“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
(Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi)
A. Mental Models
One of the most powerful ways to denaturalize the culture of adversarialism is to change its old ‘mental models’ for new ‘conceptual frameworks’.1 A mental model is an inner map of reality, which we design in order to work with that reality in our minds. They include assumptions, beliefs, generalizations, prejudices, etc. that we assimilate from the time we are born, through the cultural codes that we constantly receive from our social environment. Forming mental models arises from the human need for understanding, for without them, we would not understand our world.
Adopting mental models is not a conscious process. We are usually not aware of having formed models of reality. That is why we tend to assume that reality and our thoughts about it are the same thing. Although they are only maps, we confuse them with the territory. Just as fish do not know they are in water until they come out of it, we do not know that our perceptions of the world are culturally determined and only one way to see it until we leave our cultural environment and learn to see the world from another angle. This is part of the process of denaturalizing our culture.
Mental models are not limited to how we think, but also determine the way we act in the world. Whether or not we are aware of it, the fact is that we act according to our mental models. They are like the computer program that is quietly working behind the operations your computer carries out. In order to change those operations, you would have to change the computer program. Likewise, in order to change people’s behavior, first you need to change their mental models.
1. The Power of Mental Models
The mental models that most need questioning include those that support the notion that human beings are aggressive and selfish by nature. These are complemented by mental models of society that accept aggression, egocentrism and competition as normal and ignore the abundant evidence showing that the advancement of civilization throughout history has been based on cooperation. These prevalent mental models regarding the nature of man and society have given rise to attitudes and behaviors that are no longer useful in today’s interdependent world community.
The work of Douglas McGregor [1977:20] in the field of management highlights the power of mental models and how they tend to create the very realities that they predict. He states that managers’ assumptions about human nature influence their approach to human resource management in the workplace. He maintains that all managers have such assumptions, even if they are not aware of them. He identifies two groups of assumptions, which he calls Theory X and Theory Y.
Theory X, the conventional managerial approach, states that “workers need to be motivated and controlled through direct pressure from management because they are lazy, lack ambition, dislike responsibility, prefer to be told what to do, and passively resist achieving the goals of the organization. Money is the only way to motivate them.”
Theory Y advocates another set of managerial assumptions regarding workers. It proposes that “when given a chance, people are self-motivated to meet the organization’s goals while working towards personal growth and development. Theory Y further sustains that if people appear to behave according to the characteristics posed by Theory X, it is only because the organization in which they work requires them to do so. According to this viewpoint, a manager’s task is to arrange matters in such a way that people can fulfill their hierarchically superior needs for self-realization and achievement in the process of meeting the goals of the organization.”
McGregor’s basic point that we want to highlight here is that our assumptions about human nature greatly affect the way we see and treat others. Furthermore, these suppositions tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies. In the case of workers, they respond to their managers’ assumptions by exhibiting the characteristics that are expected of them. That is why there is no point in recurring to actual behaviors to “prove” the validity of a mental model about human nature, because each model tends to engender the very outcomes that would seem to validate it.
It is wiser to reflect on the consequences of our models and how they affect society. This will help us understand how certain mental models have been generating the culture around us. Then we can consciously change those mental models and replace them with a new conceptual framework that will produce the kind of society we want.
2. How to Change Mental Models
People tend to resist changing their mental models. When we receive new information, we tend to accept that which confirms our mental models and reject any evidence to the contrary. Our mind tries to maintain consistency among its various concepts. When any inconsistencies arise, it usually solves them by giving preference to the older mental structures. This is due to a psychological phenomenon called 'avoidance of cognitive dissonance.’ This is an impediment to learning new ways of thinking and acting, necessary for socio-cultural change. Thus, if people are given two options, the first similar to their present view of the world and the second radically different or opposed to it, their gut reaction will be to accept the first and reject the second. This tendency can be overcome, but first they will need to recognize that their perception of the world is not reality itself, not absolute, but rather a limited model of reality.
Let us suppose that we wanted to change a block of ice from a cube to a cylinder. We would have to melt the cube, pour the water into a cylindrical vessel, and then refreeze the water. Similarly, our mental models are ‘frozen’ into their current shape in our subconscious. In order to unfreeze them, we need to make them conscious. Then we can reshape them consciously as new conceptual frameworks that, when translated into new behaviors, can be refrozen as the practices and habits we want. Let us wee how this might work in practice.
