We humans do not generally treat one another well. Most of the time, I’d say that we treat one another okay — we try to do what is expected of us and try not to upset one another. But sometimes, as many are recognizing with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we treat one another reprehensibly. I’m not just talking about police killings, although they are certainly — and rightfully — infamous examples. I’m also talking about abuses like those levied against Christian Cooper, as well as about mistreatments that regularly deny people the dignity of fair treatment as job applicants, consumers, borrowers and neighbors. Sometimes, the way we treat one another is unequivocally awful. And only sometimes do we exhibit the kind of attentive, kind and considerate behavior that truly heals and uplifts.
I am a behavioral scientist. I do not conclude from all this that we are all immoral, irredeemable disappointments. Although our behavior may fall short of ideal, it is worth noting that our ideals still speak volumes about our humanity and moral fiber. Having spent nearly my entire career on university campuses, I have crossed paths with students and colleagues from a myriad cultures and have found it pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t want to be kind and considerate, and to contribute value to their communities. I will not dismiss this. To hold on to such aspirations when they have always been so hard to live up to… It shows us something irrepressibly bright and strong at the core of our humanity, and I cherish it. Intentions matter.
Impacts, however, must arrest our attention whenever they do not live up to our intentions. With over a century of social science to draw from, we are not helpless in figuring out where our ideals are getting lost in the translation to behavior. Choice architecture and behavior design, in particular, can help us dismantle the barriers and frictions that set us up for failure, like environmental cues that inhibit inclusion, option sets that obscure equitable choices and norms that hinder learning about and alongside one another. When we see that directly changing attitudes is hard and slow, our literal and metaphorical shouts to “go faster!” can be valuable for both catharsis and keeping focus on our goals; but it is what we do with that focus that creates robust change.
Each of us can make progress today.
If you don’t know how, you can nudge yourself forward with some easy first steps, like:
- Asking after acquaintances who may be most affected by recent and chronic racial injustice, sexual harassment and other forms of identity-based abuse. Put a Post-It reminder on your computer to pause and make space for a genuine check-in before you launch into that next Zoom chat.
- Better acquaint yourself with the views and experiences of people with whom you are less familiar. Rather than wait for someone to recommend a book or movie that might help you start appreciating a different culture, put a “watch list” together and solicit relevant recommendations to populate it, so that they’ll pop up whenever you log in to your streaming service.
Further, to better navigate the uncomfortable moments that are virtually inevitable as we learn about things like inequity, bias and discrimination, it may help to give yourself some go-to guideposts. I recommend:
- Starting with gratitude. We often feel discomfort because someone introduces information or a point of view that doesn’t align with our own. Understanding how each of us arrives at these different perspectives can be a fascinating journey, empowering us to communicate and collaborate much more effectively with one another in the future. We can always be grateful for the chance at that, and expressing our gratitude can ground the conversation in that constructive mindset.
- Use the acronym ECHO as your touchstone. Start by offering or inviting an “echo” (that is, “What I’m hearing you say is…”) so each speaker can confirm or correct what listeners think is being said. Once the views are accurately surfaced, aspire to:
- Engage rather than flee, dominate, or shut down the conversation.
- Courageously address — rather than anxiously avoid — difficult topics, knowing that practice makes challenges less intimidating.
- Humbly invite your conversation partner to correct you if you misinterpret their views, and to help you figure out if you are expressing yourself effectively.
- Openly share, at your own pace, aspects of your identity and experience that you want to see understood, so your conversation partner can learn about you from you, rather than from what others choose to say about you.
Of course, these small personal actions do not substitute the large structural changes needed to architect social justice into our medical, educational, legal and other institutions. The personal actions are, however, essential to bringing those structural changes about. Big changes require concerted inquiry and collaborative innovation, not just in local communities, but across states and society. Because thousands or millions of people can’t feasibly make those changes all in one room together, this work must ultimately play out in many series of interactions among relatively small groups of people, sometimes even one-on-one. If we don’t get better at bringing out the best sides of our humanity in those personal, small-scale contexts, the whole effort falls apart at the seams.
This is why I find myself thinking so much these days about our failure to treat each other well — not just okay, and not in the reprehensible way that we have seen marginalized groups treated for so long. I know we want to be better than this, but most of us are not yet taking full advantage of resources like behavioral science to increase our chances of success. At Anderson, we are working to expand our efforts to maximize development and dissemination of those resources; please look to us for more. Let us all look to one another for more.