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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Not in our stars but in ourselves

I have been reading quite a bit about change and how to influence change.  Just about every book on it mentions the fundamental attribution error-the inclination we have to attribute problems to the person and not the situation or context.  Successful leaders avoid this error.  They assume the best in people even when people are not showing their best.  Somehow they sense what is keeping people from being their best (their Superman identity) and remove those circumstance and allow the best to come out.  By believing that everyone has something inside that wants to do great and good things, people are much more likely to come around and start to act that way.  A positive aspirational message is much more effective than one that assumes that people are one step away from doing something bad or unwanted.  The fundamental attribution error however has been institutionalized in most of our laws and policies.

Individuals are held accountable for their actions.  Law enforcement doesn't care about why someone did something or the circumstances behind their actions.  Law enforcement is there to make sure the negative or the transgression doesn't happen-it is not concerned with helping people learn not to do the bad thing.  Laws are there to draw limits around what can and can't happen and are designed for the exceptional situation. Good laws are ones that most people already follow and reflect the actions most people would do even if there were no laws prohibiting those actions.

An activity I put into my book is designed to get educators to think a little more about laws, policies and their role in facilitating change.  Here it is: ask yourself what law would you break if there was no law prohibiting that action.  Would you steal? Would you murder? Would you drive drunk? Most people not all but most people wouldn't break those laws because of their own moral code.  Think about the laws and limits that most people do break-traffic violations.  These violations are usually because of thoughtlessness -"I forgot to stop at the stop sign."  Going over the speed limit is something people do regularly because they don't see it doing any harm.  Most people exceed it on the highways that are distant from residential neighborhoods.  Law enforcement even cuts people slack and don't stop people who are only going a few miles over the limit. Speed limits are more like a guidelines rather than a strict laws.  Laws are useful but limited in influencing behavior-they are better at containing or restraining it.  In a way it is ok if they are designed without avoiding the fundamental attribution error as long as they stay in a limited role.

When laws and policies are depended upon to dramatically change behavior especially when they try to stop things that most people already do, they usually fail.  Ultimately even something like seat belt use is more dependent upon people seeing its benefits and developing the habit of using them automatically without thinking.  Most people don't snap their seat belts into place consciously thinking,"I better do this because I don't want to get a ticket."

When you really look at how people change it is usually because of the circumstances, environment, the people around them,and the situation that they are in.  People adapt their behavior to their environment almost without thinking.  Most people behave differently in a fast food restaurant than they would in place of fine dining.  People litter at ball parks but not at another person's house.  These changes occur without rules or signs being posted in those places.  Signs can help if it is an environment where the cues are not so clear.

In spite of all the research on human behavior and change, schools continue to make the fundamental attribution error in how they manage students.  Rewards and consequences convey that kids make conscious choices about how they act.  Most kids who get rewards in school for behaving would act that way even without getting the reward.  The kids who don't get the reward and break the rule are probably doing so more because they are lacking some social skill or are acting impulsively -it has more to do with their developmental needs than their will.

Read a book like Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahnman you will read about research findings that show how suggestible people are by things in their environment that they are not even consciously aware of.  It seems when you read this research it is pretty clear that we are all somehow interconnected to each other and our environment.  In spite of all of this research "proving" our interconnectivity we cling to the idea of individual decisions people made as being the real source of human behavior.

These reflections reminded me of my college Shakespeare teacher who had a very different interpretation of him than most scholars and the general public.  He viewed Shakespeare as someone who believed in the spiritual nature of life and saw the growing trend to very everything materialistically as misguided.  My teacher thought that this was a constant theme in all of Shakespeare's work.  Famous lines  like to "thine own self be true" that most people today interpret positively, he would claim were statements for characters who represented the material rather than the spiritual.  "To thine own self be true" was something Shakespeare disagreed with.  Shakespeare thought people should to be truthful to others and hiding the truth was just a clever strategy to get ahead in the world.  Likewise the line the "fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves" was not something Shakespeare agreed with.  Shakespeare believed in the spiritual world and how everything included the alignment of the stars really affected how people acted.  Those who were in tune with the spirit and connected to others did the moral thing while those who just focused on their own individual self often made immoral decisions-what would be best for themselves not others.

After reading about the scientific research showing how interconnected we are and how our thoughts and actions are so influenced by so many things we can see or hear, maybe if you interpret stars to meant circumstance, environment, the interconnectivity of people with their environment, I think my college Shakespeare teacher was right and that Shakespeare discovered the fundamental attribution error a long long time ago-there is a lot to be said for looking to the wisdom of the ages for the truth.

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