The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change

Most of our attempts to make change rely on a belief that people can change, that change is possible. Of course, this is true—but just barely. So, this is not much of a theory of change, but rather a Theory of Unchange—a theory of why change is so hard.

Our brains are physically limited in the amount of thinking and decision making we can do; just a few hours each day is all we have. This is not a choice. This is a physical limitation, and is no more changeable than our height or eye colour.

If we were irrevocably bound by this limitation, humanity would literally still be shivering in caves. But instead we have developed coping mechanisms that allow us to recycle past decisions so we can use those few daily hours for new problems—as well as for the quotidian minutiae of life.

These coping mechanisms include: habits, rules of thumb, laws, social conventions, religious strictures, myths, superstitions, writing and publishing, social structures, governments—and especially physical infrastructure.

That I say “especially physical infrastructure” signals my bias. But I am a designer of products and systems, so rather than bias I like to think of this as my special insight.

We say, “like a fish in water” to draw attention to something that is so taken for granted it cannot be seen. But the fish is probably aware of temperature, density, salinity, taste, smell, and currents—without naming these things as properties of water. And so with humans. We are aware of wide roads, narrow roads, bumpy roads and smooth roads, but we seldom ask Why Roads? Or what would happen if roads were different.

Roads are something that many of us interact with regularly, perhaps for several hours a day, and some of us spend some of our few conscious hours thinking about them. But what about the things we are less aware of, like the insulation in our walls, the method of generating our electricity, or the type of piping that irrigates our food?

The way our electricity is generated can lock in orders of magnitude more pollution that we can ever affect by turning our lights off. The way our cities are built can lock in order of magnitude more pollution than we can affect with personal driving choices. We built these systems to cope with our limited ability to pay attention—to think and choose. Changing systems is the most powerful lever we can pull.

Of course, everybody knows this—people who care about these things sagely nod over Donella Meadows’ essay on leverage points. If she had known about recent brain research that shows how little conscious thought we have, Meadows probably would have been even more insistent that we focus on systems. And yet, probably because system change is so daunting, almost without thinking we default back to advocacy and education for personal changes—the same finger wagging about light switches and shorter showers that we know does not work.

We say these tactics aren’t working—and that implies that they could work, if only we did them better, or bigger. Better framing, more fundraising, better creative, more crowdsourcing, viral this or that.

But it is not that they don’t work, it is that they can’t work. They can not work.

Attention is a physical resource, which means our attention is exhaustible—in fact, it is very easily exhaustible—and finite. This means fighting for attention—as we do with our campaigns, social media, and documentary films—is a zero sum game. Attention is a limited commodity, and when you use it, it is gone. It is not that the tactic needs to be bigger, it is that the attention is already used up—gone.

This means this sort of work is fundamentally competitive. In order to succeed, something else must fail.

If you are going to get attention, you must take it from somewhere else. Essentially, you must stab your friends in the back. If your friend has a cookie that you want to eat, there is no amount of community engagement that will make that cookie multiply. You can take the cookie from them or share the cookie with them, but either way, your friend gets less cookie.

This may not be bad when we are talking about cookies, but when we are talking about medical research, food aid, endangered species, climate change, social justice, addiction…you are taking the cookie from some very important issues. Furthermore, these issues are already fighting for brain space against work and family and television and magazines and facebook…

Now, some very smart academics who study these things think that 80-95% of our behaviour is determined by the context we are in. I think these smart academics are like fish, and so can’t see the water they are swimming in—the physical context. They don’t see the way our behaviour is profoundly shaped, not just by roads and plumbing, but by building codes and zoning regulations and trade agreements.

