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Most of us, most of the time operate on "rules of thumb" - mental shortcuts that simplify complex decision-making processes.

These shortcuts are necessary in daily living because our brains have a limited energy supply and rational thinking is a high-energy, time-consuming process.

The brain runs on about 40 watts of power (a lightbulb!)

Greg Berns, Iconoclast

The idea that human beings take all relevant information into account all the time - making their decisions thoughtfully and rationally - is a piece of 20th century marketing fiction.

Over millennia, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do.

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

But our heuristics aren't ALWAYS helpful - and they can often get a) dated OR b) over-ridden by our unconscious biases.

Anxiety rules

Combine this limited energy supply with millenia of evolution as tribal hunter-gatherers - being hunted ourselves by bigger, more dangerous predators - and it's not surprising that we act first, automatically avoid "risk"- and think later.

Part of our biological inheritance is a pre-disposition towards anxiety and risk aversion - because those of us who worried that the rustle in the long grass was a sabertooth tiger lived longer.

So, by default, we worry far more about what we could lose today than what we might enjoy or suffer tomorrow. Our decision-making is NOT always logical - just count the smokers gathered outside any hospital.

Future existential threat does NOT change human behaviour!

Paul Hawken, founder of Project Drawdown

Social factors loom large

There are 6 social heuristics that influence our behaviour, according to psychologist and bestselling author Robert Cialdini. They happen automatically and can strongly influence

  1. Reciprocity - if someone gives us something, we are wired to give them something back.
  2. Scarcity - if something becomes less available, we want it more.
  3. Authority - we listen to people who we believe have credible experience and knowledge.
  4. Consistent - we like to be consistent with things we have previously said or done.
  5. Liking - we say yes to people we like, who are like us, and who have similar aspirations to us.
  6. Consensus - we are more likely to do what other people have previously done, and use other peoples' action as our guide.

(See an introductory video on Cialdini's influencing principles here)

How something's framed changes how we respond to it

Any time we face a complex problem, our response is heavily influenced by what's happened in the lead up to our response.

This is another piece of wisdom from Robert Cialdini, explained in his recent book Pre-suasion.

Extensive research has demonstrated that the "frame" that you create before you put your case, request or offer is probably MORE important than what you actually pitch. (Video summary here.)

Pre-suasion provides a wealth of insight. One that's particularly useful is:

What's focal is perceived as causal.

Robert Cialdini, Pre-suasion

If every message you're presented with on global warming bemoans the lack of government action then guess what? Despite the evidence of:

  • The smartphone in your pocket or purse (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The social platforms you're reading this on (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The cars outside your house (first delivered to the masses by industrial entrepreneur Henry Ford).

The chances are you're never going to think through issues like:

  • It's mostly industry that build and deliver the products and services we use every day
  • Our industrial design is based on degenerative 1-way mindsets.
  • Disruptive industrial innovation at scale is generally delivered by radical business entrepreneurs.

Framing is powerful - and can be compellingly mis-directing. (If you don't know about it, you're probably being trapped by it.)

Humans are powerfully, unconsciously influenced by our heuristics and HOW something is communicated

That's the current human operating system.

It's probably less than ideal for our complex, post-industrial operating environment.

We probably don't have time to do some miracle upgrade.

AND we want a better future - a cleaner, smarter, fairer safer future.

So how do we work better with what we've got?

How could you capitalise on what we now know about human neuroeconomics, heuristics, framing and cognition?

How could you work smarter in reversing the urgent environmental and social issues that degenerative 20th century systems have created?

Where could YOUR heuristics be leading you astray?

Firstly, how will you apply this awareness to check whether your own heuristics are working for you?

  • Has "what's focal is causal" caused you to believe that government action is the fundamental, necessary solution for reversing global warming?
  • Has fear of looking gullible contributed to limiting your action?
  • Are assumptions about "rational human behaviour" limiting your persuasive capacity?

How could YOU be a smarter influencer by leveraging the heuristics of those around you?

If you want climate action, a regenerative "Doughnut" economy and fairer society then what are you prepared to learn to do differently?

What could you apply from what we know about perception and influencing to get more action with less effort, frustration and despair?

(Is it ethical? Ethics is about HOW you do what you do and HOW you align your actions with your values. Any powerful tool can be used or abused. What you can be absolutely sure of is that you're surrounded by human beings - who operate heuristically. So someone's heuristics - intentional or not - are always at play.)

Sources and resources

This ABC Hot Mess Podcast on Human Frailties is an interesting discussion with an Australian perspective.

Andrew O’Keeffe’s book Hardwired Humans could be an useful introduction to help you think about human wiring in the corporate world.

George Marshall's climate-specific book Don't Even Think About It is issue-specific analysis of why engaging on global warming is such a challenge.

I keep a list of some of the other tools, insights and understandings I find powerful here.

Fear and anxiety were great for human survival when we wandered the plains of Africa as hunter gatherers 20,000 years ago.

We needed to be afraid of the world around us - so we'd be ready to RUN or FIGHT when a rustle in the long grass turned out to be a saber tooth tiger.

Fear and anxiety have a place - and back then the body chemistry involved in them was balanced by physical activity. Running away from that tiger (or ganging up and killing it) burned off all the stress chemicals.