A starting point to become aware of our mental models could be as simple as asking what we think about a key topic, such as human nature or the role of conflict in society, for example. When doing so, we need to be genuinely honest with ourselves and not reply with our conscious ideal, but rather our unconscious assumptions. If this is too hard, an alternative might be to ask what most people around us think, since it is likely that their ideas reflect most closely those that we have unwittingly absorbed from society.
A second step would be to look at the behavioral patterns that these concepts have caused. If we act the way we think, how does my individual conduct––or our social practices––reflect these mental models? Do I tend to compete with others in diverse situations, even when winning would not significantly enhance my quality of life? Third, we can ask what positive or negative effects that behavior has on my own life and that of others, because the way we act has an impact on the world for better or for worse. Does competing with others damage my relationships with them, thereby lessening my quality of life and theirs?
An alternative approach would be to start with some unwanted effects, identify the behaviors that are producing those effects, and then ask what mental models are triggering those behaviors. For example, if I notice that my co-workers are avoiding or being wary of me (effect), maybe it is because I am being too aggressive or imposing myself on them (behavior). This could be born of a deeply rooted belief that people are motivated primarily by selfish interests, and that coercive methods must be used to get them to do something for others (mental model).
At this point, it is important to be able to recognize and accept the existence of inconsistencies among our subconscious mental models, on the one hand, and the higher principles we hold consciously, on the other. This step can be very difficult, due to the human need to maintain a certain degree of consistency among the different parts of our mental structures. At this stage, some people feel like they have had ‘the rug pulled out from under them’ or their ‘world shaken’, and they may even experience an existential crisis. In order to endure such turmoil, one should truly want to change and must keep a humble attitude of learning. We need to be willing to unlearn what we thought we knew and even to start out on our path again from the beginning if need be.
For example, a group of peace activists discovered that their idea of the role of conflict in society was such that they did not really believe that socio-cultural change was possible without entering into conflict with the political and economic powers. In consequence, their movement’s activities were centered on confrontation, and bordered on violence, which only deepened the culture of adversarialism instead of changing it for a culture of peace. As a result of the above exercise, they realized that they needed to reformulate their entire social discourse, from the terms they used when speaking of the issues to the way they operated.
Since the process of de-freezing mental models is potentially de-stabilizing and painful, it is important to go immediately to the next step of pouring the water into a new vessel: forming a new ‘conceptual framework’ to replace the old mental model. This is a conscious process of search and study, reflection and analysis, which requires a lot of reading and listening to those who are further along in the matter. One should also meditate on it and be open to the influence of inspiration. It is a never-ending process that requires continual effort. When receiving new information, one should compare it to the conceptual framework, in order to decide whether it is consistent or not. However, we should be open to learning and relearning all our life, even after forming a new conceptual framework, because our understanding will never be absolute and final.
Finally, we need to consolidate or ‘refreeze’ the new conceptual framework by translating it into concrete action. We should ask ourselves, how would a person act who thought this way? How does this contrast with the way I have been acting so far? Many changes may be necessary, but it is not advisable to try to achieve them all at once. It is preferable to set a few goals at the beginning––one or two, but no more than three––and practice them until new habits are formed. For example, a public speaker realized that his fight for peace had centered almost entirely on the public sphere, and set himself the goal to learn how to discipline his children without violence or aggression. The lessons learned from this exercise will help you to prioritize the next goals.
3. The Analogy of the Stool
We can compare a mental model to a three-legged stool. It is very weak and hazardous, so we want someone to move over to another one that is stronger and safer (the conceptual framework). In order to do this, we need to convince them of the precariousness of their old mental model and of the solidity of the new conceptual framework.
The first leg of the stool is the effects caused by the mental model when put into practice. At first, the person assumes that they are positive, because if not, most people would not be using it. However, once they become aware of its negative effects, they may abandon the stool. If not, it may be because they lack the reasons or resources to do so. After all, it is possible to sit on a two-legged stool. In addition, it is a logical fallacy to argue against a theory merely on the basis of its negative effects. At the very least, we would hope that the person will feel motivated to consider the other two legs of the stool.
