Monday, December 7, 2009

A Brief Discussion about Change

An old cliché is that change is not easy, which like most clichés is true because unfortunately there are significant obstacles to transformation especially in either behavior or thinking. First, an individual has to believe that there is a problem with their behavior or thought process that demands change. Belief in such a reality is a complicated issue because of different perspectives regarding how one should think. Also one must also take into consideration the absolute level of change demanded for a particular individual, for some individuals simply may not be able to think to an advanced stage due to limitations beyond one’s control, not everyone in life is a philosopher.

However, the biggest obstacle to overcoming this condition is the simple fact that most people do not like to admit when they are wrong about something, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There are two basic options to defeat such a psychological imperative: first tap into personal pride. Sticking to one’s ‘guns’ even when wrong should be viewed as a poor light, not revered like it tends to be. Basically an individual should feel shame for being wrong and resolve to correct those error(s). The second option is to penalize the individual for being wrong. Thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 should come with a huge financial or personal penalty because if an individual is not going to have enough pride to accept when he/she is wrong then society must correct that behavior not through incentive, but through punishment.

Second, the participants have to have the capacity for change. Change typically requires strength of will, a characteristic that is not common place in most individuals. There is something that can be said for blind faith being a driver of change, but the general outcomes generated by blind faith are more randomized than typically desired. The reason strength of will is required is because change demands, as previously mentioned, admitting that the current course of action or behavior is wrong. Humans tend to shun the prospect of confirming that they are wrong about something, thus one must have a psychological means to overcome this distaste and the cognitive dissidence defense mechanism hence the strategy of tapping into personal pride.

Third, even if an individual is aware of their superficial or inappropriate behavior and/or erroneous thought process it may be by design. For example the individual could have tried to be him/herself at one point in time and was just unhappy for some reason, either he/she did not like him/herself or society did not like him/her and behaving in a disingenuous manner is a mechanistic attempt at creating happiness. Of course an argument can be made that such happiness is simply a lie, but that leads to the deeper question: is it better to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth?

The second rationality for behaving against one’s true nature may be to advance in a particular social or occupational infrastructure. It cannot be intelligently argued that human society does not favor certain characteristics and attitudes over others; although society claims to desire diversity, reality paints a different picture. Thus, an individual may think the best course of action is to change behavior to represent something society or a potential mate may want instead of who they truly are. Unfortunately such action seems rather detestable in that to achieve such a standing a person has to destroy the sense of self. What is worse an individual behaving/thinking in a despicable manner or an individual play-acting in a despicable manner solely to advance in society?

Such a question is interesting in that some could argue that clearly the former is worse because if one is clever enough to realize how a certain aspect of society is exploitive and chooses to exploit that aspect to his/her own advantage that individual should be praised. However, the thought of such praise leaves a bad taste in the mouth because such action does not change the fundamental flaw in the system instead it indirectly supports that flaw.

For example one is reminded of the verbal confrontation between John Stewart and Tucker Carlson on the now defunct CNN show “Crossfire” in 2004. Mr. Stewart opened the question and answer portion of the show involving him with an unexpected significant criticism regarding the validity of "Crossfire" as a genuine debate and information source. In response Mr. Carlson criticized the seriousness and usefulness of the news commentary provided by "The Daily Show", which Mr. Stewart hosted at the time and still currently hosts. Mr. Stewart appeared to view this criticism as comical because "The Daily Show" was supposed to be satirical and comedic in nature; bolstering this point Mr. Stewart cited that at the time puppets making crank phone calls was slotted right before "The Daily Show" whereas CNN claimed, and still does, to be the most trusted name in news and Mr. Stewart’s criticism was directly related to not living up to such a boast.

