I don’t watch the news or read the newspaper.
I am not indifferent. I do care about what’s happening in our world. I just grew tired of the noise and the battle between divided entities. There seemed to be just two lenses through which information is presented, and if you don’t like that style of eyewear, you are out of luck. What if a particular idea or position doesn’t fall so neatly into one of these camps? There are far more colors in the frequency spectrum than conservative red and liberal blue. The beauty of humanity resides in the colors between black and white, the numbers between the 0 and the 1, and the exponential combinations in between.
As the physical manifestation of my gratitude makes its way onto the pages of my journal every morning, I do find myself thinking about the terribly sad events that are happening in our country and around the world. The events in Charlottesville and Barcelona are especially heart-breaking. It makes it even more difficult to process with leadership in place that isn’t representative of my beliefs. It is also further complicated by a system of government that is so far removed from reality that real solutions seem as possible as a human flying like a bird to the outer rings of Jupiter for a new intergalactic version of a latte.
Our political system is rather polarizing. Two sides in perpetual battle over the same issues without any resolution in sight.
Years ago, I studied economics, history and government with the notion that I could introduce change. The more I learned, the more frustrated that I became. The current structure divides and distracts when it should inform and unite, and the gap continues to grow. I recall sitting up in bed one night, not able to control all of the thoughts racing through my mind, determined to find a way to make a difference. I wanted to grab the collective starched collar of our political system, look it dead in the eye and demand an explanation.
In the bigger picture, transformation of any kind can seem like a superhuman feat. The gap between what we observe and what we want to see can seem so vast that our logical brains convince us that any shift is an exercise in futility.
After some time, I’ve found myself accepting that any meaningful change would take the kind of investment that exceeds the balance available in my 1,440. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of global detachment. I didn’t stop caring. I just wanted to be more present. I wanted the minutes and seconds of my day dedicated to the inner circle of the things I loved the most.
How could I stay balanced and make an impact?
Change is a word that is both a noun and a verb.
It is the result and the action.
The action leads to the result.
What if change were expressed in a mathematical equation?
What is your passion for a particular cause or goal?
What is your realm of influence?
What is your available time to dedicate to the effort?
In this particular equation, available time is a key factor, but change doesn’t have to be an all or nothing experience. Oceans became the vast expanse that make up 71% of the Earth’s surface through a massively coordinated collection of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. Our bodies are an orchestra of billions of cells working together. Our ability to breathe on Earth was the result of single-celled cyanobacteria working together over a billion years to create our oxygen-rich environment.
Larger things are built from smaller things.
Change comes from action, no matter how small.
Small efforts become larger movements through their own energy and momentum.
Change also starts with a choice.
The decisions that we make are driven by our beliefs, our associations, and our observations. We are influenced by internal means and external measures. Influence finds us through people that we trust, people that we don’t trust, the availability of a particular resource or by our commitment to a particular course of action.
Our brains amazingly coordinate and manage a plethora of critical functions that govern our safety, how we connect with others, how we learn and how we interact with our environment. Organization of this magnitude requires shortcuts and the ability to make quick decisions with limited information. Unfortunately, this fact is exploited by those who’s mission is to exert their influence and direct a particular outcome.
Psychologist and author, Dr. Robert Cialdini studied the psychology of compliance with a specific focus to understand the principles that would influence someone to comply with a particular request. Throughout his research, Cialdini defined the most common principles of influence as consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.
The ability to affect change is rooted in our psychology. The principles from Cialdini’s research provide the basis to understanding influence and how these powers can be used for good.
The Principle of Reciprocation
According to Cialdini, “the rule states that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us”. He illustrates an example of the rule though the fundraising efforts of the Hare Krishna Society. A slight change in their approach led to a dramatic increase in donations. Instead of begging for money, they would give each prospect a flower before they said a word. This “benefactor-before-beggar strategy” automatically put the recipients in a mindset of feeling somewhat indebted to the individual that gave them the flower.