The second leg, then, is the truth value of the mental model itself. There are several ways to discover errors in this regard. One is to find its internal inconsistencies, show its irrationalities, expose its logical fallacies, etc. Another is to state it as a thesis, in order to contrast it with recent scientific developments, and demonstrate its external inconsistencies. Finally, we can simply present the alternative and demonstrate its comparative strengths. (This is what we have done in the above sections, with the aggressive and selfish notions of human nature.) At this point, the person should be seriously questioning the validity of the old mental model and feeling attracted to the new alternative, but may still not be convinced that it is possible to achieve the change it requires.
The third leg, then, is realism: the mere existence of the mental model and its effects on the world (actual reality), the difficulty to visualize its alternatives (potential reality) and the doubt that it will be possible to go from the current situation to the desired one (procedural reality). This may seem unimportant, but it has a very powerful impact on people, being based not so much on logical arguments as on feelings: the fear of abandoning the shelter of what is familiar, the reluctance to leave our comfortable conformity, the uncertainty of the end result, etc.
This last leg results from the normalization and naturalization of the current situation, and is expressed in words such as “the world is the way it is; don’t try to change it,” “it’s always been this way and always will be,” “if most people agree with something, it is true,” and “has anyone put what you are proposing into practice?”
There are also several strategies to overcome this resistance. One is “historical anamnesis”, demonstrating that the world was not always like this and that it is actually a more recent and/or less frequent phenomenon than many people think. This is important, because without it we only know the world as it presented itself to us during the brief lapse of our life. This can also include a brief review of how the concept and its practices evolved, to show how people came to think and act in this way.
Another strategy is seeking referents or benchmarks: collecting case histories of how the new conceptual framework has been put into practice. This can include:
- other cultures of the past and present;
- ‘subcultures’ within our society (e.g., the private sphere);
- intentional communities and other ‘socio-cultural laboratories’ where the new setup has been tested successfully (e.g., the Bahá'í Community);
- individuals––whether famous or anonymous––who have exemplified these features in their lives;
- and others.
Once this final stage is reached, people should be ready not only to acknowledge the failings and hazards of the old mental model, but also to accept the truth and applicability of the new conceptual framework. The next step is to help them commit themselves to building the alternative arrangement in their lives and their socio-cultural environment, and to acquire the capabilities that they will need in order to achieve this.
4. Sources of Mental Models
Scientific Theories: When speaking of social change towards a culture of peace, people sometimes object to the idea based on pseudo-scientific theories put forth as a way to justify Europe’s conquest and colonization, and strengthen the myth of origin of the culture of adversarialism. Socio-cultural change agents with the requisite scientific training can help to disseminate the paradigm shifts that have been occurring in the different sciences, as old theories based on adversarial assumptions are replaced with new theories that lay the foundations for building a culture of peace.
Some of the main adversarial theories that are currently being questioned deeply include:
- the ‘law of the jungle’ and ‘Social Darwinism’ with its ‘natural selection’ via ‘survival of the fittest,’ followed by Sociobiology with its ‘genetic determinism;’
- human beings seen as mere ‘rational animals’ with ‘violent brains’ and ‘killer instincts;’
- ‘social determinism’ and ‘social entropy;’
- the ‘theory of conflict’ as inherent in all societies, limited to relations of ‘action-reaction' and 'domination-submission;’
- the ‘homo economicus’ and ideas of human motivation based on ‘rational choice;’
- war as an historical necessity, a source of economic, scientific and technological progress, and even population control;
- and others.
Religious Doctrines: Another source of information regarding prevalent assumptions in a society is the doctrines of the main religions being practiced in the area. Religion tends to influence a population’s mental models very powerfully, and should not be taken lightly in the work of agents of socio-cultural change. In this case, however, a word of caution is in order: when speaking of religion, many people tend to think in terms of ‘absolute truths’, unquestionable and unchangeable. However, the vast majority of current doctrine was originally established as a fruit of a lengthy process of analysis, reflection, questioning, and change. To help avoid religious absolutisms, then, it is useful to approach these different beliefs in terms of an evolving, historical process of thinking about them.
