Thursday, August 23, 2012

Behavior Change And Its Discontents

Post-enlightenment Western society is built on the belief that reasoned argument should be able to change people's minds about a given issue.  It is understood that if a case is made clearly, factually and without pejorative; it should be able to sway the opinion of similarly rationally minded others.  This, like the myth of permanent social progress, is a fallacy. More often than not, it represents another form of wishful thinking.

In a previous piece, I addressed both the cognitive difficulties we experience associated with rational thinking (we are much more likely to "intuit" the world than to rationalize our way through it) and the problem of verification bias (by which we reject data that competes with deeply held views out of hand), however neither of these completely describe the extent to which behavior change is difficult to implement. Indeed, it can be said that people change their minds about major issues with some frequency, people evolve their belief systems and our brains are endowed with incredible neuroplasticity, allowing us to change almost anything about ourselves.  As neurons that wire together also fire together, is behavior change simply not a measure of developing alternative repetitive cognitive programming? Should sufficient exposure to an alternative script not simply create new neural connections that spring a cognitive frame around that script?

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  Just as research seems to indicate that increased exposure to negative political advertising does not really seem to affect people's voting choices, simple exposure to a particular ideology is unlikely to result in prescribed behavior shift. Further, increased cognitive sophistication does not increase self-awareness, and thus capacity for behavior change. As a study (brought to my attention by way of the now disgraced Jonah Lehrer) in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology indicates,  cognitive sophistication may actually serve to mask cognitive blindspots.  Thus, smart people (the cognitively sophisticated) may be more likely to believe in fallacious information as they have increased neural capacity to self-delude.

While this helps to explain the enduring popularity of certain counter-factual ideologies, it does not answer the questions of why we have trouble eventually shifting to an alternative script. Daniel Kahneman may have a response to this in noting that we are very poor at thinking statistically and much better at thinking intuitively, thus a data driven script is not one that we are particularily wired to latch on to. We are extremely poor at making meaningful snap judgements in the face of complex data, regardless of what Malcolm Gladwell might tell us. We also, arguably, tend to dramatically overestimate our capacity to be swayed by rationale argument, requiring alternative means of pushing behavior change. In my earlier pieceI spoke to some of the strengths and limitations of community-based social marketing as a means of affecting behavior change and so, will not rehash them here. What is interesting about all of this is that our process of accessing data and coming to new positions is slow, collective and incremental.

While certain early adopters may adhere immediately to a new ideology, and repetition tends to blunt the ability of a message to get through, eventual social conditioning to an idea may eventually drive acceptance of that idea.  My observation has tended towards noting that once something has happened, we are more likely to be willing to repeat that process even if the first case ended in failure or catastrophe. I recently used the case of "liberal intervention" becoming mainstream across the political spectrum, which I think is a clear case of collective acquiescence to a formally controversial concept in the face of repeated exposure to the outcomes of that concept.  I have not encountered any research that completely substantiates this exact point, though there has been some work on the subject.  

Further, it may simply be the case that if things don't go as badly as some would predict, or if a situation seems to have been salvaged in some way, our natural tendency towards optimism will allow us to count an idea as a success, even if it was not one per se.  This is the same principle at work as that which sees us fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect- we overestimate our abilities in fields we lack expertise in because we lack the knowledge to meaningfully access our skills in those fields. Dunning-Kruger may tell us more about ourselves than we would like to believe.

Behavior change can also often by rendered through the construction of narratives that tap into the emotional rather than the rational.  By creating a good versus evil dialogue around a given topic, and creating a clear sense of heroes, victims and villains, the dialogue around a given issue can be altered.  This does not necessarily work around all issues - many are likely to prove resistant to this form of framing.  This process of reshaping and dictating the dialogue is close to the recommended by George Lakoff in his pamphlet: Don't Think of an Elephant and in the various pronouncements of the Republican speech writer Frank Luntz.  Both believe that the way the enact behavior change around a particular issue is to actively adjust the cognitive frame through which people understand an issue. Lakoff in particular has been a pioneer in the theory of how this works in his seminal The Metaphors We Live By (written with Mark Johnson), while Luntz has been a master of implementation.

The problem that is implicit in the sort of issue framing that Luntz and Lakoff recommend is that it tends to obfuscate the issue.  While Luntz has fatuously compared himself to George Orwell, claiming that his approach to political discourse is perfectly in line with Orwell's prescription put forward in "Politics and the English Language", in effect, issue framing achieves the exact opposite.  Luntz is correct when he paraphrases Orwell as noting that honest political speech requires the speaker:
“(S)peak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.
That said, Luntz (and for that matter Lakoff's) suggestions that politicians alter the language used to allow only one particular 'frame' or avenue for discussion around are given topic are far closer to another Orwellian construction: "newspeak". In the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the forced lingua franca, "newspeak" worked by limiting vocabulary in order to suppress dissent altogether by simply eliminating the ability to put that dissent into language.  

This practice is precisely the tone that much political speech has taken on, however it is unlikely to drive successful behavior change as people that do not share the belief system implicit within a given frame are likely to ignore that frame or simply to ignore the issue.  The internet and speciality cable news channels have further given people the ability to increasingly select which media, and thus world view, they consume, which further limits the effective of trying to fight it out for dominant framing device in the court of public opinion.  Beyond this, the shift in the way we consume media means that there is no longer a singular, consensus news 'court of public opinion' where these matters are decided (if there ever was one to begin with).  This shift away from "framing" has been seen to play out increasingly in the business-end of political practice.  Most leading political thinkers have quite suddenly grown very quiet about "framing" issues despite the topic having been very much in vogue just a few years ago.

So, if simply controlling the language by which an issue is addressed or using a community-based social marketing mechanism are both insufficient to enact behavior change, what works?  I'm increasingly of the belief that most behaviors are generationally learned.  To that end, it often takes generational shifts in order to drive social change.  Younger generations grow up with greater exposure to particular issues that are of the moment and at an age when their brains are at their most plastic.  As a result, they have significantly greater capacity to question and diverge from prior generations' thinking patterns. Further, no ones wants to replicate the mistakes of their parents generation.  While some repetition does occur, a certain degree of generational backlash frequently occurs resulting in different sets of belief systems or outlooks that are generationally determined or the product of generational rebellion.  While nature and nurture are both important,  many cognitive neuroscientists increasingly argue that nurture is increasingly key to determining thinking patterns.  Different important cultural events or touchstones can also help to inform the views of a particular generation depending on when they occur and the wider social impacts of said event.  Thus the norms of a society and of our generation have important impacts.  We tend towards not only "group think" but also "generation think" and these tendencies can result in different paradigms or beliefs predominating across different generations.

Also of value in encouraging behavior change is the capacity of some for scientific thinking.  The ability to think scientifically, alter belief systems in response to data and actively falsify predictions or theories is an important cognitive tool.  It is also one that is criminally underrated.  One of the reasons many Americans seem to cling to beliefs or belief systems that are factually insupportable likely has something to do with a general public incredulity and even hostility towards science.  Scientific thinking encourages greater flexibility in thinking patterns and as a result can serve as a vehicle for behavior change.  The ability to analyze data in a rational, comprehensive away, utilize research statistics and other features of a basic scientific education cut away the limitations of dogmatic thinking and encourage cognitive flexibility.  To this end, if one is used to using data to prove or disprove theories, then one is less likely to adhere to a rigid ideology when it comes to personal or social matters.  In that regard, science may be, once again, one of our most precious assets as a species. It may also be the most important tool we have when it comes to trying to encourage behavioral or cognitive shifts.