Monday, December 10, 2007

In the Retribalized Global Village, What We Focus on Increases

10 December 2007

I’d like to present today a fairly simple but profound psychological idea.

What we focus on increases.

Human beings learn through classical and operant conditioning and through role-modeling (observational learning).

In classical conditioning, we generalize our responses to a wider range of similar or related initial stimuli. The classic study was Pavlov's ringing bell. When the bell was rung at mealtime, the dog in Pavlov's study learned to salivate in response to the ringing of the bell alone. Food was no longer required.

In operant conditioning, the intensity and frequency of our behaviours varies depending upon their consequences. For instance, the two most “clicked-on” features of this blog so far have been my article on gold’s historic $5000 inflation-adjusted peak value and my posting of Picasso's groundbreaking artwork, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, in my entry on retribalization. I confess I am somewhat intrigued by what these two topics may have in common – perhaps not that much….

But it often crosses my mind to repost similar articles, as these two have by far been the most widely read on this site.

The most subtle – and profound – aspect of human learning is observational learning, often referred to as role-modeling or social learning. Humans are much more influenced by role-modeling than the other species that walk this planet. In fact, our susceptibility to role-modeled behaviours is clearly a factor that distinguishes us from essentially all of our animal peers (though the chimps, for example, who share 99% of our genome, are also notably receptive to role-modeling).

Through role-modeling, we learn primarily problem-solving behaviours by observing how those around us solve their problems.

I would now like to target one particular aspect of human learning that particularly concerns me.

In the hope of clarifying my primary point through the use of historical analogy, let me begin with the following exemplar of the principle I wish to present.

We can now look with considerable distance at the public panics that swept the western world from about 1450-1700 AD, resulting in the notorious witch hunts and trials of that period. From our present perspective, this 2-1/2 century era in human history is challenging to grasp. The obsessive preoccupation with witchcraft and the associated fear and panic of that era seem impossibly bizarre to us now.

My fundamental point is that all three aspects of human learning keyed into the witch-hunting process of that era. That is, humans became increasingly concerned about women whose behaviours appeared to resemble widely disseminated portrayals of the conduct of witches.

Women meeting privately? It must be the gathering of a coven!

This is classical conditioning at work. If it looks and acts like a witch, it must be a witch. The public preoccupation with that particular stimulus (in this case, “witchy” behaviour) increased the saliency of all similar or imaginatively related behaviours. People paid increasing attention to behaviours in
this particular category of concern.

When these innocent women were tried, the process employed forced them to admit their status as witches. Thus the behavioural pattern of hunting down witches and extracting confessions from them was reinforced, and the practice increased, sweeping across New England and Europe.

The role of public confession in reinforcing the public’s concern with the perceived practice of witchcraft represents the importance of operant conditioning in magnifying broad societal behavioural patterns.

Finally, and most importantly, individuals who felt uneasy about their female neighbour; women who disliked their husband’s interest in another woman; those who envied the success or freedom of a neighbouring woman – all had ample exposure to role-modeled demonstrations of how to resolve their dilemma.

All that was needed was to identify behaviours suggestive of the practice of witchcraft, and these women could be rounded up and tried by the authorities, and then executed in public. Problem resolved. In a gruesome and ultimately horribly shameful way.

Perhaps the obsession of that era with women’s practice of witchcraft had most to do with the growing freedom of women in the emerging industrial age.

Nonetheless, the principles of human learning – particularly role-modeling – strongly drove this disturbing process.

Where are we today with respect to this matter?

Well, we are no longer particularly concerned about witches, are we? At least not so much now as then… and certainly not to the point of rounding up women and publicly executing them!

Today we have other foci of public concern. In my view, these are easily discerned through examination of our public media.

The contemporary media offer us – instead – unceasing images of random and unregulated public assaults on personal safety and privacy, causing us to feel increasingly threatened and fearful.

What specifically am I referring to?

Well, you know and I know all that it is necessary to do to take over the front page headline of our local and national newspapers, how to lead the evening television news, and how to be a top pick on Google News….

What is required is to engage in a horrible and shocking public assault on the safety and privacy of our neighbours.

Today’s media are driven by stories of mass murder, serial killings, child abductions, child sexual abuse and terrorist violence…. or, if you will, of the moral peccadilloes of presidents and celebrities.

