votes between Republicans and Democrats from 1949 through 2012

I am concerned about how this pattern may be increasing.  A graphic visualization of this growing divide can be found in the article “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives” published in PlosOne in 2015.  Cross-party voting among members clearly decreases from 1949 to 2011.  As members vote more with only their own party, other charts demonstrate a related decrease in the number of bills introduced, the number of bills passed, and the percentage of introduced bills that pass.  Currently, only a few Congressional representatives cross the aisle to get work done (mostly Southern Democrats and Republicans from New York).  The authors suggest this pattern may have been exacerbated by voters who are frustrated with gridlock and elect more partisan representatives to try to tip the scales on their side, unwittingly increasing gridlock as partisan candidates lack the connections to pass legislation.

If we want to see change in ourselves or in our government, we need to work on strengthening those cross connections.  We need to find the commonalities to be able to talk and find a middle ground that can respect different values and different points of view.  As someone interested in building technology, I also believe we need to design our tools and institutions in ways that encourage deeper exploration and sharing of values and trust.

If you have ideas on how to accomplish that, leave a comment!