My father-in-law, a wise and beneficent man that I’m proud to consider a close friend, recently sent an email to someone politically conservative that I thought was particularly well-written and offers powerful, yet practical suggestions for how someone might begin to wean themselves off what might be seen as an addiction to the worse kind of “conservative” messages that pass in some circles as reasoned political thought.
My father-in-law’s post was inspired in part by an editorial by the New York Times‘ David Brooks: How People Change, and a lecture he attended by Professor David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, among other works.
With his permission, following is my father-in-law’s recipe for personal political change. I’m sure someone from the other side of the debate (as if there were real debate, as if there were two sides) could come up with a similar recipe to wean someone like me off of what I consider valid, reasoned political debate and get me believing Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh actually made some kind of sense rather than just making money from hyperbole.
1. Prevention: stay away from Beck, Rush, any source that uses incendiary language, which they know excites the emotional centers of your brain, rendering your frontal lobe—the discriminating, judgement, executive functioning part of your brain—mute, and activates the emotion-tagged memory part of the brain (the limbic system), both of which are working away muscularly “under the hood” out of awareness. Stay away from sources that regularly excite feelings of “righteous indignation” for the same reasons, however tempting they may be.
2. Put money on the line: Put 100 dollars in the hands of someone else which will be contingent on your changing. For example, if you don’t follow through, the money will be given to MOVEON.org.
3. Engage in social supports: Announce your intentions to cut off contact with Rush, Beck, evangelical groups, routine email pieces that reinforce above themes . Announce and seek support for involving yourself with the Southern Poverty Law Center for example.
4. Feelings: Use negative feelings such as anger as welcome cues to look at whether they are attached to old undesired beliefs and understandings. Remind yourself that these are old and no longer work for you and reward yourself with substituted positive feelings of heightened self regard as you turn to new desired beliefs and attitudes. Reward yourself with a cup of fresh coffee as you pick up the New Yorker or some other news source that fact checks information. Activate feelings of altruism associated with support of genuinely needy persons who lack the resources to improve their lives.
5. Habits: Embed 1-4 in a consistent routine which is laid out in detail. The guiding notion is repetition. Remember that the brain is plastic, but it needs lots of practice to create new grooves. I personally think of 3 months as a useful interval to create a new personal narrative with sufficient robustness to resist backsliding. Long term memory works that way. It takes time, and memory tagged with strong emotion is especially resistant to change. So be patient. Backsliding is just another opportunity to rehearse the above. In due time we might have a different dance