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.
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
- Reciprocity - if someone gives us something, we are wired to give them something back.
- Scarcity - if something becomes less available, we want it more.
- Authority - we listen to people who we believe have credible experience and knowledge.
- Consistent - we like to be consistent with things we have previously said or done.
- Liking - we say yes to people we like, who are like us, and who have similar aspirations to us.
- 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.