Behaviors shape Attitudes

A fascinating write-up in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood on Saudi Arabia. The focus is on MBS, but there is a detour that describes the Kingdom’s efforts at deradicalizing jihadists.

Instead of trying to “deprogram” or otherwise convince jihadists that their attitudes and beliefs are wrong, they have them do mundane office work.

Nothing is stranger than normalcy where one least expects it. These jihadists—people who recently would have sacrificed their life to take mine—had apparently been converted into office drones. Fifteen years ago, Saudi Arabia tried to deprogram them by sending them to debate clerics loyal to the government, who told the prisoners that they had misinterpreted Islam and needed to repent. But if this scene was to be believed, it turned out that terrorists didn’t need a learned debate about the will of God. They needed their spirits broken by corporate drudgery. They needed Dunder Mifflin.

Absolute Power, by Graeme Wood (The Atlantic)

Logical thinking tells us that in order for someone to change their behavior, they need to change their attitudes first. This is why see influence efforts focus on convincing someone of something first in an effort to ultimately change the behavior.

It makes logical sense, but when you start to dig into the psychological research, it doesn’t quite work that way.

It turns out that if we engage in a behavior, and particularly one that we had not expected that we would have, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change. This might not seem intuitive, but it represents another example of how the principles of social psychology—in this case, the principle of attitude consistency—lead us to make predictions that wouldn’t otherwise be that obvious.

Changing Attitudes by Changing Behavior

This partially explains why veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to support those wars than the general public.

  • 53 percent say the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting vs. 30 percent of Americans overall.
  • 44 percent think Iraq was worth fighting vs. 38 percent of the general public.

Source: Washington Post, April 2014

Why is this the case? Cognitive dissonance.

Once placed into a situation (like the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan), to admit that it wasn’t worth it might impact self-esteem or self-worth. Instead of adjusting your attitude, you shift in the other direction and rationalize the behavior to alleviate that dissonance.

For the jihadists, sitting them in a room and trying to convince them that their views are wrong was fruitless. But putting them into a situation where they have to spend time working and churning in an environment seems to have the desired effect.

Their behaviors, over time, influence their attitudes.

They have time to reflect on what they’re doing. It just kind of happens.

Powerful efforts to convince or bludgeon people with information rarely works in terms of changing behavior. Instead, the efforts should be on changing the behavior which can then change the attitude.

Admittedly, this is much harder.

It’s easy to build a flyer with some factual information or a campaign to convince jihadists to “turn away.”

It’s not new information they need. It’s a different behavior.

Think of anyone you’ve tried to convince of something who was resistant because they had a personal experience that informs their thought.

It’s a fool’s errand.

But if you can get the same person to actually try the thing?

The behavior changes the attitude.

Creating experiences and situations where people are forced to behave in certain scenarios is more likely to have the effect you’re looking for.

Anything else is shot-in-the-dark advertising.

Image Source: The Atlantic (Lynsey Addario)


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