If our beliefs have so much power to shape our destiny, how do we decide when to change our minds? Some beliefs we hold that used to be beneficial, may now be neutral or even harmful. For example the maxim “don’t talk to strangers” was no doubt good advice for most of our existence, and yet in the digital age we frequently interact with strangers to our great benefit. We talk to people we’ve never met that share our interests on Twitter, rent apartments from strangers on Airbnb, and hail rides in the cars of strangers via Uber. Now that we’ve found ways to digitize trust, the old advice doesn’t apply. Blindly following this rule would at best be inconvenient, at worst put you at a severe disadvantage to the rest of society who have more up to date views.
Whenever we do hold views that obviously run counter to our current reality, it’s usually because that belief is held by other members of our ‘tribe’. For example Muslims, Jews, and some Christian denominations still ban Pork. At the time this made sense to protect against food poisoning, but in the modern day we have refrigerators and this particular meme serves no real world purpose. Instead now it has another job: signifying devotion to your tribe. One of the ways you signify your membership to your religion is to not eat pork. By eating it that’d be a signal you weren’t that devout, and the group would behave differently towards you accordingly. Religions are an easy example, but usually wherever you see someone holding an impractical belief – political views, conspiracy theories, cultural norms – there’s usually a social cause behind it. So long as the social institutions policing these memes holds onto power, they’ll still serve their purpose.
The only time things really change is under conditions of uncertainty. To illustrate this point, let’s look at how ants behave when searching for food. They can either go out and follow existing pheromone trails where ants have been before, and tap into an existing source of food, or they can wander off in a new direction and hope to find a new source of food. If there was no uncertainty – if the ants knew where the food was and it never ran out – there’d be no need to explore. In fact for maximum efficiency you’d want every ant following the most efficient route to the food and back. However there is uncertainty in the environment. Food sources do run out. Most ants that go out looking for new food sources will come back empty handed (clawed?). So ideally if there was more uncertainty on where the next meal was coming from, you’d want as many ants as you could afford out looking for new sources of food. Studies show that’s exactly what happens: ants spent less time exploiting existing food sources and more time searching for new food sources under times of greater uncertainty.
The same thing happens to us. Every crisis is an opportunity to change minds, which is why most institutions are formed in times of war or revolution. If a group is no longer giving you what you need, you start to drop the most harmful of it’s edicts in favor of another group that can fill your needs. This is why terrorist groups ‘under invest’ in terrorist attacks despite the outsized damage they cause. The material costs for constructing a bomb are estimated to be around $200, and FATF estimated that the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 had direct costs of $95,273.9 – if you can cause 100,000x more damage to your enemy than it cost you, why wouldn’t you make that trade all day every day? Studies show that members of terrorist groups join not for the cause, but to maintain or develop social relationships with other members. They’re disaffected, lonely men looking for male bonding. In a Turkish study of 1,100 terrorists interviewed, members were 10 times more likely to say that they joined the terrorist organization “because their friends were members” than because of the ‘ideology’ of the group. Terrorist attacks are extremely rare – you’re more likely to die by being attacked by an animal – and Blow up too many of their friends and you’ll lose members, not enough of them and you lose the social cohesion that comes from a threat to the group.
This surprising finding hints at a potential solution: replacing the social benefits of terrorist group membership with better options. After Palestine achieved UN special observer status, the PLO decided that Black September, their most feared elite terrorist unit, had served it’s purpose. Killing or imprisoning their most loyal soldiers would be a betrayal, but they couldn’t be allowed to continue committing atrocities: it would put at risk all they had achieved. They arrived at a creative solution: marry them off! A senior general arranged for hundreds of beautiful women volunteers to come to Beirut, and told the Black Septemberists they’d be given $3,000, an apartment, and a PLO job in a nonviolent capacity, if they married any of these women, plus a further $5,000 bonus if they had a baby within a year. Without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family: the program was a resounding success. There were similar encouraging results in Northern Ireland where they rehabilitated prisoners by allowing visitation periods to care for elderly or sick family members: supporting the family superseded supporting the IRA. So if you’re looking to change minds, you need to find a situation where a sudden shift is causing uncertainty, i.e. ‘the ants are looking for food’, and be the more palatable option. Whenever an institution is crumbling, or a group’s memes have gotten too harmful to continue committing to, or where a group leader has lost credibility, that’s the time to interject with new memes and ideas. “Chaos is a ladder”.
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