In my last few posts I have written about Johann Hari’s research into Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and what Hari learned about Anslinger and the start of the nation’s war on drugs. Anslinger held deeply racist views which he channeled into propaganda and drug policy in the Untied States. Hari was appalled by what he read, the common newspaper headlines about Anslinger’s raids from the time, and the quotes from the Commissioner himself. Writing about his research, Hari states,
“At times, as I read through Harry’s ever-stranger arguments, I wondered: How could a man like this have persuaded so many people? But the answers were lying there, waiting for me, in the piles of letters he received from members of he public, from senators and from presidents. They wanted to be persuaded. They wanted easy answers to complex fears. It’s tempting to feel superior – to condescend to these people – but I suspect this impulse is there in all of us. The public wanted to be told that these deep, complex problems – race, inequality, geopolitics – came down to a few powders and pills, and if these powders and pills could be wiped from the world, these problems would disappear.” (Underlined text emphasis added by blog author)
We live in a complex world and we all lead busy lives that demand a lot of mental energy and attention just to keep the lights on. We hopefully figure out how to be successful and productive in our own lives, but we only ever get a single perspective on the world, our own. We want to believe that we are good people and that success in our society is entirely within the control of the individual (especially if we have become successful ourselves). When we face great uncertainty and complexity which doesn’t seem to line up with experiences of our lives or the heuristics we have developed for how we live, we seek simple answers that confirm what we want to believe. That is what Hari’s quote shows.
Anslinger was building a coalition of like-minded individuals with racial prejudices who wanted to be proven right. They feared drugs, and found drug users and addicts to be easy and defenseless targets. Drugs became a simple answer to the complex problems of why some people became dregs on society while others became wealthy successes.
Hari’s quote points out that we should recognize this, but not demonize people for it. We should acknowledge that this instinct is within all of us, and we should not fall into this condescending impulse and turn around a vilify those who are vilifying others. We must approach even our enemies and those among us who are wrong and hold dangerous beliefs with empathy. We must understand that the faults we find in them are faults that we too may have. The only way to connect and make real changes is to recognize and acknowledge these fears, and work to demonstrate how these simple answers to complex problems cannot possibly encompass all that is wrong in our societies so that we can move forward with better ideas and policies in the future.
At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach or conversational sounding board. But our natural inclination is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other people’s eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates however, is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and help them grow.
But Bungay Stanier accepts that change is difficult, particularly because we as humans are creatures of habit, “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”
I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to move in a way where I am just a passive viewer and not an active driver of my decisions and actions. The habitual aspects of our life don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our day, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine and life. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be easily become a subconscious or unconscious habit in a way robbing us of a conscious decision to workout. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice I am putting my phone back in my pocket.
I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation. Particularly, he calls attention to the times that we offer another person advice without really understanding their situation. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find more thorough answers by improving the way we think about an issue. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying or if we are simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit. Once we build that self-awareness and practice it in conversations, we can begin to be more effective coaches and conversational partners.