The psycho-social impacts were appropriate too - blame and shame kept the tribe together, story-telling cemented social bonds and spread wisdom (as well as juicy gossip).

Fear, anxiety, shame and blame WILL NOT HELP change the 21st century world we live in.

(You just need to look at the groups of smokers outside cancer hospitals to recognize that fear alone is not enough to change human behavior.)

Fear has been the methodology of the communication about climate change. You mix fear with doom and gloom and stir well with shame and guilt and you have apathy.

Paul Hawken, Founder of Project Drawdown https://www.optimistdaily.com/2018/12/solutions-thinking-climate-change/

(If fear REALLY changed human behavior, then 40+ years of warnings about looming, accelerating "environmental collapse" would have generated a whole lot more action.)

Anxiety sucks - and it makes us suck

However scared you are about the future, IF you want to generate action instead of helplessness then don't JUST use fear.

Don't JUST talk about horrible futures and irresponsible governments and the need for policy change.

WHY?

Constant, unrelieved fear - fear without access to immediate personal action creates HELPLESSNESS. It shuts down our brains and primes our bodies to run, fight or hide.

AND when you add shame and blame and guilt to your message it gets even LESS effective.

Think about it....

When someone comes at you with accusations about being "greedy" or "stupid", isn't your first reaction "NO I'M NOT!!!" Regardless of how valid their point is, how likely are you to REALLY listen to what they're trying to tell you?

The recipe for helplessness...

This is what the experts have to say about making a person feel helpless:

Tell them that their problem is:
1) permanent;
2) pervasive; and
3) personal

Dr Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, researcher in Learned Helplessness

Yes, we face massive environmental challenges. Yes they're multiplying and accelerating. Yes, we're late to action.

AND...

We have the technology to solve them.

AND...

Millions of people around the world are busy doing that.

There are scores of viable, scalable solutions that don't need "government policy change" in order to succeed - and the world's entrepreneurs are out there making them happen.

Are you creating action - or helplessness?

Much as it might feel good to complain about the people you think are guilty of inaction, it's worth thinking carefully about what you're saying and how you're saying it...

Is the WAY that you complain complain about a lack of government/ industry/ consumer action actually limiting the potential for that action?

When you loudly demand "national government action" - and especially when you complain about its absence - is this what you're implicitly telling people ?

  1. The environment is collapsing around us.
  2. The only group who can fix "the environment" is national government.
  3. National government is NOT taking the necessary action.
  4. Thirty-plus years of vocal environmental campaigning hasn't achieved action.
  5. They're still not listening.
  6. We have to campaign harder and MAKE them listen.
  7. In the mean time we have to consume less because we're making things worse.

It's a common message - AND IS IT ALSO SPREADING HELPLESSNESS?

Instead?

So if the communication strategies that environmental campaigners have been repeating for 30+ years don't work, what do we do instead? Here are some starters:

  1. Get informed about the solutions - especially the existing, scalable, no-government-required solutions.
  2. Learn how to bust helplessness and spread the word about the solutions.
  3. Understand the CONTEXT that the problem is occurring in.
  4. Shift from shame and blame to holding people accountable for their actions.

Do YOU know the solutions we already have?

If you're serious about solving global warming, ocean plastics or species loss - how much do you know about the solutions?

NOT the problem - but the SOLUTIONS!!!

(REMEMBER: Government policy change ISN'T a solution! It's just one channel - among many - for delivering solutions to the root cause issues.)

If you can't list the top 10 existing, scalable, evidence-based actions to reverse global warming, then how can you effectively "campaign for climate stability"?

So once you've picked your issue - whether it's global warming or ocean plastics - then get informed about the solutions.

(If it's global warming then download the latest Project Drawdown update - NOW!)

How to tackle helplessness

Professor Martin Seligman researched helplessness for years - and also how to overcome it. One of the outputs of years of teamwork (that led to Positive Psychology) came this ABCDE of helplessness-busting:

  • Identify a situation of Adversity
  • Identify the underlying Belief about the Adversity
  • Identify the Consequences (fear, depression, inaction) of holding that belief
  • Learn to Dispute that Belief
  • Learn to evaluate the Energization possible from debating the belief.

If you're a book junkie like me, then Seligman's classic Learned Optimism is a must-have reference. In the mean time, this summary of the ABCDE of helplessness-busting is a useful start.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over

Since (at least) the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, environmental campaigners have been pushing pretty much the same line:

"We've got to tell the people to tell the government to tell business to action on sustainability."

Various respected figures

Despite what they know about who and how smartphones, cars, social media and Internet business were commercialised at scale, they're still massively addicted to "government policy change".

Don't just be a fear-monger

The most powerful anti-smoking campaigns are the ones that start with fear and end with a call to action and immediate contact details for QUIT programs.

We're an Inconvenient Species - so if you MUST use fear, then make sure you finish with immediate, personal, beneficial ACTION.

Immediate constructive actions on climate

For overwhelmed citizens, the movie 2040 is positive and accessible.

For anyone in industry - or with an entrepreneurial bent - the Project Drawdown list of 80 existing, commercial, no-government-required business and community development opportunities. These are all solutions that people can start action on immediately.

There are lots of other solutions, from systems-level design such as The Doughnut Economy and The Circular Economy to detailed product/process design approaches such as Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation.

You can explore further Regenerative Business solutions at Balance3.com.au