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.1 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.2 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.
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.