By Mr. Carlson criticizing "The Daily Show" instead of defending "Crossfire" he was basically telling the public that both "The Daily Show" and "Crossfire" were ill equipped to properly disseminate and analyze the news, thus limiting the quality of either show. Mr. Carlson should have instead defended "Crossfire" in effort to demonstrate its importance in the news community and simultaneously hurting Mr. Stewart's credibility to lodge future criticism of similar nature. Although one can somewhat understand the attack strategy as the criticism of "Crossfire" could have been viewed by Mr. Carlson as a criticism of him because of his direct involvement with "Crossfire", such an emotional response seems to be typically more detrimental than beneficial. This example relates back to the exploitation situation in that society as a whole is better served if the exploitation is brought to light instead of kept in the shadows because a particular individual wants to use it to his/her advantage. Basically a wrong should be corrected, not defended through manipulation or citing wrong in that which is trying to correct the wrong.

The fourth barrier to behavioral change is the knowledge of change. One may want to build a better clock, but if one does not know how to build clocks that desire to build a clock is wasted. The knowledge could come from the individual, but not all individuals have the experience or intelligence to know what needs to be done to change. Therefore, if an individual is to change a means to initiate that change must be outlined to the given individual otherwise how will change occur?

Environmentalists have this problem in that they frequently suggest that individuals cut their carbon footprints in effort to derail the prospects of serious global warming. Some even go into more specifics on how to achieve a reduction like improving the energy efficiency of their homes. Unfortunately that is where almost all of them stop, failing to realize that improving energy efficiency is still a rather complicated endeavor when factoring in which contractors to use, how to get started, rates of return on investment, etc. Perhaps more people would pursue energy efficiency if someone created almost a step-by-step guide. Paging the authors of the ‘for dummies’ books, the environmentalists need you.

Due to these four elements a simple ‘call to arms’ type statement for change, again something commonly used by environmentalist, will more than likely be ineffective. Each of these elements must be dealt with effectively if any real and lasting change in behavior is to occur. Logic seems to dictate that the second and third barrier make up the principle reasons individuals behave/think in a certain way. Unfortunately such a situation creates a significant problem. Regarding the third barrier, the individual is playing a disingenuous role that creates a net advantage in existence over acting in a genuine manner. It makes no logical sense for an individual to exhibit his/her genuine character if the individual can effectively manage life as that fake person. Therefore, the only means to initiate change in those individuals is to remove the greater benefit from the false persona.

The problem with fostering change when faced with the first aspect of the third barrier is the psychological phenomenon of inclusion. Recall that although individuals say the politically correct things, in reality life and society do not like diversity (otherwise most of the issues involving ethnicity and race would have ended a long time ago), instead they are like chemistry: like dissolves like. People prefer dealing with people that do not exist outside of the realm of their own expectations. Interacting with those that do makes them uncomfortable and typically drives them away from those individuals towards safer and more familiar pastures.

Equally influential is the prospect of being alone which is a powerful negative force that again only the strong can truly neutralize as a mover in their life. Humans by evolutionary nature are social beings. If one acts in such a way that limits the potential for social interaction, it is understandable although unfortunate, that the individual would readily abandon true self to ensure positive social interaction. Tying the issue of change to the field of relationships, despite fairy tales to the contrary, there is not someone out there for everyone and a vast number of individuals do not recognize ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ as their personal theme song. In short it is difficult to be you when life kicks you in the teeth for being you.

In large context conquering the third barrier may be simple relative to conquering the second barrier. The third barrier involves balancing any differential rewards to a given personality or mindset regardless of factual or empirical correctness. One particular mindset cannot be rewarded beyond another particular mindset with regards to a given issue without empirical evidence demonstrating factual superiority on that given issue. Basically being right and logical needs to be the driver in how a particular mindset is rewarded. The problem is prying away enough power from those that prefer to be wrong that such a change can occur. For the second problem people must be instilled with a level of personal pride where they rebuke anyone that does not accept them for themselves within the context of social norms and the legal system.

Make no bones about it change is indeed a tall order. However, the second barrier cannot be fully conquered until society as a whole can understand the unique offerings of each individual and how they can contribute positively to society. Otherwise the probability of any successful mass unmasking of those hiding behind facades unfortunately remains low. Thus steps must be taken to facilitate and nurture this potential for a new mindset. Overall society must demand that individuals focus on casting aside those elements that are statistically false, which will involve change for many, in order to optimize not only present benefits, but future benefits as well.

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