Societies are comprised of individuals. When societies change, each person is changed in some of the ways discussed in our article about what makes people change and why. In theory, we could simply apply all of the personal change principles to each member of a population.
However, that path would lead us to an incomplete picture of social change. There are emergent properties of groups of humans that play an important role in change among groups of humans. This work is a look at some of these emergent properties and how they are used for social change.
Manufactured social pressures
Social psychology has taught us many interesting things about how susceptible humans are to social pressures. Many social pressures have been manufactured deliberately by ideologies and institutions for quite some time. Both political campaigning and advertising provide excellent examples.
Humans act differently when they are involved in groups. ‘Groupthink‘ is a less-conscious state of humans, where they are devoted more to their group than to their own experience and thoughts. This is a type of thinking that people might term the mob mentality.
Tendencies such these have been linked strongly with the functions of the human brain stem, part of the ancient ‘reptilian’ brain of our ancestors. The reptilian brain has been linked strongly with experiences of anger, fight-or-flight, and blind devotion to leaders1 .
It has been found that humans respond more strongly to negative stimuli and emotions more strongly than to positive.2 This is in part due to the immediacy of dangers associated with the negative stimuli, and the corresponding wiring of the brain to compensate for that. Association of the immediacy of danger with our reptilian brain leads us to lose our thinking ability in dangerous situations.
Our inability to think when scared or in danger makes us more likely to accept things that we are told. Exploitation of these effects for the purposes of advertising and politics is rampant in our society. Advertisements often try to scare people into buying their products. Politicians often present situations using terminology deliberately chosen to scare the public so as to push their own agenda. A good example of this is the health care debate in the USA, where rational correct voices are not noticed as much as those shouting ideas like “death panels”.
Resisting attempts to control us
There is, however, a limit to how much this works on humans. We tend to get used to stimuli, reducing their effect. This is one reason why efforts to exploit the reptilian brain have become more and more blatant in recent years. The fear must be more powerful to overcome our natural stress defense mechanisms. The rise of disaster capitalism is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
Humans are empowered by knowledge. When a human is made aware of the technique of control being used on them, its effect is drastically reduced. This is in fact the founding principle of a blind study on humans. If people know they are being manipulated, they act differently.
The answer to the fear-mongering on this level is simple: teach people how politicians and advertisements are leveraging their instincts to control them. Part of this effort must include an attempt to curb our media hypnosis. When we free ourselves from such controlling influences, we regain our ability to think. With thinking, we can move on to societal change.
Some people have facets of their work or their personality that make them more influential than other people. For instance, a politician can have the advantage of a lot of media coverage, as well as a position of importance in a society. Things they say carry more weight than those of the average person. Same goes for professionals in elite fields such as engineers, doctors and executives of companies. Also included in this category would be the leaders and spokespeople for organizations that are not companies. This category would include everything from sports teams to veterans clubs. Finally there are also people who simply have more personal charisma than average. Malcolm Gladwell referred to these people as “Connectors” in his book The Tipping Point.
The opinions and positions of these people matter more than the average opinion, because of their power to affect other people. Most social change movements have figureheads at many levels. Leaders among the community are the people who often become these figureheads. In terms of returns for effort expended on change, it seems wisest to spend time on those who both have a large amount of contact with people and also command a lot of respect. This is merely in recognition of the fact that they themselves are capable of propagating the influence of change most powerfully.
The way different ideas are labeled by society is somewhat indicative of the general consensus on these subjects. We believe that a good example of this in the past would be the eventual replacement of the term ‘communist’ with ‘socialist’. While in many people’s eyes these terms are interchangeable, the truth is that most of society does not identify as many negative connotations with the idea of socialism compared with communism.
This slight change came along with the change in the perception of the world of these ideas. The change in culture came along with the change in vocabulary, so it may be difficult to assign any causality. It is known however, that terminology has a powerful effect on how something is perceived. In this way, one method of societal change would be to attempt to change the basic terminology used when referring to the issue in question.
This is related to the concept of framing in psychology. In this context, the words used to label an idea or a group of people will set the standard for the resulting discussion. This is one reason why in the most heated debates in our society, the two extreme sides won’t even agree on starting points like terminology. On some level we are all aware of the power of labelling.
What is a meme? A meme is essentially a unit of meaning. It can also be likened to a human thought. Memes can be passed from one person to another. As we communicate, we exchange memes. The concept was created by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.