For example, in the case of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), How did the adversarial images of the struggle between God and Satan, eternal damnation to hellfire, and the destruction of the world appear? How have the notions of human nature developed, i.e., the dichotomy between seeing man as potentially reflecting God or as a fallen, inherently sinful being? How has thinking evolved regarding the holding of slaves, treatment of criminals, and the position of women vis-à-vis men? How have positions varied on dealing with believers versus heretics, attitudes towards other ethnic groups, cultures and peoples, and the possibility that justice, unity and peace might some day reign in the world? By answering these and similar questions from an historical perspective, it is possible to enter into a dialogue that can rise above the interfaith struggles that are so characteristic of today's culture of adversarialism.
Unity in Diversity: Another approach that will help create an environment of mutual appreciation and consideration is to see each person’s contributions, not as a challenge to other beliefs, but as a valuable contribution to everyone’s understanding. Just as diversity adds wealth and strength to ecosystems and markets, a variety of religious viewpoints can enrich our understanding of the potentialities inherent in the culture of peace. It is in this spirit that World Religion Day, established in 1949, is celebrated on the third Sunday of January, often by organizing interfaith forums to address topics relating to a culture of peace.2
Over the centuries, these scientific theories and religious doctrines have become deeply rooted in the ‘popular philosophy’. Whether or not it has scientific or religious origins, popular philosophy is a rich source of information on the mental models that prevail in contemporary society. They are also often found in popular sayings, slogans that are repeated as fixed truths from one generation to the next, and may enjoy implicit or unconscious acceptance. Others are found in popular song lyrics, television program scripts, advertising slogans, youngsters’ T-shirts, car bumper stickers, and many other media.
5. Facilitating the Change in Others
Once agents of socio-cultural change have achieved a certain level of change in their own mental models, they will be ready to facilitate the same process in others. There are a number of ways to achieve this. In addition to working one-on-one with spontaneous contacts, one can organize more formal workshops on different aspects of a culture of peace.3 If your participants are interested in a more regular activity, you might consider forming a support group or study circle.4
A good way to spark interest in the subject is to give public talks to like-minded organizations and different trade associations for professions that might contribute to building a culture of peace. Often radio stations and TV channels are open to anything from live interviews to pre-recorded programs on the topic, especially if you take advantage of ‘World Days’ such as International Peace Day, etc. You can also place articles in popular periodicals, thematic magazines, or even scientific journals if you have that level of skill.
In all of these efforts, let us not forget the tremendous power of art as a means to reach people’s heart most directly. Songs help fix words in the minds of hearers, especially if they are accompanied by a good musical ‘hook’. Role play and other forms of theatrical art can be used in training workshops, support groups and study circles. Similar means are video forums and community video.5 Graphic representation is always welcome, whether as a teaching aid or as a way to process the concepts under study. Finally, poetry and other literary forms have a great impact on people.
Agents of socio-cultural change will want to help facilitate the ‘deconstruction’6 of such popular concepts insofar as they support the culture of adversarialism. A useful method to this end is the ‘Integrated Propositional Analysis,’ which consists of answering the following questions for each popular saying or notion: (1) What are the underlying assumptions, implications, arguments, or evidences? (2) What incentives or motivations do people have to think or speak in this way? (3) What effects could this way of thinking have in the world at large? The next step is to propose an alternative saying or slogan and answer the three questions for this new option. Then you compare the two and develop an action plan to implement the change.
B. Following the Life Cycle
Changing mental models starts at birth. There are many agents of socio-cultural change who are writing books, producing media programs and giving courses and workshops to help parents learn and apply new child-raising skills for the first five years of life, which are so vital for acquiring attitudes. This includes a broad range of interventions:
- arranging their physical environment;
- controlling the use of mass media such as radio and television;
- changes in the way adults speak to children;
- repeating positive messages through readings, songs and prayer;
- more positive ways to achieve a healthy discipline;
- and many more.
In order to have the best effect at this early stage of life, it is essential to help parents strengthen their marriage, not just as an end in itself––although it would be valuable purpose in and of itself––but also to ensure a positive experience for their children and provide them with a good model of a culture of peace at home. Several agents of socio-cultural change work in this field, particularly marriage and family counselors and therapists, and those who offer courses and workshops to strengthen family and marital life. After experiencing these resources in their own lives, agents of socio-cultural change will want to promote their use by others they work with.
