Photo of Occupy Wall Street crowd 2011 by David ShankboneOr: Why does everyone love Occupy Wall Street when they hated the English rioters?

It’s not every day that something useful comes out of an online discussion, but in this case I think something has.

During the recent riots in England, most of my Facebook contacts, who I had thought had a fairly liberal political outlook, surprised me by posting messages to the effect of ‘get the Army onto the streets’, ‘break out the water cannon’ and ‘hanging is too good for them!’ With a few exceptions, they turned out to be closet reactionaries.

Or so I thought… because those very same people surprised me again when the Occupy Wall Street movement started up by posting supportive messages and sharing news releases, videos and tweets from the protestors. What on earth is going on? I posted a status update to that effect.

It drew a lot of comments. One of the commenters wondered if the political mood shifts to the right when a state of fear is created (bear in mind that many people in UK cities had rioters on or very close to the street where they lived). I decided to find out what research had been done in this area, and found a couple of very interesting studies.

One was from April this year. A study by Kanai et al. at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that the brain structures of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ (I’m using these terms as they are generally used in America, rather than referring to the UK political parties) are actually different.

Conservatives have larger amygdalas – an almond-shaped structure in the brain that is active in (and triggers) states of fear and anxiety. Liberals, by contrast, have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that helps people cope with complexity.

So – conservatives are driven by fear and perception of threat and like to keep things simple, while liberals are more open to new information and nuance. This probably won’t surprise anyone, but this difference is supported by their brains being differently wired.

We shouldn’t assume that this means they are hardwired from birth, by the way. It could be that their different ways of thinking cause new connections to grow in those parts of the brain. This is known to happen with some other brain regions; for example, the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in memory, has been found to be larger than average in London taxi drivers, who have to memorize ‘the knowledge’ of pretty much every street in London before they can get their licence.

Other studies have suggested that right-wingers are happier than left-wingers (they are less upset by inequality because they believe that people generally get what they deserve) and that liberals are more creative than conservatives.

Another piece of research goes some way to explaining how people’s responses to political events can switch from ‘reactionary’ (as in the responses to the riots) to mildly ‘revolutionary’ (as in the support for ‘Occupy Wall Street’).

A study in 2009 by psychologist Paul Nail at the University of Arkansas found that when normally liberal people are exposed to a psychological ‘threat’, such as injustice or reminders of their own mortality, they respond with “defensive conservatism” by seeking comfort in authority, order and tradition. So, a liberal may temporarily turn into a conservative if they can hear a riot going on in the next street, or even just watch it on the news.

What’s the practical implication of this research if you are not actually running a country? Well, if you are aiming to bring about necessary change in your team or department, you need to be aware that the more stressed people feel about the change, the more resistant to change they will be and the less able to learn new patterns of behaviour.

As Appreciative Inquiry facilitators know, change requires a lot of positive emotion to be successful. So change is most likely to be successful when it starts from a position of building on strengths, rather than trying to root out and eliminate weaknesses.

To focus on the shortcomings of current performance, or to present change as a leap into the unknown, however exciting, will tend to bring out the change-resisting, new-idea-blocking reactionary in your typical staff member.

Instead, get people to identify successes, what they are proud of, and what’s already working, and improve results by doing more of that.

Politics, brain science, and organisational change

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