One researcher thinks 99.999% of our behaviour is shaped by our context, and I think he is much closer to the truth. I developed this pyramid model to show what my hunches of the relative sizes of behavioural influences are.

behaviour pyramid

So, we should start by asking how we can change the system. Only after we have relentlessly eliminated any hope of ever changing the system should we try to fight for attention. If you can’t change the system, most of the time it would be better to do nothing at all rather than rob attention from an issue that has a chance. Fighting for attention is our last gasp, the thing we do when we are convinced we have no choice and our issue is so important we are willing to stab our friends in the back in order to steal attention from the issues they are working on. And even then, we will probably fail.

If we truly want to make change, we must stop asking for attention; we must work on the system. We need to look for the way to educate the fewest people—just the right people, the bare minimum needed to create the change we seek. We must build compassionate systems—systems that make our desired behaviour as effortless as turning on the tap or flicking the light switch.

We must build water.

 

 

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Language shapes our thoughts? Who cares?

Despite being regular humans with the same eyeballs as the rest of us, did you know that if a language has words that finely differentiate shades of blue and green, the speakers of that language are better able to distinguish colours in the blue-green range?

This is just one of the Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think, which showed up in my social media courtesy of the TED blog.

This blog seems to show language shapes us. It is interesting, but I think what it implies about behaviour rests on bad assumptions that are closely tied to TED culture, so I would like to bring them into the sunshine.

The centrepiece of the blog is a proposition from behavioural economist Keith Chen, who has analyzed reams of data and found that people who speak a language that separates the future from the present, like English, save less money. People who speak a language that is futureless, like Chinese, save more money.

Chen wrote his own post on the TED blog, where he supplies more detail, gives links to a blog called Language Log, and links to no less than four other people who discuss why they think his conclusions are off-base. He also wrote a guest post on Language Log to expand the conversation. I found all the posts to be concise, interesting, and refreshingly civil and supportive of advancing research. I would encourage you to read them if you like to geek out on this sort of thing.

 

So, the Five Examples show us how language can shape us. But as interesting as this research is, the question isn’t whether people who speak different languages think differently, or even have different skills, or even sometimes behave differently. TED doesn’t put things up just because they are interesting, TED wants to change the world.

I think the implication is if we choose our words carefully, we can change behaviour. If only we share TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading then, at last, everyone would stop being so dumb and do what I want them to do.

The question is can we say something in a way that changes people’s behaviour en masse. We can’t reverse engineer a language, to make English futureless like Chinese. This isn’t about differentiating between shades of blue and green, this is about real-world propositions—can we word something in a way that changes how populations recycle, shop, or drive?

 

The belief—the Myth—of behaviour is that what we think is what we do. If only we could find the right words we could change people’s thoughts. If only we gave people the right information they would act differently. If only we could raise their awareness and make them Wake Up.

Sadly, thinking controls almost none of our behaviour. Most of our behaviour is determined by the physical and social system we are in. How your house is constructed is far more important to your heating bill than your behaviour. How your city is designed impacts how you drive far more than your thoughts about climate chaos.

Now, the system still allows us some choice, but within those parameters our social group makes most of our decisions for us. This isn’t a bad thing. It is pretty obvious we don’t have the time or energy to analyze everything—we need to save our thinking for important things, so we outsource thinking to our social group. This ability to outsource thinking and choice has allowed humanity to accomplish all it has; without it, we wouldn’t even be hunter-gatherers.

When you ignore these facts and focus on language, thoughts, beliefs, and values, you are choosing to continue blaming the victim, not the system. And this is why I disagree with the implications of this post. Sure, language may be able to shape our thoughts. So what? Our thoughts have very little impact on our behaviour.

What has a huge impact is systems. We must build supportive systems, what I call Compassionate Systems, instead of soothing ourselves with the old myths of behaviour.

 

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Why is changing behaviour so hard? In this slidecast I share a way of answering that question, and how Compassionate Systems can increase the effectiveness of our work.

This was recorded at the Invasive Species forum in Richmond, BC, in January 2013. Apologies for the occasionally tinny sound—and, of course, it is only a slidecast. Think of it as a podcast with a screensaver.

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