Behaviour Change, Social Decision Making

Opening Isinbayeva’s mind

Minds are like parachutes, they say. They work best when they are open.

But actually most of our minds are closed most of the time. And it is extremely hard work opening them.

To the astonishment of most of her co-competitors, Yelena Isinbayeva, the world champion pole vaulter, spoke out yesterday defending the new Russian laws, which ban people from giving information about homosexuality to under-18s.

In fact it’s their astonishment that’s astonishing.

Building on the breakthrough work done in behavioural economics by Kahneman, Tversky and many others, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has built an impressive and persuasive theory about the nature of social and moral decision making.

He paints a picture of humans as “90% chimp, 10% bee”: Motivated predominantly by self-interest and the protection/promotion of small family groups, but also able to suppress [some] self-interest and make compromises in order to co-exist with other humans in larger groups that can compete more effectively.

Haidt provides compelling evidence that rational debate between opposing points of view rarely changes opinions. It seems we are all rubbish at seeking evidence in a balanced and objective way, to challenge the things we think we believe.

If we wish to believe, we seek evidence that supports our position. If we wish to disprove something, we search for the evidence that does that. In either case, we don’t search very hard. Changing our mind takes effort and uncertainty – two things we are genetically programmed to avoid.

Using the opinions and mores of those that surround is the most prevalent example of this predilection for idle evidence gathering. Ms. Isinbayeva, bolstered by the supposed authority provided by national legislation, presents Russians as distinct and different, “Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We consider ourselves normal, standard people, we just live with boys with women, women with boys.”

Jonathan Haidt argues two primary prerequisites for opinion and behaviour change:

  1. You must feel you hold a minority opinion.
  2. Secondly, you must feel that, as a result of holding this minority opinion, you will be harshly judged or censured by a community of people whose views have an impact on your emotional or physical well-being.

This suggests that until the world’s community of athletes – Ms. Isinbayeva’s peers and her ‘professional’ society – becomes more important to her than her sense of identity as a Russian, her views will not change (assuming of course there is no unprecedented social and cultural liberal revolution in that country any time soon).

If we challenge her and threaten to strip her of her role as an Olympic Youth ambassador, the evidence suggests her position will only harden.

We need to embrace her and convince her that athletes are a world community and have an opportunity – even a responsibility – to act as an inspiration to everyone, beyond promoting narrow national interests. We need to persuade her that she can share in, benefit from and promote the progressive values this of this young, dynamic, international community, because of the admiration in which they are  held by us non-Olympians.

We need to show her she can be a citizen of the world, not just a pole-vaulting Russian.

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