A thought piece on how to shape the attitudes of the masses – the importance of linguistics in shaping potential strategies
People other than Americans are also self-centered, and the phrase ‘Americans are self-centered’ has an availability effect so that hearing it creates the impression that they are the only ones.
Better would be to say ‘People are Self-Centered’. This availability effect kicks in again, and clearly not everyone is self-centered, nor are self-centered people self-centered all the time.
There is also the notion of perspective. Perhaps this group of individuals, either all or a number of individuals, believes they are not self-centered and are acting in a wider interest. And yet, the ‘other’ population would not think this if they did not see some evidence of behavior that is generally considered self-centered (such as not keeping a door open for someone else, not helping if someone needs help, etc). We need to therefore further refine this by considering what appears to others, rather than safely making any statement of actuality.
Another concept is the time period to consider when making such a statement, and whether self-centered behavior is permanent or rather fluid, temporary, or context dependent.
Within an entire system, only a proportion of a given population is self-centered at any one time. This drives us to use the vital notion of relativity. We are better saying “A proportion of people are or are behaving in a manner that appears self-centered”.
Why is this linguistic dissection needed? Well, if you are to design change programs to get people to behave differently (some people, some of the time, in a set of ways), then imprecise sweeping statements on current state are very damaging, and fail to yield decent results. These assumptions provoke extreme solutions to problems, or neglect problems that are right under a strategist’s nose.
Furthermore the key concept we need in looking at spread and contagion is the relative proportion of different behavior and attitude states in a given population. To inject a new thought or concept, one needs to start somewhere (ignition), and either allow following behavior to emerge, or to structure a response path in such a way to make spread more likely.
In my view Americans are not self-centered at all. Whilst some genuinely are, the largest proportion of the population is kind, giving, thoughtful. The self-centered ones are usually more visible than the rest (in consumption styles, loud voices, etc). However, in making a broad statement about a country, you would go for the largest proportion, covering most of a given time period. And so, just to reiterate… Americans are not-self-centered, and most people everywhere are not self-centered either. And let’s hope that does not change (and, just in case… as ‘hope is not a strategy, a strategy is a strategy’… let’s figure out ways to keep it this way, maybe make it even more considerate).