Making use of how people already are

 

Human behavior is often irrational. We tend to focus on what’s immediate, dramatic, and emotional. We are drawn to what’s shocking and unusual rather than long-term trends. We are more interested in this morning’s dramatic death than the thousands dying of hunger each day. We are more interested in what Trump tweeted at 5am than increasing social inequality.

The media knows that and plays into it by making news into entertainment and drama. That’s how they get viewers and readers. That’s how they maximize profit. They too act in their short-term interest.

And all of it is from evolution. For our ancestors, it was important to pay attention to anything that stood out and anything dramatic, and they rarely needed to pay attention to the big picture or slow trends. It’s how we, as a species, survived.

In a democracy, we need to get people to pay more attention to the serious and slower trends, and less on shorter term drama and entertainment. And we can do just that by taking evolution and how people really function into account, instead of wishful thinking about how people “should” function.

If we have sufficiently informed political and business leaders, we can set up structures so that what’s easy and attractive is also good in the long term and in the big picture.

And we can speak to people in general in ways that work with the mechanisms put into us by evolution: Tell compelling stories. Make it simple, immediate, and personal. Show how it aligns with the values and identities they already have. Make it genuinely attractive.

There are two more facets to this. Some of us seem wired to look more at the big picture and think about things in a more dispassionate way. That too makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. As a species and community, we generally need many who are drawn to the immediate and a few drawn to the bigger picture.

And there is another reason why many tend to avoid thinking about the big picture: they feel they are unable to do anything about it. So we can add one more element to how to work with how people already function: Show that their actions do make a real difference. And make that too immediate, personal, and emotional.

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