I am therefore I think
On Tuesday I got the chance to get out of the office, away from all the “doing”, and join a group of academics at St Andrew’s University for a much needed chance to “think”.
The group in question were psychologists from various institutions, brought together by an interest in how the public respond to social responsibility messages. Having found that just talking amongst themselves wasn’t doing it for them, this time the group invited along a few practitioners (Amnesty, Volunteer Development Scotland and the Government’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat to talk about their work and used that as the basis of discussion.
It was a good idea. I was able to talk about Amnesty’s wish to expand membership and some of the challenges and obstacles we face in doing that (everything from the negative coverage of human rights in the media to a resignation that bad things happen in the world, so what can you do?).
It was particularly interesting to hear of some of the psychology research that has been carried out with focus groups, which can start to provide understanding of these trends.
It seems that, faced with a series of alarm calls about the state of the world and requests to take action in response, individuals have developed some pretty comprehensive defence mechanisms to get out of doing so.
One approach is to critique the medium of the message – “they try to manipulate us with these images of suffering, they’re trying to force us to do what they want”.
Another is to question the organisation itself – “they just want our money, its all about building themselves up”. A third is to find some problem with the subject – “that’s what its like in Africa, signing a postcard won’t change it” – and thereby conclude there’s no point doing anything at all.
Its remarkable how the human brain can turn the rejection of an appeal for help into a moral action.
Obviously the challenge for us is to overturn, undermine or break through these barriers. Its clear that people are aware that terrible things happen in the world, with 24-hour news coverage its not lack of information that’s the problem. But the knowledge-action gap is immense.
Changing the way people think has been done before – once the height of fashion, fur coats are socially unacceptable these days – so whether by building rapport with the organisation and with human rights, by highlighting positive successes or by providing actions that can make people feel good about themselves we can change the perception of social action.
Its high time human rights were cool – and understanding some of the barriers that prevent people from joining in is an important part of getting there.
And if you think that you’re immune to these defence mechanisms, then click here and tell me why you shouldn’t join Amnesty.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.