Understanding the cognition of resistance to change is the most powerful item in the sustainability advocate’s toolkit.
One of the most frustrating experiences that sustainability campaigners face is when a convincing logical well expressed argument for change is placed in a forum and a large section of the participants resist accepting its validity. What makes this so much hard draining work is that the locus of the resistance seems not to be in the discussion itself but deep in a belief system that is never permitted into the debate for examination. We are sometimes left wondering ‘why come to a debate if you are not going to play by the rules?’. Well, there are reasons for doing so, simply being there to front a position and repeat it as though it were empirical truth, that is one reason.
I recently listened to a debate on BBC Radio 4 between Harvard students under the currently popular rubric ‘Who built it?’ The discussion appeared to be aligned across the usual political left-right dimension. I was filled with expectation that we would get to the bottom of the issue and hear a conclusion that would inform as to whether common-interest or self-interest was considered to be of most value to society. I don’t know why I held my breath. Optimist I guess.
What I did glean from the discussion however, was that one section of debaters appeared to be arguing based on logical parsing of ideas and recourse to deeper foundations at each step, while the other group simply stated and repeated certain ideas and again and again stumbled when challenged to provide further support for those ideas. You can guess who was prepared to keep widening and supporting their arguments and who sought recourse to the vague, obfuscating and repetitive ‘truths’. For some people there is certainty in a belief system and for others a belief system is a circle of ever widening connecting of dots.
The Self narrows down to categorical belief systems to maintain its confidence in reality, and the Whole widens out to interconnected beliefs confident that reality need never be pinned down.
It is often said that opening minds in the educational process can be achieved through the teaching of critical thinking. But this misses the fact that emotion will always switch off critical thought process whenever logic challenges self-protecting belief systems. In the example above ‘Who built it?’ is a direct challenge to the belief in primacy of self which sits at the core of conservative values. Having a debate ain’t going to achieve anything here because the belief system is not negotiable. What results is a rather annoying and grinding process of logic versus faux logic and occasional loss of temper. Even more upsetting for those of us who want the discussion to progress is that in the interests of balance the chair sums up the stalemate but presenting both view points as somehow emerging from the ‘debate’ as equivalent but different in value. They are different in many ways but chiefly in that one is emotional and isolated and the other logical and empirical. Sadly this point is never made, perhaps because the moderator does not want chairs thrown about.
Sustainability sits in the same frame as the left-right dimension illustrated here. Proponents argue from facts and resistors repeat slogans from emotion. So what can we add to our toolkit? What we have to recognise is that by entering a forum of debate we can so easily offer equal credence to the repetition of an emotional worldview based on self-interest in the status quo. Solutions to this situation can then be devised. For example, better controlled debate processes can help to permit only facts to be laid out for a more ‘scientific’ examination – ‘this house concludes that based on the facts presented by each side the motion X is preferable’. The education of critical thinking can be done in a way that side-lines or negates techniques of oration so that balanced argument strikes out from the common record challenges that run to dead ends. There are a multitude of methods from the history of debate and philosophy that can be used but what is most important is that we come to the table always prepared for the empirical to shift to the emotional, which it almost always will.
A more sophisticated approach, the killer app in our toolkit, is to mould predictable emotional positions long before the public debate occurs so that we play chess with and capture or negate emotional positions = then turn resistance into fertile ground for co-option. This is the purpose of George Lakoff’s framing technique developed at the Rockridge Institute. I would like to recommend a resource which covers framing analysis and wider cognitive approaches to working with emotional resistance to change. Cognitive Policy Works http://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/
Emotional resistance is identifiable, it has known quantities, and we need to engage with it and turn its power into consensus.