Other agents of socio-cultural change work to promote a culture of peace through formal and informal primary and secondary education. These interventions include:
- reviewing the contents, materials and teaching methods used in the classroom, seeking out and replacing divisionistic, adversarial messages;
- teaching cooperative recreational activities, games and sports;
- preparing and disseminating new teaching approaches to proactively cultivate mutualistic attitudes;
- training educators to recognize teaching practices that promote a culture of adversarialism and adopt new approaches; and
- organizing extra-curricular activities for students to practice the principles of a culture of peace through community service activities.
The value of the latter activity should not be underestimated. The energy, enthusiasm and creativity of children and youth are a resource that can move the world. However, it is usually overlooked and wasted, because we often wait for them to grow up and become adults before expecting a significant contribution from them.
Of particular interest in this regard are junior youth, aged 10 to 15. This stage of puberty, adolescence or pre-youth is of vital importance in developing a person’s identity. It is here that we discover we can question the inherited assumptions of former generations, think for ourselves, make our own decisions, and acquire a new sense of identity. This period of transition is as full of hazards as it is of opportunities. Therefore, many agents of socio-cultural change have specialized in facilitating processes with this group, helping them to align their moral compass with a true North instead of letting themselves be carried away by the siren songs of an adversarial culture, and orienting their rebelliousness and criticism against the true evils of society, and not in directions that would ultimately work against themselves.
One practice that has been gaining popularity is giving a “year of service” between high school and work or college. During this year, which Eric Ericsson calls a “moratorium,” youth often work at a community service project organized by a non-governmental organization or some other secular or religious institution. This is an opportunity for them to discover that they can be useful to society, cut the ‘apron strings,’ become emotionally independent from their small circle of friends and family, get to know themselves better, and understand who they are and where they are going. Far from being a waste of a year that could have been spent working or studying, those who have experienced it say that it was the most important year in their overall training as a person. More importantly, it is a year for aligning their lives with the principles and actions of a culture of peace.
Another strategic segment in the work towards socio-cultural change is colleges and universities. Although certain seeds are sown in secondary school, it is the tertiary levels that consolidate the foundational theories of the culture of adversarialism and its concrete applications are learned to reproduce and perpetuate the practices and institutions of the socio-cultural dimension of that culture. In addition, the social and political movements based on ideologies of an adversarial slant that abound here attract students seeking to identify with the forces that move society and to set the course for their professional lives. Several years of professional work often go by before these youth realize how fruitless and even damaging these ideologies really are, and finally exchange them for others that are more aligned with a culture of peace. Agents of socio-cultural change will find this to be a fertile field to work in, whether as students, teachers, researchers, or administrators. They can write essays and studies, give courses and talks, integrate elements of a culture of peace within existing courses or design new courses to offer, organize events, groups and movements, etc.
Neither should we overlook the various professions in the workplace. Professionals are required in all fields who can critically review established practices, identify those that reflect and reproduce the culture of adversarialism, and take the lead in conceiving, designing, applying, disseminating, and institutionalizing new elements and procedures that are better aligned with a culture of peace. These pioneers tend to move towards the cutting edge of their specialties, which are occupied by those who promote the latest developments. From there, they are in a strategic position to write about their experiences, speak with authority at trade conventions and associations, and offer their services as consultants to institutions seeking to grow towards a culture of peace. The impact that these innovators can have on transforming the psycho-cultural dispositions and socio-structural configurations of society is inestimable.
In this regard, here is a call to all scholars of the social sciences, that they might dedicate their knowledge to building a culture of peace. They can provide valuable services in deconstructing the adversarial theories that form a basis for the myth that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive, and that conflict is necessary and endemic to all social structures. They can help to highlight the various benchmarks and referents of mutualism that demonstrate the existence of elements of peace that can be promoted and coordinated to build a new culture, which includes analyzing current ‘social laboratories’ and developing others. What is needed is a deep re-reading and re-interpreting of human history and prehistory in the search for patterns and configurations that can be used to revive the hope for a future of peace. Psychologists, whether social, clinical, evolutionary and others, are positioned to analyze the dynamics that perpetuate the culture of adversarialism and those that could further a culture of peace. For those who believe that the social sciences should not be propositional or become involved in peace activism, this work can be done aside from research as such, taking advantage of the knowledge provided by such sciences.
