Opinion & Thought

In a rut

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I recently read a piece about the difficulties of getting people in the USA to use public transport, in the way that is quite normal in Europe. There is a growing realisation amongst more thoughtful types in North America that their current mobility model, based on heavy car and air use, is not sustainable. A couple of states are toying with building high speed rail, such as exists over much of Europe and Asia.

But the problem lies making it work in an American culture: the way in which American environments and lifestyles have evolved means that it is more complicated than simply laying lines. The writer of the article described it as a cultural matter.

This got me thinking about the effects of such things – and it became apparent that this is a deeper and wider problem than one might credit. I would go so far as to extend the name to cultural inertia.

In the case of rail travel in the U.S., the need for action on reducing emissions, congestion, oil dependence and more is at least established as a good idea – but what people are doing about it is another matter. It seems that their established cultural norms make it much harder to effect fundamental changes than it might seem. Somewhere deep in the mind, those pre-existing patterns are strongly wired – and no amount of enlightened thinking seems to have much of an impact when it comes to changing them.

Part of this is, I suggest, confirmation bias: people find all sorts of rationales (some more plausible than others) for not changing their behaviours, even when they intellectually accept that they need to. I can find no other sensible explanation for the reason why one can see, everyday, many people still walking out of supermarkets with single-use bags full of multiple-packaged items. Surely there can be no one left who is ignorant of the problem?

Almost everywhere you look, it seems that the same problem exists: despite decades of information about healthy eating, fast and pre-prepared food remains dominant; in Britain too, people still sit for hours in huge traffic jams, even though they know that they are part of the problem with still-high car use. They rationalise (not entirely without reason) that the alternatives are not there. And at a different level, we are still building green-field retail and housing developments that will only perpetuate the problem, as well as leading to the decline of traditional town centres – that people then protest loudly about.

One could go on and on: despite warnings about unhealthy lifestyles, people are still largely glued to their T.V.s, and mobile phones. And it comes into matters of taste too: despite decades of home improvement shows, the average British home still remains a practical and aesthetic nightmare; the nation’s general aesthetic sense is no better either. While it is hard to argue against people’s right to make the choices they wish, that does not necessarily mean that the psychological mechanisms they use for making them are sound. I suggest that in many cases, confirmation bias, inertia and copied behaviour are the most powerful factors, particularly early-life conditioning, rather than any even vaguely rigorous attempt really to think things through. Research has suggested that even matters like the perceived comfort of seating is culturally conditioned.

This is not entirely without explanation: the brain occupies 2% of the body mass but consumes 20% of its energy: thinking is quite literally hard work, and as psychologists like Daniel Kahneman have shown, many brains simply can’t be bothered with anything more than amygdala-generated gut reaction. Quite where this gets us in evolutionary terms is unclear!

It is of course entirely possible to turn the argument on its head by claiming that other people’s meat is just as much my poison as the converse. But there is an asymmetry to that argument: it is one thing to have tried and rejected, and quite something else never to have tried in the first place. The latter amounts to nothing more than sticking to the tired old defaults, whereas it can be argued that experimentation and rejection is an entirely rational position since it is no more credible unthinkingly to accept everything new than reject it.

I have an interesting, if unintentional little test that runs on visitors to my home: design wise, it is a complete rejection of traditional British style, being instead inspired by modern European design. The reactions of those who visit are interesting, from complete ignoring (studied or otherwise) through those who see it as a novelty and sometimes struggle to cope, to a few who are very enthusiastic. But I still don’t know a single other British person who lives in a really contemporary home. This is a topical issue for me at present, as I ponder the chances of success of a contemporary interior design business.

This is not to say those others don’t exist, and more importantly, there is plenty of excellent modern design in the public realm in this country which might influence people more widely – but somehow it never seems to make a dent on the widespread individual psyche. What’s more, it is interesting to note where people do take their cultural leads from: to my eye, British homes are more like American ones than any other, just as British food and dress sense is closer to American taste than continental European, for all that a sector of the British population purports to be enamoured of the nearer continent.

Not long after reading the article mentioned at the start, I came across a discussion of the best way to spend a Gap Year. One veteran of that experience observed that ‘going travelling’ is not at all the same as living somewhere as a semi-native for a lengthy period. Only the latter allows you into the local mindset, and only the latter can be expected to have a significant, lasting impact on the individual. I have never lived abroad, but I have spent protracted periods in some places, such that I suspect there is much truth in this.

And while I have mostly discussed relatively trivial matters in the foregoing, there are of course far more important issues at present, where the inability of people (in this country) to understand, empathise with and even evolve towards different outlooks is creating huge problems for the country…

As one who generally gives serious consideration to most new things I encounter (even if I don’t later adopt them all), it seems a depressing commentary on humanity that so much of it seems stuck in a behavioural rut. It gives pause for thought that perhaps ‘cultural norms’ are far more deeply and stubbornly embedded in people’s behaviour than the ability simply to change one’s mind might suggest. Even worse, I have no reason to suspect that in reality I am any less prone to it than anyone else…

Perhaps the only way out of it is through the passage of generations, whose base-line is inevitably different from their predecessors. But as we know, the older generation in Britain has recently stolen the chances of future ones of making such adaptations, at least in the direction of our near neighbours. Let alone my chances of persuading them that clean, modern European-style homes really are more desirable than over-stuffed, nostalgia-ridden British ones.

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