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  • Georgi Danov

Attitude Change - The Herculean Task Of Modern Society

Rome wasn't built in a day

We often talk about the role of technology in revolutionising and reshaping the modern world. Its impact is well understood and indisputable, but there have also been other forces, whose mark on 21st century has been just as significant, yet somehow more elusive in nature. I am talking about large-scale shifts in the societal ethos.


In retrospect, I can only describe 21st century so far as the "thinking" age. The main focus of society, primarily in the developed world, seems to have shifted from meeting our basic needs and putting food on the table to more elevated matters like pursuing happiness, re-thinking the structure of society, and achieving our full potential. This is a clear sign that as a society, we have reached a stage of development, where we are comfortable. This is not to say we don't have problems, but we seem to have materially gotten over the big issues of the past centuries. More people die today of obesity-related diseases than starvation, more people die in car accidents than war, we live longer than ever before, and child mortality is at all-time low. This allows us to spend a lot more time contemplating who we are and where we need to be as individuals and as a wider society. This has resulted in a plethora of social movements around ecology, the role of women in society, equality, diversity and various freedoms, which have accelerated in the last two decades, propelled by technology and social media.


These movements together are fuelling a complete shift in the paradigms, which have been set in our collective memory as a species for centuries and millennia. But while righteous and long overdue, a complete overhaul of our collective mentality is not easy or quick to achieve. This is because views, beliefs and attitudes are challenging to change, and it is even harder to do so on a large scale.


Let me ask you a simple question - how do you feel about ice cream? I will make an educated guess based on how most people I know feel about it and say that you probably love it, but must be careful eating too much due to the high calorie content and potentially giving you a brain freeze. It would probably take you a second or two to answer the question with something along these lines. This is because, you, like me and everyone else, hold a pre-formed attitude towards ice cream. Answering the question does not require retrieving all information, memories and experiences you have in relation to ice cream. This is the beauty of beliefs and attitudes (I will use opinions, beliefs and attitudes interchangeably for the sake of the article) - they are effectively mental shortcuts, which make our brain activity run a lot more smoothly and efficiently than it would otherwise. Curious fact, our brains consist only 2% of our body weight, and yet consume 20% of our full body energy i.e. it is pretty energy intensive organ even with such mental shortcuts in play.


How Do We Form Beliefs?


In order to understand why beliefs are hard to change, we need to start from the beginning and look at how they are formed in the first place. There are three broad ways, which I will explore briefly here.


1. Own Experience


This is the most obvious way in which we form attitudes. It comes naturally, without any conscious effort on our side. We take a bite of a chocolate bar, it tastes nice and sweet, so we like chocolate (positive attitude). We go to the hospital to get a jab, which for most people is a very unpleasant experience, and we form a negative attitude towards jabs and hospitals. This happens with everything and everyone we encounter in our lives. Such attitudes are particularly hard to change, because they come from our own experience; we saw this, we experienced that. If we can't trust our own perceptions, then whose?


2. Learning from our environment


A lot of what we know about the world comes from those around us, whether we look at our family, friends, social circle, or wider sentiments shared by the majority of the population, and thus, encoded in the national culture. Learning from the environment is multi-faceted, because it does not only relate to the logical validity of an argument underpinning a belief, but it also applies to whom the information is coming from and how it is presented. The "whom" point is particularly powerful. We give a lot more weighting to opinions and beliefs shared by people we like, value and admire. That is the reason why, many of us tend to share similar attitudes to those of our parents and look up to them and their experiences for reference.


To this point, I could also add celebrities, politicians and other public figures, whom we look up to. We would often take the opinion of someone we like for gospel, without questioning. If this sounds far-fetched, ask yourself why Nike signed a $1 billion life-long contract with Cristiano Ronaldo back in 2019 to promote their brand? The answer to that is - because his media presence and influence brought the company an estimated half a billion dollars in 2018 alone (with this rate, it would take him just over 2 years to pay off the investment). This is half a billion worth of sales only because many people like Cristiano Ronaldo.


If we also look at the wider context, we as social animals, tend to share the beliefs of groups we more strongly identify with. This is where popular opinions in our wider social circles tend to infiltrate our minds and stick.


