Two wars. Our economy in crisis. Yet in many working class neighborhoods you still see McCain/Palin signs in yards or windows. Don't they get it? Change is happening. Change is necessary. They must be stupid to resist changes that will help their own lives, right? Or maybe they're just human beings. It turns out we all tend to resist change more often than we realize. And not because we're stupid.
This week, Morning Feature focuses on change. Today we'll explore why we're often resistant to change. Tomorrow we'll discuss risk and how it shapes our society. Thursday we'll look at the institution of law, and how it functions as "common wealth," to limit and predict change and to distribute risk. Friday we'll look at how energy constraints may change the mathematics of economies of scale, and how those changes might affect our lives.
More below the fold....
Only the Stupid Resist Change?
One common biological definition of intelligence is "the ability to comprehend and profit from experience." More broadly , as I was taught it, intelligence is the ability to change behavior in adapting to stimuli or to changed conditions. To bump into a wall once does not suggest a lack of intelligence; it may be merely a lack of attention. But to bump into the same wall repeatedly, when it's clear the wall is still there ... suggests something else.
And we see that divergence often on politics. Progressives, as the word itself suggests, tend to favor political and social change. Conservatives, as the word itself suggests, tend to resist political and social change. Does that mean progressives are smart and conservatives are stupid? Given our nation's turbulent circumstances - with two wars and our economy in peril - don't you have to be stupid to resist change?
Well, not exactly. It turns out that most of us resist change, most of the time. And our reasons aren't stupid at all.
We are a pattern-dependent species.
We may chuckle when someone sees the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, but we shouldn't be surprised. It's a cognitive function known as pareidolia, our capacity to discern familiar patterns in vague or random stimuli. Some say we are a pattern-recognizing species, while others - pointing to examples like the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich - say we're a pattern-creating species.
I prefer to classify us as a pattern-dependent species. We see patterns all around us - in sights and sounds and other stimuli, in our own and others' behaviors, in causes and effects - whether the patterns are "really there" or whether they're simply random noise. We see them because we need to experience our world in patterns and not merely as chaotic, undifferentiated messiness.
We need those patterns because the reliable ones allow us to predict outcomes, at least to some extent. We also need those patterns because recognizing that something is out-of-pattern cues us to pay much closer attention. Out-of-pattern experiences often signify danger, and we couldn't recognize that cue - the out-of-pattern-ness - if we had no pattern against which to test it.
Indeed, empirical science is all about proposing and testing patterns of experience. Given conditions C and event E, we should see result R. If that hypothesis holds up in experience - often but not always controlled tests with defined protocols - science says we can rely on that pattern of experience and use those predictions to make better decisions.
Less change is often better.
Imagine walking into your kitchen to find that all of the cupboards have been rearranged while you were out. The plates are where the pots and pans used to be. The pots and pans are where the bowls were. The bowls are where you kept the glasses. The glasses are where the plates were. Cooking implements are where the silverware used to be, and the stuff from the junk drawer - those handy-dandy-don't-work-worth-a-damn things you ordered from late-night TV - is where the cooking implements were. As for the silverware ... it's been divided among three drawers, one of which used to hold the spare batteries. Who knows where those went.
At the very least, it's a recipe for frustration. At Casa Crissie, it would definitely be a precursor to some very out-of-pattern behaviors involving loud noises and four-letter words. When I'm cooking, I don't want to spend time looking for something I use every day. I want it to be where I expect it to be. Change that at your own risk.
While your kitchen pattern may differ from mine, I'll bet you have one and that you're as protective of yours as I am of mine. It's a matter of cognitive convenience.
Repetition enables reliability.
In his book Thinking Points, linguist George Lakoff explores the emerging science of cognitive frames. These seem to be biological structures, linked bundles of neurons that encapsulate patterns of analysis. Our "thinking" seems to consist first of frame selection and then frame execution: first we find a "best match" frame for the stimuli our sense organs are sending to our brains, and then we apply the narratives and strategies of that frame to construct experience from and of those stimuli, to estimate causes and effects, predict outcomes, and respond.
Much of that happens invisibly, in the sense that we're not consciously aware of selecting a frame, nor usually of walking step-by-step through the execution of that frame. Indeed, the science suggests that we can't be consciously aware of a stimulus until we have first assigned it to a frame. Frame selection is a pre-conscious act, and an error in frame selection - choosing an ill-fitting frame - skews the rest of the process. We're "thinking about" a telephone as if it were an apple.
But merely having and selecting the best-fitting frame is not enough. The more complex the frame's narratives and strategies, the greater the chances of errors in frame execution. We may be "thinking about" the telephone as a telephone yet push the wrong sequence of buttons because we've never tried to use that particular function before, or we use it so rarely that it remains unfamiliar. To get past that, we have to shift out of invisible thinking and into visible thinking: working step-by-step through the narrative, testing strategies, to find a solution.
And there are huge cognitive advantages to invisible thinking. We can do a lot of invisible thinking at once, in the background, while our visible thinking is focused elsewhere. I'd have to sit down and visibly work out how to describe the act of tying my shoes, but with invisible thinking I can perform the act of tying my shoes while I'm talking to Herself about the grocery list.
So we generally prefer cognitive frames that are general and simple. General frames apply to more kinds of situations, and thus reduce errors of frame selection. Simple frames require less analysis, and thus reduce errors of frame execution. Like tying our shoes, repetition enables reliability.
Most of all, we prefer frames that are familiar over those that are novel. We're used to selecting among the frames we have, and we have to learn from experience when to select new ones. And we're used to executing the frames we use most often; force us to adopt an unfamiliar frame, and we have to switch from invisible to visible thinking, and even then we're prone to make more mistakes.
Conservatism creates comfortable constants.
Turn on Rush Limbaugh, on any given day, and you know what you'll hear. If everything else in your life is turbulent, if it seems as if the world is spinning into uncontrolled chaos, Rush Limbaugh will cast all of that turbulence and chaos into the same, familiar frames, with narratives and strategies you've used time and time again. He won't confuse you with some novel analysis, or ask you to consider a problem from a different perspective. He won't challenge your basic worldview. He'll tell you your frames are right and it's the world that's wrong.
Of course, that doesn't make the world fit your frames. But it does let you leave political and social issues on auto-pilot, to be processed with invisible thinking. That leaves your brain free to focus on what's right in front of you: getting to work and doing your job (if you still have a job), feeding the kids, and the other day-to-day stuff of life. If it sounds as if Rush and his callers are playing a continuous loop of the same ideas day after day, regardless of what's happening in the world, that's because they are. They're applying the same, general frames in the same, simple ways ... and reaching the same responses.
And we all do that. So long as our familiar frames seem to work well enough, we stick with them. Even when they stop working well enough, we tend to stick with them until and unless we have to change, because life experience has taught us that learning and using new frames makes us more likely to commit errors of frame selection and execution. It's not much different from walking into the rearranged kitchen and having to search for the plates, pots, bowls, glasses, and silverware.
And we still haven't found those batteries.