Zombie Hunting Tactics — Part 2, The Science and Practice of Zombie Hunting

‘Zombie ideas’ is a meme popularised by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Krugman uses the term in his regular New York Times column to describe “an idea that you keep on killing, because it’s a bad idea, but it just keeps on coming back.”

Zombie ideas are policy ideas that keep being killed by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentlessly forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda.

Policy ideas put forward by the US Republican Party are a frequent target of Krugman’s. He points to Republican’s in safe seats fearing challengers from the far right, and the need to tell Big Money what it needs to hear, as key factors that keep them shambling on.

Where are our Zombie Ideas taking us?

The popular conception of zombies is of ‘undead’ mindless human corpses, driven by an insatiable hunger for human brains, and similarly infecting their victims. For me, the elements of brains, mindlessness, infection and transmission are a great way to introduce ideas from ‘deep cognition’ within a popular cultural meme. I use the term deep cognition to describe looking deeply into how we think, for example through evolutionary psychology.

Think deep, keep it simple, and adapt from within.

I started looking into how we think when trying to understand the lack of effective action on climate change. I began to use and apply concepts from systems thinking, evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. For me, thinking systemically is about looking for root causes, and as illustrated by this iceberg model, when trying to understand what we see in the world, we need to dig into the underlying patterns, then structures, and then worldviews beneath them. Next we need insights into how people think if we want to shift what they think. Finally and most importantly, we ourselves are not inseparable from ‘the system’, and to be most effective we must open ourselves to transformative insights.

Put slightly differently, “The success of an intervention, depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” — Bill O’Brien.

People love stories. For me, a primary insight into how to influence what people think is to use stories. Our ears and eyes are our primary means of uploading information from the world. Stories give us the ability to transmit information from one person to others as a simulation that includes imagery and emotion. This means we have the capacity to generate virtual experiences, and to build neural connections through stories as if we ourselves had that experience.

When someone starts telling a story we become attentive and receptive, unless that is, we are suspicious of the storyteller, in which case our guard goes up. Naturally, we need to protect ourselves from being misled. If we don’t know the storyteller well enough to know whether or not we can trust them we make judgments based on how they look, dress and speak, and whether what they say ‘speaks to us’. We use many mental shortcuts to navigate the complexity of our world but these shortcuts can act against us as well and cause biases that blind us from the truth.

We are most likely to listen to people we trust, respect, look up to, and to information that fits our pre-existing beliefs. Our beliefs are largely formed socially and culturally, with the need to conform within our social and cultural context being a powerful force. Cognitive dissonance describes the feeling we experience when our values or beliefs are challenged, with the ensuing emotional stress especially strong when we feel powerless to express ourselves authentically. Our societies and institutions have been shaped over hundreds of years and more. Holding onto our values, and our belief that things could be better or different takes extreme courage and tenacity, and risks social marginalisation and ostrification. It is far easier to conform, or at least to mostly and outwardly conform.

Sensing and reacting quickly to a threat meant the difference between life and death to our ancestors.

Risk seems to play a considerable role in how we process and respond to information. We respond to emotional or psychological threats in the same way as physical threats — for most of us, public speaking produces the same physiological effects as being physically threatened. Being singled out and having many eyes on us is risky, far safer to not draw attention to ourselves. The right amygdala is the brain structure primarily responsible for fear, both ‘fight or flight’, as well as conditioned fear. People with conservative values have larger amygdala, while liberals have greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region responsible for emotional awareness and moderation.

Political appeals to our deep fears are worryingly successful. Politically charged labels such as ‘illegal alien’ trigger pre-existing frames in our neural circuitry. Such metaphors bypass our rational and intentional decision-making by triggering our fears or falling through shortcuts. This means we become susceptible to ‘fake news’. This is a really tricky situation because when we try to counter or negate a frame with facts or logic we invoke that frame. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff illustrates this principle by telling people “don’t think of an elephant” (you didn’t just picture a large grey animal with a long trunk that winked at you did you?). Just like building a muscle, invoking a frame strengthens that frame when what we actually need to do is invoke and build its opposite.

Neuroscience has established that brains have an amazing ability to reorganise and change with learning throughout life (and incidentally overturning a zombie idea that brains couldn’t change after adulthood). Pioneering neuroscientist Richard Davidson showed that meditation training can lead to profound changes to brain structures and circuits, and that positive benefits are in reach of everyone. As Lakoff stresses, frames — metaphors ‘embodied’ in our minds, are physically built in response to conditioning. This means that at a societal level the frames built for political means have a huge role in shaping our societies. Political leadership is thought leadership. Effectively responding to the growing challenges humanity faces means leading with positive metaphors and values, and reorganising our brains so we respond to each other with empathy and compassion rather than fear.

But as Lakoff also points out educated liberals are trained to use logic, they believe that if you just state the facts people will eventually accept them. While the evidence doesn’t support it, this is a strong and deep belief for liberals. Logically, the evidence also suggests liberals will struggle to accept that just stating and restating the facts doesn’t work, and that there no point trying to tell them the facts over and over. A point that nicely brings us full circle from conservative zombie ideas to some of the zombie ideas that liberals hold. Returning to the iceberg model, we ourselves are not inseparable from ‘the system’, and to be most effective we need to open ourselves to transformative insights.

Zombie hunting tactic number one is to seek your own zombies first.