Okay, I thought I thought. Now I think maybe I don’t think. Problem is, we have problems. Like climate change, caused by burning oil and coal. Solving problems like that requires thinking, so I need to think. But I think maybe I don’t think.

What can I do? (More)

Who Does Your Thinking, Part III – Thinking Better Together (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has considered an intersection of cognitive science and critical theory, asking whether it’s true to say “I think.” Thursday we looked at the concept of frames as discussed by Dr. George Lakoff in The Political Mind. Yesterday we extended frames to the critical theory concept of cultural hegemony: how we often defend a cultural status quo even when it harms us. Today we’ll explore how to help each other think better and challenge harmful frames.

My Personal Space

I like my space. We all do. The question is how much, and being an American, I like a lot of personal space. I’ve visited and lived in other countries, and one of the first things I noticed is that we Americans like elbow room and open sightlines. You can see it in how we behave in a supermarket. We usually step to the far side of an aisle and look at the items across from us. Try that in a market in most other countries and you’ll quickly discover Everyone There Is Rude. You step back to scan the items on a shelf, and they step right in like you’re not even there. Can’t they see you’re looking at those items? And if you say anything, they Step Right In Your Face, just inches away.

It doesn’t stop with markets and how close they stand when talking. Look at their homes! Tiny little boxes with everyone practically sitting in each others’ laps. No space to put stuff down, spread stuff out. Two or more kids sharing rooms. Who can live like that? And their yards. They hardly have any. Houses packed in wall to wall. You don’t need to walk next door to ask a neighbor to turn their TV down; just open your window, reach out, and knock on theirs.

And their roads! Tiny little paths barely wide enough for two tiny cars to pass, let alone two minivans like mine. Which I need because I have to get to shopping and drive kids around and I need a car with space. Yes I care about the environment and I worry about climate change. I wish we’d stop burning oil and coal. That oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico proves we have to do something. At the very least, we have to stop drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, because I live near that coast and that’s where I go to the beach, when I go to the beach. Which I don’t because it’s crowded and I like my space.

My Carbon Footprint

My family have about the average per capita carbon footprint for Americans: too big. As I’ve noted before, it’s difficult to walk to even nearby shopping as my neighborhood isn’t connected to those areas by sidewalks. There’s no public transportation to there either, and only sparse bus service into the city of Tampa. We drive too much and too much of what we buy is driven here, adding to my family’s carbon footprint.

A lot of my carbon footprint owes to my cultural frame of Personal Space. It’s a deep frame that influences countless decisions every day, from where we stand in a store aisle and which stores we shop in, to how close we stand or sit in conversation, to what homes, furniture, and cars we buy. Most Americans want more personal space than people in other countries, and we often perceive them as “rude” when they step into what we feel is “our” personal space.

Our cultural frame of Personal Space – rarely discussed but always active – leads us to buy bigger homes on more land, so we more often need cars and want bigger cars, driving up our per capita demand for oil and coal and our carbon footprints. Some even argue the root of climate change and other environmental problems is overpopulation and that earth can only support about a billion humans. That might be arguable, if all humans have American-sized frames of Personal Space. So they advocate for an 86% drop in the human population … rather than question our cultural frame of Personal Space.

I can’t change my Personal Space frame as an individual. It is an undeniably cultural frame. If I stand closer to other Americans, they’ll see me as rude. My choice of a home and vehicle aren’t entirely individual; I have a family and they have ideas on where and how we live. What’s more, we can only buy from what is available, and our cultural frame of Personal Space has been mapped into the geography of our communities: common patterns of neurons linked by synapses, writ large into common patterns of cinder block linked by asphalt.

Individuals acting alone rarely change cultural frames. We need to think better together.

Top-Down Frames: Cultural Narrators

That we think culturally is hardly a secret to advertisers. Consider this reflection on Personal Space:

Note her dialogue: “Ah, the carpool. I do it for the open lane, not for company.” Her passengers are noisy but necessary baggage on her road of material, self-driven Liberty (the name of the vehicle). Open the sunroof and they go silent, probably because they can’t hear over the rush of air. But she has her quiet, and that open carpool lane. She gets her material, self-driven Liberty. And if her passengers object? I guess they should get their own material, self-driven Liberty.

We’re exposed to these framing efforts constantly, from TV to radio to newspapers to billboards to the ads here and throughout the Internet. They tell you a story of how your life would be if only you would buy their product, watch their network, vote for their side. I call us Cultural Narrators. “Us” because as a journalist and novelist, I’ve done and still do some of that narrating. But big corporations have big media budgets and their stories can reach tens of millions. They try to change or reinforce cultural frames – how people think – from the top down, and they’re fairly successful. But not always … or exclusively.

Bottom-Up Frames: Tipping Points

There’s also us smaller narrators. I try to change or reinforce cultural frames – how people think – here in Morning Feature, as do you when you participate in discussions here or elsewhere. Anytime you communicate, you’re trying to influence someone’s thinking, if only to let a family member know you’d like to use the bathroom too. The idea that we shouldn’t try to influence each others’ thinking is absurd. We must, unless we expect others to guess what we need or want.

While we don’t reach as big an audience as a major corporate ad buy, word-of-mouth is a surprisingly powerful cultural narrator. As Malcolm Gladwell found in researching The Tipping Point, ideas can propagate similar to the spread of a virus, thus the recent term “going viral” for some videos. When enough people read or hear and repeat an idea, the idea reaches a tipping point where it changes cultural frames … and how we think.

When enough Americans talk about the benefits of nucleated communities where we can walk or bicycle to most places we go, our cultural frame of Personal Space will change to reflect that. The change in that cultural frame will affect decisions we make all day: where we stand in store aisles, how big stores have to be to feel comfortable, how close we stand to each other, and the homes, furniture, and cars we buy. Or the cars we no longer buy.

Changes like that don’t feel like they’ve been imposed from on high. They feel like changes we decided “on our own,” even if many of us will have adopted the new cultural frame and made those decisions by unconscious reasoning. Because that’s how we think. I think.


Happy Saturday!