Two days ago I awoke to an eerie, silent hellsky. It was dusky dark, even first thing in the morning. The colour and brightness of the sky was all wrong, not just overcast but unnatural. Throughout the day, people described it as apocalyptic, discomfiting and especially, unsettling. Even the birds kept quiet.

Of course, as people in southwest British Columbia will know, it was the smoke of dozens of forest fires. But the knowledge did not calm the hairs standing on the back of my neck; only late the next day did they lay down.

The atmospheric weirdness wound social media to high tension and a petition was soon circulating to shame the provincial government into renewing their contract with a fleet of venerable and large waterbombers, The Martin Mars.

Clickety-click, petition signed, democracy in action. Three cheers for Western Civilization!

Then somehow a Factsheet from the B.C. Government surfaced, which essentially said:

  • The Martin Mars is too big and too slow to safely maneuver close to B.C.’s rugged terrain, whereas the currently contracted Fire Boss airplane is faster and more nimble.
  • Again because of its size, the Mars can only land on 113 lakes in B.C., whereas the Fire Boss can resupply on over 1,700 bodies of water.
  • The Fire Boss is more capable of delivering foam fire suppressants.
  • On the 2014 West Kelowna fire, the average cost of dumping a litre of water was 19¢ for the Fire Boss and 63¢ for the Mars.

Boom.
Detail. Facts. The petition was clearly the reactions of the uninformed; mob rule instead of reason and deliberation. The petition was probably started by opponents of our current “Liberal” government, simply looking to score political points. Mob rule is exactly why democracy is so important as a check and balance.

Then somehow a rebuttal to the factsheet surfaced. Sentence by sentence, the factsheet was dismantled—or at least the proper judgement of the situation was made much more complex.

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So, I am a pretty smart guy. I am quite literate, and consume an enormous amount of information which I contemplate and analyze and fit into the pattern of the emerging worldview I write about here.

I spent about an hour, and read two factsheets. I think it is safe to say that I spent greater attention learning about this issue than I do—or anybody does— for 99% of the issues we face. I did the right thing.

And I remain utterly confused about which waterbomber is a better choice to spend my tax dollars on.

Our cultural narrative—repeated endlessly on the nightly news—is “It is all about education.” When people are informed, they will make rational choices and will—obviously—vote for the best choice. Or at least write a letter to their local representative about the best choice.

And therefore, if people are not making the right choice, it is because they are uninformed or poorly informed and need education. The problem is cast as being a failure with us instead of a problem with the system.

Cue the campaigns: more pamphlets, forlorn photographs, sticky cognitive frames, and celebrity endorsements. If what you are doing doesn’t work, do the same thing more! Bigger! Faster!

My research on behaviour change offers a different perspective. If what you are doing doesn’t work, that may be because it just doesn’t work. No amount of bigger or faster will make it work, because it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work.

But a very few campaigns do work, and that adds to the corrosive danger of our narrative of democracy.

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I invite you start listing all the issues that request your attention. Think of every time someone has said, “It is all about education,” and then keep adding all the other things: climate chaos, racism, temporary foreign workers, clearcuts, sexism, globalization, real estate, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. And then how about girls going to school in Afghanistan, and whether Omar Khadr was a child soldier or an enemy combatant? Foreign food aid. Donating money to Doctors Without Borders or to your local Humane Society.

It is pretty clear we could keep listing for hours, or maybe days. Making a proper, informed judgement about anything in that list should take weeks of dedicated research.

Urban density. Legalized prostitution. Legalized cannabis. Legalized hard drugs. Voting for youth. Gay marriage. Which bathroom Trans people should use. Should Sikh RCMP officers be allowed to wear a turban? Should Sikh motorcyclists be allowed to not wear a helmet? Who pays their medical bill if they get a brain injury while not wearing a helmet? NIMBYs. Gentrification. Displacement.

These issues are complex; people get doctorates in Philosophy and Ethics and every other topic touched on. But me dedicating even one hour to a new topic is highly unusual. We just don’t have time. Even if we dedicated one hour to a new topic every single day we would never get through our list, and would be only slightly less uninformed.

My personal interest is on the limits to our cognitive capacity, so that is how I tend to think about the problem of democracy, but the limited hours in the day works just as well. You sleep for eight, work for eight, commute, cook, wash, shop for food, play with your kids, clean the house, visit friends, maybe care for an aging parent—almost nobody spends even one hour a day researching these important issues.

And there is nobody who has researched and developed an informed opinion on all the issues.

Which is why we elect politicians to represent us, right?

Are you kidding me? Politicians are worried about being elected; do you think they actually read the 3,963 pages they are given on every single vote? I bet they spend less time than the average citizen; they have a lot of other obligations.

I might sum up Western Democracy as the process by which we use one vote, cast sporadically, to elect someone who is largely as uninformed as we are, in the hopes they will represent our complex and often self-contradictory views. If they do not, we have no recourse except the laughable “holding them to account” in the next election cycle—at which time we may find we make exactly the same choice we did last time because our concern for abortion rights still outweighs our desire for intact ecosystems. Get Out the Vote campaigns change nothing more than the number of people casting that sporadic, lonely, unenforceable vote.

So. We are obviously not making rational informed decisions. Almost nothing is “about education”.

Civil society groups use campaigns to fight for balance, to maintain some pressure between elections. Most of these campaigns utterly fail—as they must; we simply do not have enough time in the day to give them the attention they need.

Some of these campaigns do succeed—and as I said earlier, I think this is corrosive to democracy. If you “succeed” because of your acute framing, or because of the emotional heartstrings you pull, we are still not having the informed and rational debate we say we are supposed to be having. If a bandage staunches the flow of blood from a sucking chest wound, it gives the appearance the problem has been solved, but leaves the underlying condition untreated. A little success maintains the intravenous drip that keeps us hooked, without actually creating comprehensive change.

Right-wing populists propose referenda; the left-wing collectivists like Direct Democracy—both of which face us directly back at the immutable fact there is simply not enough time in the day to make informed choices about all the issues we face. Given the choice between Elected Unrepresentative or the Rule of Ignorant, I would prefer a benevolent dictator.

Being assured of benevolence is always the rub, though many people feel their elected government is not benevolent, though typically less inclined to summary execution.

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So what then, to do?

I think we must discard the idea of rational choice. We must trash it with the ferocity and power of an NBA Slam Dunk Competition. It is corrosive, and it keeps us from trying different approaches.

We must explicitly separate moral

questions from factual questions. The moral position of the people in our country is more reasonably polled.

We must acknowledge we will never have the capacity to make informed decisions on all the factual problems we face. I think we should assign the resolution of these problems to the binding decision of a Citizen’s Assembly.

As in the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group of regular folks will be selected by lottery and balanced for sex, race and other demographics. The Assembly will spend a year, or two, or five, diving deep into an issue, and then they will make a decision.

And I think we should all just do what they say—they are people just like us, who have actually devoted the time to an issue in way we are all supposed to do. And they should do what we say, coming out of the Assemblies we sit on. Do we even need an elected government, or would simply having a Scheduler of Assemblies be enough? I don’t know.

For better or worse, we have arrived at a time and place where we have just enough information to make asses of ourselves. With good reason, we don’t trust politicians, bureaucrats, corporations or special interest groups. We aren’t going to move forward by doing the same thing bigger or faster. We need to do it different.

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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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