Did everyone who received a flower donate to the organization? Certainly not.
Did it help scale an organization to over 600 locations around the world? Absolutely.
This rule has been applied to political campaigns through campaign contributions and to product marketing with free samples. From another perspective, this rule can been more kindly referred to as paying it forward. When someone goes out of their way for us, most of us will try to find a way to extend help to someone else.
Kindness results in a transfer of energy that will insatiably seek the next host. These actions are not effectively delivered when combined with expectation for something in return. Pure kindness comes from a place without expectation.
In its highest and best use, the rule of reciprocation can be that mechanism for positive transformation through small, local actions.
Each action drives a new action building momentum.
The kind of momentum we generate is up to us.
The Principle of Social Proof
Why do television executives still insist on adding fake laugh tracks to television shows? We all know it’s entirely manufactured and clearly not the biological reaction to the content. These artifacts of augmented audio are used to influence the viewer. Laughter is contagious and research shows that canned laughter can increase the likelihood of the viewer finding the content humorous.
We all seek connection and consensus through our personal experiences and our relationships with others. Pursuant to Cialdini’s framework, the principle of social proof “states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies specifically to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior”.
A more serious aspect of the principle of social proof is the concept of pluralistic ignorance, which was famously illustrated by the unfortunate events that occurred in Queens, New York in 1964. Catherine Genovese was chased around her neighborhood by an armed assailant for thirty minutes while more than thirty of her neighbors watched and listened from the comfort of their apartments. Nobody called for help until it was too late. When the witnesses were interviewed, many of them responded that they were too scared to get involved.
Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon where large groups of people fail to help a single person in need. Social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley provided the explanation that there were too many people watching the event unfold on that night in Queens. Cialdini supports their findings stating that, “with several potential helpers around, the personal responsibility of each individual is reduced”. Each one of the observers determined that someone in their group either had already called for help or would call for help. We often don’t engage to help someone in need because it can be frightening, feel awkward or even embarrassing. What if we are wrong and the situation is not that serious? While this type of response is deeply rooted in our psychology and the principle of social proof, it cost Catherine Genovese her life. It also limits acts of compassion, kindness and love everyday.
Larger groups can influence our behavior through the principle of social proof. As individuals we can be influenced or we can influence others. The power is in our hands to apply it to what we believe is good. According to research, it is highly unlikely that someone else is helping. It is more likely that someone else is employing pluralistic ignorance as a personal comfort mechanism.
So how can the principles of reciprocation and social proof help us affect change?
Change will not come from furthering the divide between ourselves. It will not grow within the limitations of a binary system that only seeks to extend and fuel the discord. Change is the result of understanding and not defending. The monumental shift will not be the result of the cage match between an elephant and a donkey.
Remember our equation for change …
Change is driven by the product of passion and influence divided by available time.
We have a limited amount of time to assign to various activities. It doesn’t mean that we have limited passion. While a major factor in the equation for change is available time, we need to understand that any type of change can begin with the smallest action. Even the shortest window of available time can be used as the initial catalyst for something quite larger than itself.
Our solution to drive change is simple, and it begins with each of us.
Our brains look for shortcuts that influence our behavior. Humans are biologically disposed to reciprocate. The idea of paying it forward is etched into our cell structure and our limbic framework. Small, kind actions within our local ecosystem will generate a sustainable flow of energy that will constantly search for its next host.
True transformation is built upon a strong foundation of smaller actions. The more of these actions we observe, the more it will influence the principle of social proof, and the more the consensus moves in the direction of the observed actions. We are in control of those actions, and we absolutely have influence over the momentum.
Be the kindness that you want to see in the world. It is contagious. By living it, you are showing other people its okay to live it, too. Be the one that lets the other car merge in your lane of traffic. Stop to ask that scared child if they are lost and if you can help. Take a moment to look that person on the elevator in the eye, ask them how they are doing and really listen to the answer.
Be the first one to smile.
Sure, it may feel awkward at first, but what is the alternative?