Driving Large-Scale Behavior Change in Politics

For years now, the sustainability movement has expressed the need for significant shifts in cultural values and norms to reduce wasteful consumption and restore balance to ecological systems.  Yet a major omission has remained at the most critical point in the effort — the role of political behavior in driving the entire change process.

It is urgent that we call out this problem and name it.  We must invest considerable effort in advocacy campaigns to shift political behavior if we are to stave off climate disruptions, resource depletion, and the economic catastrophes that will accompany them.  We must call out the societal norms of rampant individualism, the celebration of greed as the creator of wealth and prosperity, and the misguided notion that a society works best when its governing institutions are crippled.  These foundations of the “government is evil” meme are driving modern civilization over a cliff and destroying our capacity to provide for the well-being of our people.

So why is it that changing political behavior gets short shrift on the list of priorities for foundations, political parties, and university research departments?  How can it be that efforts are underway to address behavioral issues surrounding climate change, yet nary a word is said about politics itself?  The short answer is that the norms of society have been largely set in place by a decades-old conservative propaganda machine that allows its foundations to happily fund ideologically driven think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, yet progressive foundations get attacked for their “liberal bias” when they so much as sneeze a hint of their values in public.

This has got to end.  The future of human civilization depends on it.

I have been developing the theoretical understandings to bring about large-scale behavior change for the last eight years, after finishing a graduate degree in climate science and realizing that societal values and norms are the lynch pin that holds the status quo together and hinders progress on addressing global issues.  I realized long ago that having another physicist analyzing the problem to death wouldn’t change the collective behavior of billions of people.  So I left the atmospheric sciences department I was in and began to study human thought and behavior in the realm of politics.

It was this line of inquiry that lead me to realize that political frames set the stories we live by in our politics.  I discovered that many fields of psychology were insulated from each other in the various academic departments of our universities.  And I realized that our philanthropic institutions were missing a critical piece of the puzzle in their blindness to political cognition as the major driver behind global poverty, environmental degradation, and the panoply of issues surrounding corporate governance.

So naturally I have done nearly all my work without funding or institutional support.  I took the difficult road because I saw that it lead to a vital solution others had missed.  And now I am calling for everyone to see what I have found.  We must understand political thought and behavior if we are to build the sustainable and just economy we’ll need to survive and thrive in the 21st Century.  We have to lay new foundations for trust if we are to collaborate on the scales that our predicament requires.  And we have to transition away from the consumer economy that served us well in the 20th Century, but threatens us deeply now that we’re in the 21st.

Will you help spread the word?  If you know anyone who is working to address global challenges, please let them know that they must familiarize themselves with political cognition if they want to successfully design new institutions that serve humanity in our rapidly changing world.  Just tell them that we can’t fix our other problems if we don’t fix our politics first.  Point out how this year’s election shows that those who establish the stories of society get to determine how future events unfold.  And ask them if they really believe that a sustainable world can exist in a values vacuum.

I urge everyone to consider the importance of knowledge about the political mind as part of the tool set for building a better world.  Let this niche field of research spread to the myriad practical applications in policy development, communications, urban design, social media, open government, and so much more.  And help those of us who are in the process of pioneering this new field to continue our important work.

We can’t keep working in the shadows in this age of consequences.  Now is the time for innovation in the social change arena.  We have entered uncharted waters and must create anew in order to manage the challenges of living on a finite planet with six billion people and a new set of ecological realities.  Let’s be systematic in our design process as we build the next generation of institutions for human civilization by incorporating what we’ve learned about human nature throughout the last several decades.

The threats are just too damn serious for anything less than the best response we can muster.  And the foundational knowledge now exists for designing and implementing campaigns for large-scale behavior change.  We just need to put all the pieces together.  I’ve been doing my part.  Are you ready to do yours?

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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.