It seems everywhere we turn there is bad news — our economy is lagging, our political institutions are failing us, and environmental destruction and climate change are upon us. With such uncertainty and confusion as to where we are headed, it is difficult to navigate the world and make sense of why and how we have managed to get to this point. Work by Jared Diamond, Joseph Tainter, and Ronald Wright has contributed much to the conversation around understanding why societies fail, succeed, or simply collapse. There are numerous reasons why societies collapse, ranging from environmental degradation (soil erosion, salinity problems, water scarcity), overpopulation, over exploitation of natural resources (water, forestry, over fishing, overhunting), and economic dislocation. Many of these problems are a direct result of how we make decisions and human errors of thinking.
Our human misjudgements and biases impact every aspect of our lives and influence what happens throughout society. While there are hundreds of biases which shape how we think and act, our discussion will focus on a few which are particularly relevant at this point in time. It is the choices and decisions we make which really matter, as these define us as individuals, communities, and nations. These decisions ultimately determine our future and that of the generations to come. It is through our choices and our ability to see through the fog that we will be able to make better, more informed decisions, for the benefit of all.
“In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.”
Social comparison bias is having the feelings of aversion and competitiveness with others, be it physically or mentally. Envy is closely related to social comparison bias and also stems from the feeling of lacking something, be they possessions, achievements, or certain personal qualities. Not only does the vicious circle of envy and jealously drive us mad with striving to make more money, it can also lead us into the debt trap. Financial journalist Shira Boss, author of Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping us in Debt, suggests the social side of our finances — a need to keep up with friends, neighbours, and colleagues through expensive dinners, designer clothing, and, yes, new cars, is a huge contributor to high debt and a negative savings rate in the United States. (1)
Our intrinsic values promoting social, emotional, and ecological wellbeing have been eroded by the constant mantra of ‘go shopping.’ Not only has consumerism destroyed our levels of wellbeing, happiness, and our social networks, it is has become a powerful driver for the demand for resources that is unrivalled in human history. Marketers tell us that having better relationships and experiences is dependent upon using their products over others. Marketers offer branding which provides people with choices. These choices give people the illusory feeling of freedom to make important decisions.
“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
Leonardo da Vinci
In light of economic liberalisation over recent decades, citizens of many Western nations have developed an overriding compliance with authority and conformity. The corporatisation of the mainstream media has led to a lack of transparency and bias toward certain political and corporate agendas. These are not always in the best interests of citizens. Robert Cialdini, in his popular book, The Psychology of Influence and Persuasion, highlights how powerful authority bias is one of the cornerstones for the effective influence of people. People tend to obey orders from others if they perceive or believe others hold some form of authority. We see examples of this authority bias in almost every aspect of our society, from religious institutions, the medical fraternity, educational bodies, and our governments.
There are subtle examples of the authority bias at play each day within our political, economic, and social circles. We see our political leaders and masters of business talking about financial crisis and economic reforms, offering solutions we accept regardless of their ability to solve the problems. Research on obedience to authority and social influence shows how easy it is to manipulate everyday citizens into obeying destructive authority or uncritically accepting supposed ‘experts.’ We take cues from institutions, the media, and television commentators whose analysis we accept without looking objectively at the issues. As authority (be it real or perceived) is communicated to various individuals or groups, it brings with it potential changes and modifications in human behaviour. Authority can alter an individual’s perceptions and thoughts to conform to various messages or causes.
“At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained. In particular, mortgages to prime borrowers and fixed-rate mortgages to all classes of borrowers continue to perform well, with low rates of delinquency.” Ben Bernanke (March 28, 2007)
Creeping normalcy is a term used to describe how gradual changes can be accepted as the normal situation if these changes happen slowly, or incrementally. Jared Diamond made the term creeping normalcy popular in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond outlines how politicians use the term ‘creeping normalcy’ to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else deteriorate slowly, it’s often difficult to recognize the change from previous years. The gradual and incremental changes are difficult to see, thus normalcy is difficult to recognise over short periods. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realise that conditions were much better previously. What is accepted as normal now is a result of gradual changes, or creeping downwards.
“Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. (3) Our tendency to look for corresponding and confirming information enables us to live with consistency, which gives us comfort. These confirming beliefs, however, lead us to make errors of judgement. This bias is embedded deep within us all and prevalent throughout society. We selectively recall and interpret ambiguous sources of information which support our existing position, making us overconfident in our assumptions and open to statistical bias and manipulation. Over the centuries societies have made erroneous decisions based on beliefs, half-truths, and indoctrination. We ignore the facts and unfavourable information in the search for information which supports our view and makes us feel good. We seek to confirm we are right, when in fact we may be setting ourselves up for failure. We make poor decisions based on implausible or inconsistent views about the future.
“Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.”
Robert B. Cialdini
Robert Cialdini writes about a study performed by a pair of Canadian psychologists who uncover something fascinating about people at the race track. After placing a bet, punters are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before placing the bet. Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts; it’s the same horse, on the same track, in the same field; but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased. Cialdini outlines, “Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.” The concept states, once a decision (the commitment) is made, there is pressure and a sense of justification one must behave in accordance with the original decision. (4)
Many of the major issues today, from environmental degradation, overconsumption, and climate change, to an unsustainable financial and economic system, are being influenced by the bias of commitment and consistency. There seems to be overwhelming evidence in relation to these matters and mounting scientific based data to support many of the environmental concerns. Lethargy and lack of motivation to take these issues seriously is rooted in commitment and consistency based thought processes. Our need to protect our own sometimes flawed thought processes, along with the need to identify and remain consistent with these views, is a powerful behaviour.
Excerpts taken from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
(2) Jared Diamond, Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succed, Penguin Group, London 2005 p425.
(4) Robert B. Cialdini PH. D. Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, Harper Collins, p43.
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