Saturday, October 16, 2010

To change a person

I remember when I was making my radio documentary on Falun Gong, the strange new religious movement banned in China, one of the practitioners said something that stuck with me. Zhao Ming was describing the miraculous changes, biological and behavioural, that supposedly occurred in Falun Gong practitioners:

In society, in anyone's life, what's most difficult thing? The most difficult thing is to change a person.... How to change a person from cancer, from addictions to bad habit. But all these are happening, just everywhere, all cases are like this among our fellow practitioners in China.

Ming's point was that decades of government interventions to dissuade citizens from engaging in harmful behaviour like smoking or drug abuse tended to fail where, he said, Falun Gong succeeded.

The most difficult thing
In modern societies governments are constantly trying to alter the behaviour of their citizens, with campaigns for road safety, responsible alcohol use, drug probitions and so on. As Ming observed, these campaigns have often failed at great cost.

In Britain the Young People's Development Programme was designed to reduce teenage pregnancies. At a cost of £2,500 per participant, the programme saw the rate of pregnancy substantially increase instead. The programme also failed to reduce drunkenness or cannabis use.

The British example is not unique, another study from Canada's McMaster University found in 2002 that 26 sex education trials 'do not delay the initiation of sexual intercourse, improve use of birth control among young men and women, or reduce the number of pregnancies in young women.'

Communist ambition
Much more ambitious and aggressive experiments in behaviour-control often faced similar failures. After decades of religious repression in Communist eastern Europe, the east European states were no less religious than those in the liberal west. According to Gallup's religiosity index (log-in necessary to access figures), respondents to a Gallup survey on religion were more religious in Poland and Romania than any other European Christian-majority country but Malta. West European states that made no effort to repress religious faith experienced collapses in religiosity.

Of course the same thing happened in Ireland as centuries of Protestant oppression left the Catholic Church utterly dominant while a few decades of independence saw it collapse. Meanwhile, well-intentioned attempts to reverse racial discrimination in the US with affirmative action may have worsened racial prejudice against black business managers.

Examples of failed interventions are all around us. I remember in secondary school one teacher giving an impassioned fact-heavy talk on tobacco use, explaining the known effects of carbon monoxide, tar, nicotine and so on. After this lecture a large minority of my classmates went straight to the school's handball alley for a smoke. More started smoking in the following years. The modern faith seems to be that teenagers, given information, will choose to make the correct decisions. I saw that this was rarely true.

Of course my teenage peers deliberately rejected top-down values coming from teachers or the government so the very act of outlining prohibited behaviour inspired them to embrace that behaviour. Even when information was given to my peers in thoughtful and unjudgemental ways many of them shrugged off the rational application of that information and still behaved like fools. Because it's hard to control people, and predict their behaviour to incentives.

That's not to say that incentives must fail, rather that it is extremely difficult to predict how individuals will respond to them. There are examples of success, like the road safety efforts that saw a 42% decline in road deaths in Ireland since 2005.

But too often education and top-down social engineering projects are seen as panaceas. Like the demand that 'the government should do more', commentators demand extra classes in schools to solve social ills or fines to enforce positive behaviour. I have even read people arguing that "citizenship classes" in Ireland would have prevented the economic collapse: education is seen as the heal-all!

Be sceptical of government plans to alter the behaviour of their citizens. Even if the policital will is strong, the application such plans is always difficult and unintended consequences are a-plenty.


  1. ...then what is the solution, Shane?! I think, sometimes, strict enforcement balanced with non-judgemental bobardment of information might work.

    Most of all, however, positive role modelling by someone close to the teen has the most enduring effect. As the old saying goes, teach with example. Teens really do need a bit of disciplining coupled with good role models around them.

  2. Hi Tahera, thanks!

    Top-down interventions can be successful, but the results are difficult to predict. For extremely damaging behaviour like murder, robbery or rape we still need to enforce top-down controls and punishments, but we can keep an open mind about deeper causes of such crime.

    ...Just be a little pessimistic about it. I'm not advocating a total cynical abandonment of law enforcement or of moral education, but rather pointing out that the effects of these are not always straightfoward.

    Have you read the two Freakonomics books? They are constantly talking about this: the weird and unexpected relationships that undermine well-meant interventions.

    On this blog I've pointed out several strange examples of studies connecting the dots between apparently unconnected things. The rise of internet pornography, some argue, resulted in a dramatic DECLINE in sexual violence. Who would have guessed? Yesterday I found a report arguing that rising divorce rates in the US started pushing women to the political left, as female divorcees responded to their reduced income after the break-down of marriage by voting for the Democrats and expanded social welfare!

    Here in Ireland discussion about the hidden relationships between different processes in society is rare, however. Many people still seem to think that all the government needs is the will to push through legislation that will change behaviour. They don't seem to realise that well-intentioned policies often backfire.

  3. As for teens, I'm not sure what the answer there is either. When I was a teenager I did not behave as so many do: no drinking, smoking or fighting! Why did I differ so much from my peers? I always suspected that the influence for my behaviour went way back into childhood and the good relationship I had with my parents. (And so, interventions by the time a child hits adolescence might already be too late).

    But I don't really know.

    One thing that does occur to me is the excuse some teenagers use for starting smoking or getting drunk: "curiosity". This is a weird explanation for this behaviour because it's so arbitrary. Why smoke out of curiosity, but not (say) snort chilli powder? :P Because the idea of smoking is already around.

    When I taught teenage students in Japan I noticed that many of the boys were rude and badly behaved, but they weren't vandals. They never damaged the school or wrote graffiti the way my peers did. It actually didn't seem to occur to them.

