Photo by the New York Library

The last four years in the US have been called by some a “post-fact era” and recent events around the pandemic and 2020 election have revealed how powerful our beliefs can be. When we live unexamined lives, running on autopilot, our entrenched ideas about ourselves and the world drive our choices and actions more than reality. Whether we behave according to our personal values, or even in our own best interests, can be overridden by pervasive cultural beliefs and the dominant norms of the society we live in.

Civilizations rise and fall on cultural ideas, not materials assets alone… Above all, what is needed is a transcendent message and meaning that gives individual existence significance beyond death, binds people together beyond perceived self-interest, and creates enduring and peaceful progress toward a common good. – Scott Atran, Professor of Anthropology

Research shows us again and again that our expectations about how “most people” think and feel play a powerful role in shaping our behavior. From a very young age we receive messages about what is acceptable and what is not. Our conforming behaviors are reinforced and our non-conforming behaviors are punished. Through repetition we create ever more efficient pathways for reacting in situations and relationships. Some of these habits and patterns may be useful, but some become rigid and inflexible ways of relating that can cause harm to ourselves and others.

One example of the powerful role of social norming on our behavior is robust research showing our beliefs about others’ contributions significantly influence how generous we’re willing to be. If we believe others around us will cheat to get ahead, we are more likely to act against our values because we feel we will be disadvantaged if we don’t. These beliefs are subject to error when we don’t have all the facts, which can cause our behavior to miss the mark.

An example of this is the mistaken complaint that the US spends disproportionately more than other countries on aid abroad, as well as more than we spend on aid for our own citizens. What follows from this belief is a call to spend less on foreign aid. As you might guess, the facts don’t bear this belief out. According to George Ingram of the Brookings Institute, “Opinion polls consistently report that Americans believe foreign aid is about 25% of the federal budget, when it is actually less than 1%. As the world’s wealthiest nation, the U.S. provides more assistance than any other country, but a smaller proportion of its gross national product (GNP) than other wealthy nations.” Not only do most Americans feel global giving is the right thing to do, research also shows it’s beneficial to our economy and national security.

Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you valueBorgen Project

Whether or not we act from our values can also depend on situation and context. Such factors include whether we’re acting in the public eye or privately and whether or not we’re in a position of power and authority. If you watched the 2015 movie The Stanford Prison Experiment, you know about Phillip Zimbardo’s controversial mock prison studies in the 1970s. You may also know about Stanley Milgram’s Shock Experiment in the 1960s investigating obedience to authority. Both these experiments showed that, under the right conditions, almost all of us will act against our deepest values. Fortunately, we can be awakened from the trance of our conditioning and reconnect with our innate goodness.

In the film, The Third Harmony, Michael Nagler, founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, tells a story of being confronted by police during a peaceful protest. An officer who was trying to arrest him was directed by his superior to break Michael’s wrist to expedite his removal. As the officer began breaking his wrist, Michael looked into his eyes and said, “You don’t have to do this.” This human connection lifted the trance of obedience, sparing his wrist from harm and the officer from a committing a violent act. The officer later thanked him for doing so.

You might be gathering that the unconscious disconnect between values and behavior can leave us vulnerable to manipulation. This is true for good and for ill:

  • The tobacco industry used rhetoric invoking American cultural values of free choice and personal responsibility to shift negative public opinion onto individual smokers rather than it’s own unethical practices.
  • Researchers found that couching liberal policies in a way that appealed to conservative nostalgia, reduced policy disagreement to statistically indiscernible levels.
  • Social norms media campaigns promoting healthy norms around drinking behavior have been effective in reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related injury among college students.

So how might we ensure our actions will more closely reflect our values? As a society, we are going to have to make a course correction regarding the importance of facts and norms of ethical behavior. If you understand the power of social norming, you understand the danger in choosing leaders who normalize lying and cruelty, immersing ourselves in nothing but stories of self-dealing and misdeeds through our news and entertainment, and supporting institutions that elevate the bottom line over doing good in the world. Mindfulness can play a key role in this course correction through helping us sustain closer objective attention to what is actually happening in our lives, rather than relying on assumptions, unsubstantiated beliefs, or wishes. We can investigate this for ourselves by:

  • Noticing and becoming curious about the contexts in which our emotions feel very strong – powerful feelings often signal what matters most to us.
  • Pausing before reacting so that we can engage our higher thinking in our decision making.
  • Keeping a calendar documenting how we spend our hours, days and weeks so that we can reflect on where we’re really investing our time and make adjustments as appropriate.
  • Keeping a budget, carefully categorizing our expenditures, noticing where we’re investing our money, and making changes that better reflect our priorities.
  • Carefully selecting, balancing and limiting our and our children’s media intake so that we have a more accurate and balanced sense of the world.

We can also cultivate compassion so that we can deepen our connection with others and the natural world around us. Research tells us when our social identities are closely tied to the global community (our common humanity), we’re more likely to engage in prosocial ways. It also reveals that when we understand and appreciate our interconnection with nature, we’re more likely to be good stewards of the environment. Through intentionally cultivating mindfulness and compassion, we are more likely to live in alignment with our highest values, co-creating a world in which everyone can thrive.

Resources

Armstrong, K (2018). The Social Dynamics of Environmentalism: How our relationships with nature and society influence proenvironmental behavior. APS Observer

Armstrong, K (2018). The WEIRD Science of Culture, Values, and Behavior. APS Observer

Jacobs, T. (2018). Conservatives’ Love Of Nostalgia Can Be Used to Promote Liberal Values: New Research Offers Leftists a Clever Way to Appeal to Those on the Right. Pacific Standard

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