University of David
It may sound strange, but we are increasingly addressing social problems with the recognition that human beings don’t behave rationally much of the time, or even most of the time. Recent research from behavioral psychology and neuroscience has shed light on the different ways that emotions, unconscious drives, group identities, and situational cues guide human behavior. (My colleague Tina Rosenberg has written extensively about this.) In short, we’re learning more about how people really work — and we’re applying the knowledge to solve problems. And it makes a difference. We’ve seen, for instance, that if we want to mobilize people to protect the environment, it’s probably less effective to issue dire warnings than to organize campaigns that tap people’s sense of pride in their heritage. We’ve seen that we can increase desirable behaviors — recycling or hand-washing in hospitals, for example — by changing the context so the behaviors become more reflexive or culturally reinforced. In schools, organizations like Playworks are showing that, if you want to reduce bullying, increase students’ readiness to learn and give teachers more time to teach, one of the most sensible strategies is to improve recess — so that it becomes a period in which children learn, through play, how to control their impulses and get along with others. In vocational training programs, we see that one of the best ways to increase the odds of career success is to teach the so-called “soft” relational skills alongside “hard” job skills. In these and other areas, groups are increasingly applying knowledge about how humans work. Like Enlightenment thinkers, they are being more rational about cause and effect.