“I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” – Kurt Vonnegut

 “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” – George Jessel

Most people want to belong to a peer group of like-minded others more than they want to accept facts.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. People need to feel a sense of belonging to such an extent that they will disbelieve irrefutable facts if those facts will separate them from their peer group. Fascinating, no? For instance, let’s say you are a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and you want to convince a group of Democrats that, say, requiring permits does not reduce violent crime. The worst thing you can do is tell this group of Democrats that 86.4% of Democrats believe that police permits should be required for gun ownership, even if your next statistic is one that indisputably demonstrates that permits do more harm than good in our legal system. (Obviously, I’m completely making that up.)

The Democrats – even after hearing your fantastic statistic – will only believe more strongly that the permits should be required, because unconsciously, their highest need is a sense of belonging to their peer group. By citing what that group believes, even though you follow it up with a statistic that refutes that belief, you’ve reaffirmed what they already believed rather than shifted their thinking. Changing their belief would mean separating themselves from like-minded people, and that is against our basic human hard-wiring.

So what do we do with this information?

I’ve just finished the second week of the Spitfire Strategies training and my head is spinning, even faster than it was last time. We learned about the “facts vs. peer group” phenomenon at the last session, but we’ve built upon it the last few days, and this idea – of cognitive dissonance – is making me rethink the fundamentals of our communications.

One afternoon during the training, we were treated to a precious hour with Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s science correspondent, who talked about unconscious biases and what really drives decision-making. The thrust of his talk was that in this country – unlike many others, particularly in Europe – we Americans are almost entirely motivated by independent motives rather than interdependent motives. Meaning, if we think something will better our own lives, we will be more motivated than if we think it will benefit the greater community more. For example, I will, with this logic, care more about the drinking water where my kid goes to school than I will about the health of the water in the greater Monterey Bay.

There are examples around this in both the left and right. “Gun rights” activists are more successful than gun control advocates because they make their case around personal liberty and safety and the right for individuals to bear arms. But pro-choice advocates are currently more successful than anti-choice advocates because the issue is such a personal, singular one about each woman having control over her own body.

Now while this priortization of individual good over collective good might be both disturbing and debatable, it is prevalent. And yet, the majority of our messaging at the Arts Council is centered around collective good. By our very nature, we connect people, we create gathering places, we inspire common dialogue, we strengthen schools, we reduce crime, we spark economic activity. These are the stories we tell. Less often do we talk about what it means to be personally engaged in the making of or enjoying the arts.

And yet, when we immerse ourselves in the arts, we are most fully present. When we are captivated by live theater, when we are dancing in a club or in our living room, when we are spending a solid hour mixing blue and white paint to perfectly capture the shade of a midday sky (and yes, I did that, once), both our hearts and our minds are completely engaged. And that is what it means to be truly present. It’s difficult to achieve that state outside of the arts, and yet we spend very little time making the case that the arts can actually make you feel better, make you happier. I can’t imagine a more personal, self-serving (in a positive way) motive.

But back to the facts.  And back to the fact that facts don’t matter. Perception is reality, and more than anything, people need to feel like they belong. So what do we do with this information?

The best part of this training has been learning all of the science around how our brains work, and what really drives our decision-making. And what we learned is that most people will simply never change their minds. And the more we throw facts at them to try to get them to change their minds, the more they will believe what they believed in the first place. There are people who will never think the arts are important. There are people who will continue to think being gay is a choice, or a sin. There are people who will deny climate change to their grave.


“Follow the leaders”, or “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” – Isaac Cordal, Berlin, Germany, April 2011

So, what does all the science say to do with these folks?