While we are on the subject, let us raise a special call to the religious leaders of different faiths, to critically analyze their interpretations, practices and assumptions, and to root out from their ecclesiastical structures, doctrines and congregations anything that could perpetuate or feed the culture of adversarialism, while stressing and fostering anything that might promote and strengthen a culture of peace.
A final resource that tends to be under-utilized in today’s society is the retired and semi-retired population. Although it is true that persons of all ages and conditions can offer their free time, those who have achieved economic independence from their full-time work or employment are in a key position to promote a culture of peace from all of the disciplines. They have gained the historical vision needed to put matters in perspective, and have learned to be patient with processes, which at times may seem slow and tedious. They have the life experience needed to foresee and avoid pitfalls and to recognize and take advantage of opportunities that arise along the way. Many have accrued much social capital in the form of contacts that can help to meet their goals, and know how to organize people and work effectively with them. Finally, they have time to spend the long hours that working for socio-cultural change demands. It is one of the great tragedies of today's world, so infatuated with youth, that the tremendous potential of the elderly is overlooked and their great capacity wasted, resulting in idleness, poor health and premature death.
Is it possible to change our mental models of the nature of man and society and the individual and collective behavioral patterns caused by those mental models? Today’s culture of conflict, based on ‘power against’ and the promotion of vested interests, is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it seems natural, unavoidable and inescapable. In fact, for those whose daily lives are played out in this environment, any other model of human and social interaction may appear to be unrealistic, utopian, and even abnormal.
However, history contains many cases of broadly accepted cultural practices that eventually became obsolete and were finally eradicated. Examples of these are slavery, restricted suffrage, and denial of basic human rights to certain segments of a population. At a time when divisionistic mental models were more or less prevalent, these practices seemed natural and inevitable. However, now virtually all countries of the world accept a set of basic rights that are applicable to all persons.
Furthermore, as archaic visions of society begin to change, new patterns, structures and institutions are established that support these new understandings and further deepen their roots. Looking for signs of this in contemporary society, we will find that initiatives based on mutualism and reciprocity are growing in both breadth and number. Examples include worldwide movements to protect the environment, defend human rights, fight corruption, mitigate disease, and eradicate poverty. These movements reflect the first glimmers of a new vision of society that seeks wellbeing for all, and are coherent with a new conceptual framework of human beings that emphasizes our potential nobility and capability.
A conceptual framework with clearly identified elements is a powerful tool for changing obsolete mental models while supporting a new understanding of the nature of man and society. Essential steps in our own process of transformation include identifying elements to include in our conceptual framework, reflecting on and taking ownership of them, and developing the capabilities needed to make them part of our lives.
This exploration of the failings of prevalent mental models about the nature of man and society has given us some ideas regarding elements to include in our conceptual framework. It will be necessary to recognize clearly a double human nature. Although we are able to act in an aggressive, selfish, hedonistic way, we also have the potential to develop higher qualities such as gentleness, unity, cooperation, solidarity and justice. It will also be necessary to transform ‘power against’ to ‘power with’, thereby promoting the development of all and achieving higher levels of social progress.
Throughout history, it is these qualities that have driven the advancement of society and that can now promote our transition towards a just, united, peaceful world civilization.
1. This section takes its inspiration from “Liderazgo Moral,” pp. 63-65, 133-136.
2. To know more, visit: http://www.worldreligionday.org/.
3. As a simple but complete manual on how to facilitate training workshops, we recommend “Capacitación de Adultos” by Eloy Anello and Juanita de Hernández. Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Imprenta Sirena, 1994.
4. To know more about the study circle approach, we recommend the Study Circles Resource Center, at http://www.everyday-democracy.org/en/index.aspx, and the tutorial approach of the Ruhi Institute, at http://www.ruhi.org/index.php.
5. An excellent manual on this approach is “Insights into Participatory Video – A Handbook for the Field” by Nick & Chris Lunch: Insight, 2006.
6. The term ‘deconstruction,’ as used here, means finding out how a concept was constructed through historical processes and accrual of metaphors, exposing its unquestioned assumptions and contradictions, and revealing that what seems clear and evidence is actually far from it.