    So one way of influencing adolescent behaviour may be by censoring the flow of information to them somehow. Make sure that they simply don't think of doing destructive behaviour. Once they become aware of it, many of them will do it!

    But how to close Pandora's box again? I don't know, particularly in the internet age with facilitated flow of information, how we prevent teenagers from hearing about these things!

  4. Hey Shane,

    An interesting read that adresses this very point is 'The tipping point', by Malcolm Gladwell. Specifically it also describes the topic of teenage smoking and how it is that top-down campaigns do not seem to work to lessen it. One reason for this is that many of these campaigns try to alter the image of smoking. Stereotypically this image is 'cool and rebellious'. This has nothing to do with smoking itself though, but with the people that smoke. Simply put, it is the cool and rebellious people that smoke and they give smoking this image. Smoking won't make you cool, but cool people do smoke. Since they don't care what a top-down policy says in any case and thus keep smoking, smoking itself won't lose this image either.

    One of my own thoughts on this subject is that any policy to change structural behaviour must come with direct, physical changes in the enviroment where you want behavioural change to happen. For example: you can put people through as many 'speed-driving is deadly'-awareness sessions as you like, it will never be as effective as speed-bumps on the road. Another example: here in the Netherlands, prices for cigarettes have risen steadily over the years. There hasn't been any drop in smoking up untill it was banned from bars. This ban directly changed the behaviour pattern of smokers and thus altered their behaviour in a way that 'awareness' never could.

    As always, an interesting read.


  5. Hmm...hi,, I haven't read the Freakonimics books, but I think you make a good point about weird relationships between events and human behaviour. Some things will be predictable and some others, not so much. Hpowever, exposure does make a huge difference.

    You feel you turned out well because of your good relationship with your parents - my point, exactly, regarding role models! But I differ in any productive step being too late at any point. Mostly, consistent effort can bring some sort of change, however big or small, depending upon its approach and consistency.

    I heard about a video game in Japan which involves raping a girl on a train. Now, that is really stretching it! Is that really someone's fantasy?! I think this kind of exposure de-sensitises people to violence. So, I'm not sure how good unchecked online access really is.

    Why people/kids smoke? Role models again! Till just a few years back, all the cool guys on tv, films etc. were shown holding a cigarette in their hands blowing rings of smoke into air! Some studies have shown that children of smokers have a higher likelihood of becoming smokers as adults, so there! It is interesting though what you say about Japanese boys not vandalising.

    Human behaviour is the most mysterious of all things in life! They continue to surprise us, and despite extensive research we are still far from defining clear cut rules of expected behaviour in most cases, perhaps because so many definitions of cultural expectations and rebellious behaviour exist simultaneously.

  6. Great, thanks Matthijs, I must look for that!

    I remember reading that China's terrible opium problem was solved during Mao's reign. But the Communists were able to trample individual liberties underfoot to repress the trade, to an extent considered unacceptable in most developed countries. We have to do with more carrot and less stick!

    Tahera, I guess one complicating factor is that different individuals respond to influences in different ways. I read, for example, about studies into horror movies. They found that people with high levels of empathy were experiencing strong emotions during scenes of violence and terror, presumably because they felt the same negative emotions of the victims on-screen. Some of these people may enjoy horror for the suspense, the thrill of the chase.

    However they also found that people with particularly LOW levels of empathy appeared to be experiencing strong emotions too. Why? One possibility was that they simply did not care about the victims, but were instead enjoying the violence and gore, from the perspective of the attacker, not victim. One researcher called the section of the audience who enjoyed scenes of murder "gore-watchers", and as she pointed out "This is a group we don't want to get excited"!

    This must complicate any policies even further as what works with one individual may fail with another.

    I hope you're right, though, and it's never too later to rehabilitate people :)

  7. Perhaps if people were made more responsible for their actions they'd change. If students had to pay to go to school maybe they wouldn't wreck it. Do students in private schools damage school property as much as students in public schools do? I wonder. Maybe they do.

  8. Shane, this is so interesting. About empathy, young people are sometimes seen as 'chickening out' if they don't appear to have the stomach for violent movies/games. I didn't know it was all about empathy, and whose side one is on!

    Matthijs, I guess you and I posted at the same time, similar thoughts - though you are more eloquent! I agree with your point, "physical changes in the enviroment where you want behavioural change to happen" absolutely.

    David, I think you have a point: to the best of my knowledge, private school property is rarely damaged. Responsibility is a good thing.

  9. You know, one of the things that suprised me in Japan was my colleagues' attitude towards misbehaving teenage students. Everyone I tell this to is amazed because they have a stereotypical image of Japanese schools being extremely strict, but actually my school was not strict at all. There was very little disciplining of disobedient students. I had students sleeping, walking around, chatting among themselves and generally disrupting the class, with little or no enforcement from the teachers.

    Some explained to me that, rather than confront the students, they preferred to talk to them calmly one-to-one and try to persuade them to change their behaviour. I lost my temper with a difficult class once and shouted at them; my Japanese colleague told me later that I should never do this.

    This refusal to confront disruptive behaviour drove me crazy! I wanted to help the students who wanted to learn and I felt that we had ceded control of the classroom to the disruptive students instead. By refusing to confront their negative behaviour of a minority I felt we were letting the other students down. I was convinced that a more confrontational and strict approach would improve behaviours.

    But I conformed to the school's methods and tried to work WITH the disruptive students, not against them and at the end of the year some of my most disruptive students begged me to remain for another year in Japan. Had I gotten through to them after all? Had the unconfrontational method worked?

    I don't know. My instincts are still inclined towards a more disciplined classroom but the experience showed me that different methods MIGHT be productive too. There is no universal answer it seems.


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