Though lacking in innocence (bear in mind that the supposed witches had in fact done no wrong to anyone), the perpetrators of these horrifying acts otherwise function as the witches of our era. They dominate our public consciousness, alter the focus of our attention, drive defensive and fear-driven changes in our behaviour, and – most importantly – serve as reflexive (and profoundly misleading) explanations of what is wrong in our current world.

If today’s headlines were to focus on what I personally believe is causal of our contemporary dilemmas, the above stories would not lead the headline news at all.

From my perspective, stories about central banks expanding the money supply; cabals of military industrialists setting international policy; chief executives sitting on each others’ boards voting each other ever-larger pay and bonus packages; business interests pressuring governments to offer favour to their enterprise or field of business; special interest groups seeking advantage at the public trough by disrupting the social order; and public policies which marginalize families and communities would dominate the (problematic) headline news.

Obviously my stories don't dominate your headlines – but they might if I were managing the media. Fortunately, I can find most of what I need to know through the wonderfully individualized internet-based news services.

And there is a second problem. Were my stories to dominate, they would still be problem-focused.

Do you begin to perceive the fundamental dilemma here?

It has often been said that the media pander to the lowest common denominator. I will not dispute that.

But there is a far more important and more insidious aspect of the media's obsessive emphasis on the recurring disturbing themes I mentioned earlier.

The pernicious focus of the media on these archetypal fear-inducing stories is informing individuals who may already be emotionally disturbed or otherwise unbalanced about what behavioural strategies they can adopt to win the recognition of their peers, while also unleashing their troubled emotions at the devastating expense of others around them.

What I wish to assert is that the daily wash of horror stories flowing through the media and into our consciousness is in fact exposing us to a very negative and dysfunctional cast of undesirable and entirely inappropriate role-models on a daily basis.

My simple proposal is to refocus the media on positive rather than negative role-models.

By the way, I'm not talking about bad news versus good news stories here, but rather stories about how people in all walks of life manage difficult or even tragic circumstances with courage, dignity and imagination. I hope that this distinction is clear.

I don't think we have the option of suppressing stories about multiple killers, child abductors, child abusers, terrorists and lapsed celebrities – but I do suggest that the media adopt a code of conduct by which it is agreed that stories of this kind are not suitable as primary or leading news items.

It’s really that simple. Put these stories back on page 5. Avoid sensationalism in their coverage. Assign them minimal television time. Make the information available for those who truly need to follow it up – but don't allow the supposed witches of our era to dominate our news features in media of all kinds on a day-in and day-out basis.

Instead, let’s consider more stories about positive role-models – individuals who are engaging in constructive action to heal the harms suffered by individuals, families, communities, peoples, nations and our planet itself.

Imagine today’s news headed, for example, by the latest exploits of

Muhammed Yunus
rather than Osama bin Laden; by Jean Vanier rather than William Pickton; or by Warren Buffett rather than Conrad Black.

Again, I'm not asking for an enlarged emphasis on "feel-good" news stories.

What I am asking for, in brief, is news stories about positive role-models… and more and bigger stories about positive role-models than negative role-models!

It’s that simple.

What, if anything, might be wrong with this simple idea?

The only profound challenge I can presently imagine to my idea is the concern that the concept simply may not be marketable.

This may be a valid objection.

However, I would counter with the following rejoinders:

(1) The idea hasn’t really been tried, so how would we know without testing it first?

(2) Even if news of positive role-models proved to be a niche market, it so far appears to be a largely unexploited niche, the exploration of which may yet prove commercially prospective.

Perhaps you believe that news stories of positive role-models is just not that interesting. If you wish to adopt this argument, first take time to consider your own positive role-models, and tell me how interesting – or uninteresting – their life stories have been to you.

Based on my own life experience, there is little of greater interest than the stories of positive role-models – individuals who may in many ways be flawed and imperfect, but who have nonetheless figured out solutions to problems that are personally meaningful to many of the rest of us.

Therefore, let’s not decide that news stories of positive role-models don't work until we've tried it – OK? OK!

By the way – the role-models may be yours or mine. Just make the case that the person has somehow created a positive solution to a significant problem.

I'm probably willing to listen to your stories if you are willing to listen to mine.

And now we re-enter the retribalized global village – gathering about the community fire to share the exploits of the great people among us. But this time – if I have my way – these stories will begin to be told through the local, regional, national and international media!

It is not good news that we require (though that is certainly welcome). It is news of good role models that is critical to our cultural health and survival.

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