Wikipedia gives the definition as: “A meme is a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, and is transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.”3
Analogy to genes
Memes are intended to be analogous in concept to genes. Memes can be passed down. They can be self-replicating, or they can combine with other memes to form new generations. By applying the same principles to memes as those that apply to organisms (or genes) in a competitive environment, one arrives at an interesting perspective on the design of intellectual entities.
Memes with characteristics that aid their survival as well as their transferability are those that are more likely to become numerous and prominent. Meme transfer can be through communication with a human carrier of a meme, or with other information sources. That is, you can learn from people or from inanimate things such as books.
Memes that can change the world
Using this perspective, when one is trying to change society, one should design a strong meme to carry the idea. The intent should be to design the meme so that it is
- resistant to mutation due to being transferred and interpreted by many consciousnesses
- easily communicable to other minds
- able to overcome other memes trying to change the same set of ideas
Making an idea resistant to mutation could be accomplished through several different methods. One historical method was the telling of stories, which became myths, whose wisdom would be minimally influenced by the telling and re-telling through the generations.
In modern times we might create a set of examples to illustrate the meaning of our meme. Each of the examples should have a clear core to it, so that subsequent re-tellings will likely have the same meaning. Communication could be aided by efforts to make the meme easily understandable in terms of experience, using terms accessible to most of the population.
Making a meme strong enough to overcome other memes is an interesting and difficult problem. For instance, some memes might depend on logic, and some others on emotion. When these memes meet, it will be a contest not just between their logical validity or their emotional impact, but both.
There are many battlefields upon which memes fight for supremacy. The implications of these meme wars for societal change are interesting. For example a meme need not be the best meme in any one specific category to gain an advantage, as long as it wins overall.
Now we will look in more detail at a specific example of an argument where memes continue to be heavily utilized, primarily by one side, to push an agenda. This example is climate change.
In the discussion of climate change, memes are encountered often. For instance, some memes were deliberately constructed and advertised by a group funded by the National Coal Association in the United States.4 Here are some of the advertisements created:
“Who Told You the Earth Was Warming . . . Chicken Little?”
“Some say the earth is warming. Some also said the earth was flat.”
“If global warming is real, then why is it getting colder in Minneapolis?”
The first is simply an ad hominem attack. The second statement purports to be common sense, when in fact it makes no actual argument, and contributes nothing to the discussion. It can also be considered an ad hominem or an appeal to ridicule. The third statement actually presents a testable hypothesis. The actual data on Minneapolis is that it has warmed by approximately 1 to 1.5ºC in the last century.5
One might expect that statements that are so obviously flawed would not have any effect on people. Most people could easily see through the first two, and could look up the temperatures for Minneapolis right? It turns out that people generally do not look up the facts, or are willing to accept a statement like that at face value. This is an example of a general tendency with memes: the truth or untruth of the statement has little bearing on its continued existence as a meme. These statements are not designed for accuracy, they are designed for effect.
The average person doesn’t know that much about climate change, so they might think that statement three would be an argument against the existence of climate change. They might not know that global warming and climate change bring with them localized variations in temperature. An informed person knows that the third statement is not an actual argument against global warming, even if it were true.
The average person is not necessarily empowered with detailed knowledge of these subjects. They are also generally not happy being connected with things that are being socially stigmatized. All of the above statements were an attempt to stigmatize the belief that global warming is real, regardless of the actual truth of the matter.
It so happens that the heavy carbon industries such as coal and oil have a very good reason to be creating disinformation of this kind. Namely, if climate change legislation is brought about full force, it will seriously disrupt their business. So they have used some money to deliberately create uncertainty amongst the general public about global warming and climate change.6
There are only a handful of people who are climate scientists who disagree to some extent with the scientific climate change consensus.7 8 Many of these scientists even agree that it is a real effect, but disagree about the magnitude or dangers. A few scientists and former scientists hold to the opinion that global warming does not exist. Some others dispute whether humans are the primary cause.
In the scientific community there is a clear consensus that global warming and climate change are real and that humans are causing them to happen. However, the deliberate creation of memes (such as those mentioned above) by the carbon industries has had a huge effect on the public discourse around global warming and climate change.
