As any classroom teacher can tell you, every group of people quickly develops attitudes and a personality all its own. Virtually the minute a crowd comes together (a “crowd” being three or more people), leaders and shared values emerge. People often change as they move through their lives from one group to another, almost instantly taking up and shedding characteristics that naturally emerge in different situations. If someone stumbles and falls, one group will laugh while another will rush to help. What one individual might do or say when alone may be very different than what the same person might do or say in the context of one group or another.
I’ve often been in parent-teacher conferences in which parents and teachers seem to be talking about entirely different kids. A kid who’s defiant and obnoxious at home may be unfailingly respectful at school—or vice versa. A kid who’s inattentive in one class may be completely focused in another. In working with adolescents, I’ve often seen them magically transform from silly, fun-loving children at school to serious, mature adults at work in the community.
As the only child of a single, working mother, I was a community of one. I became fascinated by my friends’ families and how they worked. I was intrigued by how a person could act one way at school, another way at home, and yet another way when hanging out with friends.
Years later, as a teacher, I developed an approach to classroom management that often involved seating people in different parts of the room to influence their behavior. You’d be amazed at how differently, for example, a person may look at the world from the back of the room as opposed to the front. In working with students who had attention problems, I seated them with those who were paying attention—a technique I called “castling” and learned to use to good effect. Even working with adults in college classes, I tended to use group dynamics as a tool for influencing the behavior of my students.
For most of my career, I’ve been both a teacher and counselor, usually working full time at one job and part time at the other. As a counselor, I found myself specializing in a systems approach to family therapy: when working with a family, I don’t focus on who’s at fault. I don’t buy into a family’s beliefs about who’s the villain, who’s the victim, and who’s the rescuer in a family’s game of choice. Rather, I focus on what’s working and what’s not working. From that standpoint, family issues become problems to solve together rather than opportunities to punish and blame one another. Put another way, I encourage families to focus on “win-win” rather than “win-lose” strategies (which inevitably devolve into “lose-lose” situations).
In recent years—especially in the last decade—new imaging techniques have allowed scientists to actually see the workings of the human brain. We now know through scientific studies, not just anecdotal evidence, that people’s “minds” literally change from one context to another. The “emotional brain” (primarily the limbic system located deep in the middle) is entirely different from the “rational brain” (primarily the frontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to fully develop). People can “think” with either part of the brain—the emotional part or the rational part—but generally not both at the same time.
It takes time for new knowledge to seep out to the general public. Most people don’t know much about how their computers or cell phones work. We leave it to the experts to gather detailed information about complex subjects; in a society with free and open communication, some of that knowledge eventually becomes generally known and part of the cultural heritage.
In general, American voters don’t know much about the logistics of human behavior or how their brains work. I don’t blame them for that. Most know a lot about other stuff. When I have a chance to get into deep conversations with people, I’m often stunned at how much they know—often on arcane subjects—regardless of their background or education. (On one memorable occasion, for example, a young rancher brought a bovine eyeball to school to illustrate how cows see differently than people do—a topic that had never previously come to my attention!) I don’t expect everyone to know or care a great deal about sociology or the workings of the human mind.
But I’ll tell you who does know about these things: advertisers and political strategists. They know countless ways to get people to “think” with the emotional rather than the rational parts of their brain. (How else would you get practical people to pay three times more for a name-brand product than for an identical generic product sitting right there on the same shelf?) They know that negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are not only powerful motivators of human behavior but also highly contagious. They know how to use attitude, innuendo, and fragmentary information (or mis-information) to shape public opinion and behavior. Those who stand to profit from shifting the public mood one way or another may not always care much about the fine distinctions between persuasion and propaganda.
In America, as we found out in the election of 2000, even a single vote can be hugely important. As America goes, so goes the world. Do we focus on drilling for oil or investing in renewable energy? Do we send our troops to fight and die in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or neither? What attitudes do we adopt toward our allies and our enemies? These things are of immeasurable importance. I submit that an American citizen has more responsibility in casting his or her vote than does the citizen of any other nation in the world.
I have profound respect for the individual. I’m suspicious and skeptical of powerful and rich organizations with virtually unlimited resources for influencing public opinion. Never in human history have there been so many of those organizations with so much power to shape the world—to virtually determine the future of the planet and the human race. The odds have never been higher for being able to discern the difference between truth and propaganda.
Knowledge is power. Large corporations and other special interest groups have tremendous resources for buying and wielding knowledge about human behavior—resources no small group or individual can begin to match. That’s one reason why we need government to monitor how and to what ends those groups employ their resources. That’s why it’s a matter of so much urgency that the Supreme Court has given powerful special interest groups of every kind carte blanche to use their resources to manipulate the sentiments of the American people.
I don’t blame people for not knowing when they’re being manipulated. But now more than ever, I think it’s important for Americans to develop a healthy skepticism about what they see or hear in the media—to ask whether their fear or their anger has a basis in reality or is the result of someone trying to stimulate that reaction to further their own ends.
Now more than ever, and here in America more than anywhere, it’s critical that we begin to think with the part of our brains designed for problem solving. More and more, reason rather than emotion should be the basis of the public discourse.