For a species that’s more adaptable than any other on the planet, we humans are pretty bad at change. Put us in a situation where we have to adapt (and have no other choice), and we’ll do pretty well, at least when it comes to surviving. Give us a choice, however, and we’ll go with the status quo. It’s not our fault, really, because this behaviour, like many of the others we routinely exhibit, is a built in, evolutionary survival trait. During the course of our evolution the unknown often increased the chance of danger, and so we evolved to be cautious and wary of change, especially change that didn’t show a distinct, obvious, in-our-faces benefit (and certainly not change that offered uncertainty, even if something good might have happened in the future). Nope, for us humans it’s all about perceived threats now, not potential glorious futures.
Interestingly, this built in trait manifests itself societally. It’s called conservatism, and it represents, at a group and societal level, our fears about the immediate future. These fears are not rational, and they’re not thought out, they’re primal, atavistic and, for a long period in our evolutionary history, worked to our advantage. If you avoid change when it’s avoidable (and things are going sort of OK), then your chances of survival (at least for now) will probably increase. Because this fear is intrinsic to pretty much all of us, it’s easy to activate and, more importantly, easy to manipulate. And that means that our ‘leaders’ have been using this backdoor into our decision making for a long time.
Fear is an excellent mechanism for manipulation, because it’s so hard to argue against and it runs deep. At a fundamental level, fear is the primary survival mechanism for humans. We’re naturally afraid of anything that might represent a threat because our primary drive is to survive (and thus to increase our chances of contributing to the gene pool). Consequently, fear is hardwired into our core and the brain structures devoted to scanning for danger, and warning us of its possibility, are given priority over most other processes. The limbic system (or midbrain) isn’t just the origin of our primary ‘negative’ emotions (fear, anger, disgust, anxiety), it’s also quite capable of taking over whenever it thinks we’re in danger. This involves evoking the ‘fight or flight response’, a survival adaptation which includes temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brains that we use for making complex decisions, and which also uses the majority of our available blood sugar). When running away from a bear you need blood sugar to fuel your muscles, and you don’t need to make complex decisions. Once upon a time, this mechanism worked really well to help keep us alive – now it’s a major defect.
And, of course, humans have a big brain sitting on top of the midbrain. It likes to think that it’s calling the shots, so when your midbrain makes a decision for you, your neocortex will retroactively modify your experience of this ‘decision’ so that it can convince itself that it (you) made the decision in a reasonable manner. Maybe we convince ourselves that we made the decision based on a careful examination of the facts to hand, or maybe we delude ourselves into thinking that imaginary threats were actually real. Either way, we now believe that we made the ‘right’ decision. Of course it’s an illusion: we really like to ‘feel’ that we have control over our perceived reality, and so we make up stories to perpetuate that delusion.
So, if you’re in power and want to make people do something, the easiest way to do so is to activate a fear response. This deactivates a people’s ability to think clearly, and ensures that they then rationalise an overly simplistic (fear-based) decision into their own beliefs. Something very like this is going on right now in Australia – our government has manufactured a ‘crisis’ out of the (perpetual) goings on in the Middle East, and because we find it hard to be frightened of an abstract issue halfway across the planet, they have (cleverly) brought those fears closer to home, inventing a local threat with a specific face, and then committing a lot of money, air time, and spin to ensuring that we get the message. It’s classic, even textbook, social manipulation.
But I digress from my initial intent. A few weeks ago, the people of Scotland voted in a referendum for independence from the United Kingdom. The ‘Yes’ campaign attempted to argue for independence based on a message of hope for the future. They advocated the position that Scotland had an opportunity to move forward as a nation, independent of remote governance. They argued that, independent of Westminster and England, Scotland had the chance to reinvent itself as a true 21st-century country. Of course they were doomed to fail.
They failed not because their message wasn’t valid, and not because the people of Scotland weren’t proud of their country. They failed to gain independence because the “No” campaign did what all no campaigns and conservatives have always done, they hacked into the fear centres of the Scottish population. The No campaign preyed on vulnerability to fear by laying out all the worst-case possible future scenarios (it had to be worst-case in order to exaggerate and maximise the fear response – reasonableness is not part of a no campaign), and then comparing them to the status-quo. In doing so, they bypassed many people’s ability to hope, and replaced it with a fear of ‘what if’. This insidious approach instills doubt, by activating a fear response, and then allows people to rationalise their fear to ensure that they feel in control. So despite the fact that many Scots initially hoped for an independent future, this hope was killed off by the perception that something might go wrong in, and replaced with fear. And because we all like to believe we’re in control, the fear was quickly replaced by scepticism, based on the rationalisation that change just wasn’t a good idea, that they were better off sticking with what they knew, because it’s all about (the illusion of) temporary stability.
Nevertheless, it does amaze me that, despite the effective fear campaign, 45% of the country still voted for independence. To my mind, this suggests that the desire for change was actually extremely strong, but the fear of change swayed just enough people at just the wrong time (which is exactly how a fear campaign works).
The outcome of the referendum is a blow for many Scots, but it represents something a lot more dangerous than their lack of independence. The fact that a nation as proud and independent-minded as the Scots can be manipulated into giving away their one chance for independence in 300 years, is highly representative of our dangerous ‘backdoor’ fear hack. It’s a symptom of our evolutionary programming to avoid the risk associated with change. And this defect, and its political manifestation as conservatism, is going to kill us all.
Humans are built for a limited timeframe. We’re not equipped to take in or process large amounts of data, and our pattern-recognition abilities are fine-tuned for local, small-scale, short-timeframe, survival-based decisions. We simply can’t conceive of something that we can’t see (or imagine) in real time. This is why so many people deny that climate change is happening – it just doesn’t compute at a human level, and we will pretty much always discount external knowledge for our own intuition. So when we experience a cold winter, we tell ourselves that global warming is a myth; it’s not local or immediate enough to activate a fear response. When it comes to big stuff, humans react too little, too late – we don’t do anything until we’re afraid, and then we only embrace change when we don’t see an alternative. This is why it’s a hell of a lot easier for the Australian Prime Minister to score political brownie points by engaging in a fictional ‘war on terror’, than it is for him to commit to doing something about global warming, even though the latter has the potential to do enormously greater amounts of long-term harm than the former.
Here’s what I’d like to ask of you. Because you are easily hacked by fear, when this hack occurs your first instinct will be to justify why you feel uncomfortable. It will be comforting to reach for the simplest, easiest solution – to believe the spin pumped at you through the news outlets, and to maintain the status quo. Please attempt to resist. It will be a lot harder to question your feelings and to recognise that you have, in fact, been hacked. But the alternative allows you, our species, and the planet, a chance at something better than a slow death by stupidity. Remember that fear begets conservatism and conservatism relies on fear. It would be pretty awesome if you, and the rest of humanity, learnt to overcome our evolutionary programming and, instead, to make proper, rational decisions, rather than fear-based rationalisations.