Misinforming from media
The general population, and the mainstream media, have not extensively studied climatology, and they are thus lacking a strong ‘immune system’ when these attacking memes come along. Misinformation is rampant on this topic, with the press falling approximately 50-50 on the debate. People in the press and the general public are being attacked by memes that they lack the ability (or inclination) to fight off.
Why does the media present something that is a scientific consensus as if it is still a hotly debated topic with two relatively even sides? We believe that the FCC “Fairness Doctrine” is somewhat responsible, even though it was discontinued in 1987. It charged holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in an equitable and balanced manner. We believe that the Fairness Doctrine was sometimes used to justify the mis-representation of clear-cut issues as things still open to debate and interpretation. This allowed the creation of a false balance in media reporting on issues. False balance refers to journalistic presentation of an issue in a way that is more balanced than the evidence actually supports.
Journalists generally do not claim to be experts on controversial issues. Issues such as this can be a difficult call for non-experts to make in the best interest of the public. The press tend to err on the side of openness in terms of debate. We claim that this has some major consequences. By presenting and propagating opinions and perspectives that are contrary to a clear scientific consensus, the media organizations are misinforming the public.
If a viewer is only exposed to an issue through falsely balanced discussions, they may remain unaware of what the true balance may be within the scientific community. This can happen in a similar fashion if the issue is a political one; falsely balanced discussions in the media can also lead to a mis-representation of the political partisanship.
Due partially to this issue, the media ends up being a mouthpiece for industry and powerful lobby groups. This is very closely related to the problem of media collusion with news makers. Additionally, the rampant speed of today’s media contributes to a reduced depth of consideration of issues by journalists.
The war rages on
On one side, there are the scientists. Fighting with their facts and a lifetime of study of the subject. On the other side there are a few scientists along with a raging crowd of layperson deniers who are armed with what they think are facts, and usually a very shallow conception of what is going on.
We at Vision of Earth side with the structured investigation and fact-checking that forms the foundation of science. The scientific consensus is extremely strong, and we would all be wise to heed their message.
My Work in Social and Personal Change
I am one of the founders of Vision of Earth. We are trying to collect and analyze the information available on a large number of issues mainly relating to the quality of life of humans. Our main efforts currently are regarding large-scale societal problems such as energy, poverty, pollution, climate change, and social freedoms.
Our goal with regards to change is twofold:
- To better ourselves through the pursuit of knowledge and experience.
- To better our society by disseminating these things to the public in a way that is accessible to the general public.
To this end we created this website for the products of our research and to provide a medium for critics to voice their opinions of our work. We intend to use criticism to better ourselves, our knowledge, and our work.
Our hopes are to change society through a combination of several methods. We hope to create genuine, factual content in the form of literature reviews written with the intent of being understood by people unfamiliar with technical or domain-specific jargon.
We have also been working on discussing these issues with people who are “Leaders” such as those we mentioned in an earlier section of the paper. We also continually investigate the evolution and power of memes as well as the possible dangers they embody for our civilization.
We do not believe in sneakily leveraging people’s instincts to make a point. We make open and declared appeals to humanity’s wish to be happy and free of harm. We believe the key to effective communication of this sort is being honest about exactly what we believe and why we believe it. Our reasoning and grounding are exactly the foundation upon which we build our arguments. We do not believe in pushing hidden agendas.
This group has existed for about three years at this point. The responses we have received so far have been very positive. It has been my experience that this work has consistently made me feel like I am actualizing in a profound way. This experience has been shared by some of the other contributors as well.
- Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Available as a Book or TV Series. [↩]
- Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain:The Negativity Bias in Evaluative Categorizations. Tiffany A. Ito, Jeff T. Larsen, N. Kyle Smith, and John T. Cacioppo. Ohio State University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,1998, Vol. 75, No- 4, 887-900. Accessed October 30th, 2010. [↩]
- Wikipedia: Meme. Accessed October 27th, 2010. [↩]
- Wikipedia: Information Council on the Environment. Accessed October 27th, 2010. [↩]
- The Coal Industry’s “ICE” Campaign (1999). Heatisonline.org. Accessed October 27th, 2010. [↩]
- Slamming the Climate Skeptic Scam. DeSmogBlog. Accessed October 27th, 2010. [↩]
- Wikipedia: List of Scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming. Accessed October 27th, 2010. [↩]
- How many climate scientists are climate skeptics? Skeptical Science. Accessed October 30th, 2010. [↩]