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How “True Believers” Can Undermine Change

2024 February 11
by Greg Satell

Journalist and Puck co-founder Tina Nguyen has been doing the rounds to promote her new book, The Maga Diaries, that chronicles her rise through, as well as her retreat from, the right-wing media ecosystem. What she describes is a carefully constructed culture that identifies, indoctrinates and then promotes ultra-conservative media personalities.

Yet these efforts are prone to failure. As MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and his colleagues have shown, in their effort to create homophily, these types of echo chambers undermine critical thought by creating filter bubbles and diminishing access to information, which makes it hard to be relevant to a wider audience.

The truth is that lasting change is always built on shared values. We can’t just preach to the choir. We need to venture out of the church and mix with the heathens. The best way to identify shared values is to listen to those who oppose what you’re trying to achieve. If you only interact with those who agree with you, you are undermining your own efforts.

Humans Are Wired For Tribal Thinking

Humans naturally form tribes. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to out-group members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection, which explains how groups favor those who share their attributes in the hopes that those attributes will be propagated.

Marshall McLuhan, in his classic Understanding Media, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, described media as “extensions of man” and argued that technologies like the Gutenberg printing press not only accelerated the spread of information, but also affected human thought itself. In effect, the medium is the message.

Following this same line of thought, he predicted that the new electronic media that were emerging at the time would lead to a global village and people would be able to instantly exchange ideas and experiences across vast chasms of time and space. Communities would no longer be tied to a physical place, but intermingle with others on a world stage.

Yet McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history, as long separated—and emotionally charged—cultural norms would now constantly intermingle, clash… and explode.

Building Status Within A Shared Identity

The indoctrination process that Nguyen describes is designed to create a uniformity of thought. The pressure is subtle at first. Young students are invited to dinners with prominent people, told that they have great potential and a big future ahead of them. They learn to take subtle cues about what ideas and beliefs are appreciated and which are not.

Then, as Will Storr explains in his bestselling book, a status game begins. As the players vie to signal identity, group polarization leads to “moral outbidding,” a purity spiral ensues and the most extreme views are proudly displayed, creating strong bonds of group identity and what Wittgenstein calls a private language begins to form.

Those who proudly display tribal signals and speak the tribal language, get access to opportunities others don’t. Nguyen tells about being given a mentor who opened up job opportunities for her in journalism and would advise what stories to report and what angles to take. Slowly, she started to feel that something was wrong.

The problem is that the more we dedicate ourselves to a particular status game, the more difficult we find it is to relate outside of it. Top notch athletes, Special Forces operators, Wall Street traders and members of religious cults often find they have difficulty relating to others who play different status games than they do.

Differentiating Values, Shared Values and The Social Media Business Model

When we feel passionately about an idea, we want to talk about how it’s different, because that’s what made us passionate in the first place. People who go to Trump rallies vie for who can wear the t-shirt with the most extreme slogans. Some who start out with a desire to promote social justice and basic fairness can drift into a belief in a hierarchy of oppression and cheer on cruelty and violence.

Social media business models exacerbate these underlying tendencies by rewarded content that draws strong reactions. For example, when Facebook researchers created a profile of a white woman named “Carol” that was interested in politics, parenting, Christianity, and Fox News, she was immediately subjected to a rabbit hole of hate speech and QAnon.

Within the bubble, this feels good. People become religiously dedicated to the cause, the sense of group identity intensifies and the movement feels powerful. The problem comes when ideas from inside the bubble escape out, such as when somebody shoots up a pizza shop because he gets convinced that a Satanic child sex abuse ring was being run out of its nonexistent basement or a Cornell professor declares that he was exhilarated by the murder of Israelis.

Differentiating values are what make people passionate about an idea, but by definition they can seem strange, or even extreme, to others. That creates an inevitable backlash. It’s a simple truth that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution. To avoid that boomerang, you need to identify shared values that can bring people in without turning others off.

Failing To Survive Victory

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the point that many of our opinions are a product of our inclusion in a particular team. Because our judgments are so closely intertwined with our identity, contrary views can feel like an attack. So we feel the urge to lash out and silence opposition. That almost guarantees a failure to survive victory.

I first noticed this in the aftermath of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Having overcome a falsified election, we were so triumphant that we failed to see the gathering storm. Because we felt that the forces of history were on our side, we dismissed signs that the corrupt and thuggish Viktor Yanukovych was staging a comeback and paid a terrible price. DEI leaders are experiencing something similar today.

I see the same pattern in our work helping organizations with transformational initiatives. Change leaders feel so passionately about their idea they want to push it through and silence dissent. But not every transformation is for everybody. Meaningful change can’t be mandated or forced, it can only be empowered.

But in order to do that, you need to focus your energy on winning converts, rather than punishing heretics. ​​One of the most difficult things about leading change is that we need to let people embrace it for their own reasons and in their own way. Some will never embrace it and will take another path, pursue a different journey.

The truth is to bring about lasting change you need to learn to love your haters. They’re the ones who can help alert you to early flaws, which gives you the opportunity to fix them before they can do serious damage. They can also help you to identify shared values that can help you communicate more effectively and also design dilemmas that will send people your way.

The best place to start is with a problem that people actually want solved, that can be pursued with a sense of shared values and shared purpose. Change that lasts is always built on common ground. The secret to bringing about large-scale change is understanding you don’t have to bring in everyone at once,  just enough to help you get to the tipping point where you can unlock a cascade.

Change is about collective dynamics, not persuasion. or snappy slogans In fact, the urge to persuade is a red flag. It usually means you either have the wrong change or the wrong people. That’s why you want to start out with a problem that people want solved, that can be pursued with shared values and shared purpose.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash


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