There’s nothing to be done. Lock a progressive in a room with ten channels turned on Fox News and 24 hours later they’ll only be more of a lefty. The same would happen to a die-hard conservative locked up with MSNBC – they will emerge even more convinced of their original beliefs. What we need to do, instead of trying to change the minds of the masses, is energize our base. Fire up our most evangelistic supporters. Get them to influence that wee 15% or so of undecided folks in our community. Don’t soften our messages in hopes of gently winning the opposition. It won’t work, and it will cause defection in our ranks. Instead, message with hope, with passion, and with conviction, believing that we are on the winning team (even if it doesn’t feel like it) and if the opposition hates our message it means we hit the mark.

What if our opposition is loud, and maybe even wrong in their (to borrow from Steven Colbert) truthiness? That will only serve to energize our base, and throwing facts or statistics back at them is a waste of breath.

I find all of this a great relief. Yes, there are times when we need to change the minds of people who hold great influence over policy or funding or PR that dramatically affect our work. To these folks we cannot turn a deaf ear. But if we can energize our base, spark a movement, turn some of the undecideds into our evangelists, and put great social pressure on those decision makers, we will have created a peer group that the person of influence will, hopefully, want to join.

Sometimes the way in is sideways.

I’ve got much more to digest, but as I barrel through the sky at 35,000 feet, finally returning home to my sweet little boys, I’m thinking about how all of this applies to us in Santa Cruz. My friends and colleagues are all engaged in hard work to make Santa Cruz the most terrific and enlightened place on earth to live, work, and play. How can we use this information to better make our case, and change our world?



4 thoughts on “Sideways

  1. Linda Levy says:

    Hands-on experience, engagement one-on-one, opportunity & access.

    And I have a great quote from an old artist, “Religion is philosophy democratized for those with no independent judgement.”

    I feel a great many people today don’t want to take responsibility for their actions – they want to blame someone else for their woes. Thus you get people united/driven by someone who gives them the answers – neatly packaged so they don’t have to do any independent thinking: pap. i.e., Rush Limbaugh declaring to unemployed “Americans” the reason they don’t have jobs is that the ______________ (fill in the blank) have emigrated into the US and taken all their jobs.

    So maybe decide on a campaign that can’t be easily refuted – something that everyone really wants: “Art makes you a happier, healthier person. Get Art, Get Happy, Get Healthy”. Highlight (weekly) a story about a local person illustrating this, and along with this, advertise art classes, art experience opportunities, involvement opportunities.
    My 2 cents.

  2. Michelle Williams says:

    Great idea, Linda. I love “Get Art, Get Happy!” Interesting, isn’t it, that we don’t always want to engage in independent thinking, and yet, we are independently motivated.

  3. Thanks Michelle. I’m with you about the importance of nurturing and strengthening our base. I’m here in Lahore, Pakistan where I’m working with my friend and colleague Mohsin Shafi on putting up our exhibit at the National College of Arts. It is currently titled “Encounter on the Frontier.” I met Mohsin via the Internet and we have been collaborating for about three years.

    Riffing off of Linda, another slogan could be “Make art together: Get Closer.” So many things are so hard and seemingly impossible in our world. Yet there is always the frontier. Yes the Internet is our “wild wild west” these days, but the true frontier is the fear of intimacy. I think art making in all of its forms scares many because it can be so honest and so visible. Yet the arts do have a remarkable potential to draw people in.

    There is nothing like the call to prayer here and in other Muslim countries. I am so moved by the sound and the movement of those surrendering before the infinite. j wonder about how this can be applied. Is there a call to art making and art receiving, a song that will bring us further inward so that we can be further out and closer to those we think we know and those who we think we don’t know?

  4. Michelle Williams says:

    Andrew, what a thoughtful response. And I couldn’t agree with you more. Art making and art receiving, as you call it, are such clear paths to intimacy, and I wish more people understood that, and that more people employed the arts (and appreciated their potential) in such a way. And – how fantastic – a “call to artmaking” – I look forward to exploring how we can use that in our messaging. So powerful.

    I’d love to hear more about your travels and adventures when you return, and have been meaning to call you for ages to see if I could come visit your studio. Perhaps when you return?

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