3. Hereditary


This could be surprising to many, but research suggests that some of our attitudes are codified in our DNA. While it is unclear why certain attitudes are more likely to be passed down through our DNA than others, research suggests, that this is the case when it comes to capital punishment, right to abortion and attitude towards physical exercise, to name but a few.


The heredity aspect of attitudes has been broadly studied by the evolutionary psychologist Nancy Segal. Over the last few decades, she has been working with numerous twin couples who have been separated at birth or shortly after to understand the similarities and differences in their attitudes. From her experience, identical twins even when grown up in different families and social environments, tend to exhibit striking similarities in terms of beliefs and lifestyle, which supports the hereditary argument.


So, Why Is It So Hard To Change Our Attitudes?


The key to answering this question lies in the formation of our attitudes in the first place.


First of all, we are largely a product of our environment. While there are 8 billion people in this world and we are all unique, the likelihood is that people who have been brought up in a similar environment will develop similar attitudes. Every knowledge, experience and encounter in our lives leaves a mark on us and the way we see the world. The more of those experiences, which reinforce a belief, the harder they are to change. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I would not say you can't, but god, it is difficult. We are not computers whose memory could be wiped clean and record a set of a completely new information instead. This is not how our brains are wired.


Second, changing beliefs and attitudes is not simply a matter of pulling a logical argument in support of the new thesis, because the content of a message is only a part of the meaning conveyed. The authority of the person conveying this message, the way this message is delivered, and the emotional charge are just as important factors. We tend to believe people we like and question those we don't. We see messages through the prism of our pre-held beliefs and experiences. Consider the following example: I am a firm believer in education. My parents, both ambitious people, have raised me with the view that education and achieving top grades was the correct path to finding a lucrative job and hence, having a better life. As a result, for the better part of my life, I have been pushing for top grades at school, later at university and more recently, pursuing various additional qualifications. This is 23 out of my current 30 years, in which I have invested efforts, sweat and hopes to get to where I am now. The end result is, while I fully appreciate that education is no pre-requisite for success and it could be just one of the paths leading to success, anyone arguing with me against the merits of education would have a pretty hard time putting their arguments across. This is because they will not be arguing with me here and now, they will be arguing with the 23 years I have invested in education and with the views of my parents, which I think very highly of. This is a tough nut to crack.


Third, to elaborate on the "whom" the message is coming from point, an interesting research was done back in 2004 around the George Bush vs John Kerry presidential elections. Supporters of each candidate were given seemingly contradictory statements by both candidates. Then, each participant was asked whether they noticed any inconsistencies in the statements made by either of the candidates, while under a MRI scan. Probably unsurprisingly at this point, the candidates managed to identify the inconsistencies in the statement of their less preferred candidate, but not in that of their favourite. The MRI scans revealed that this is because the emotional centres of the brain remained inactive in the first case, allowing the candidate to logically evaluate the statement, but not in the second case. This goes to show how logical arguments can remain unregistered when in relation to a person we like, because we are emotionally charged by our preferences towards this person.


Fourth, curiously enough, some scientists suggest that we have a very hard time even registering opposing views to our own. A research, performed by University College London, in collaboration with other UK and US universities, studied the brain activity of people, when exposed to supporting or contradictory views by other people. It is curious that when others' opinions did not match that of the subjects studied, the particular part of the brain, responsible for considering other people's opinions did not register any activity. The conflicting opinions never registered in the brain. It goes in one ear and out of the other. This could explain a lot about all those arguments, when we thought we were making an excellent case, and yet the other party would not budge.


So, What Does that Mean?


When we bring all the above together, it becomes pretty evident that logic alone is not sufficient to change one's perceptions and attitudes, let alone doing so on a mass scale. We are a walking storage of experiences, beliefs and attitudes, which we have been forming and harbouring for years. Changing these is challenging, to say the least. We have the technology to instantly reach millions or even billions of people worldwide, but there is no technology (yet), which could change one's mind overnight.


Yet, we are extraordinary beings. We are capable of change and improvement, just these do not happen easily or overnight. It will take years if not decades for large scale changes in the paradigm to take hold, but if I could quote John F. Kennedy, "Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try".


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