Getting Past the Reflexive Response

One of the phenomena we see in discussions of changes to society is a purely reflexive response. We see this both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the way the issue is couched. A guess is that the responses tend to be more negative, that reflexive responses in general tend to be “no.”

New York City, a city in the US state of New York, recently enacted a law against certain food establishments selling soft drinks containing more than 16 fl. ounces (approx. 0.5 liters). Many people had a reflexive response against that move. The belief that both individuals and businesses should have the right to make that sort of decision, rather than government, fired rapidly in the mind. This was followed by the section of the brain containing the term, “nanny state,” jumping up and down, yelling, “me! me! me!”

While I think a reasonable person can disagree with the implementation of the ban, it’s harder to make a case against the idea that people should drink less fizzy sugar water. But let’s set that case aside, and just focus on the reflex.

It seems like the reflex is a combination of the brain having existing wiring for the type of argument and a tendency to take a defensive posture against change. We see the same disposition in many subcultures, including political and religious ones.

In the case of soft drinks, people have encountered dietary arguments for years from vegetarian, vegan, and similar dietary movements. The anti-smoking arguments also follow similar lines. With recent studies showing correlation between social connections and things like weight gain and diet, even the second-hand smoke arguments have a home here.

People also have received reinforcement from something like sipping on a soft drink while having positive social interactions, so much that some may be able to tell you that they enjoyed a particular flavor of drink during a particular interaction (not unlike people remembering specific times with specific types of alcohol).

The notion of giving up something that seemed to add to an experience is threatening. It usually takes several nearby nodes in the network making a change in order to encourage more nodes to change.

Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY, is another example of a mantric argument that is conjured when a reflexive response occurs. Windmills are often opposed as a reflex.

The notion of job security has paralyzed whole sectors of the economy, as we become afraid to modernize and shift economic focuses because of large blocks of employment. That is, we place employment as a higher importance than the economic functionality that would ensure it.

There are reflexive responses when someone denigrates a prophet, or when a community perceives a travesty of justice, and so on.

How do we get past these reflexes? How do we get sane arguments that don’t run into walls of no-from-the-hip?

My hunch on this is that society, or whatever group seeks to have good arguments, assigns advocates regardless of belief. Just like high school debaters, people can advocate for causes they don’t necessarily believe in. It gives an opportunity for new ideas to prosper in a way that doesn’t stigmatize initial advocates too severely (which risks blanching future dissent, leading to further totalitarianization of a group).

Likewise, increasing opportunities for interaction and shifting of social links would enable more nodes to recognize opportunities for different behaviors. Although anecdotal (in that I haven’t looked for any research that backs this up), I find it likely that part of the positive impact of World War II on the US economy stemmed from the mixing of all those young people, along with their exposure to diverse social orders across the globe.

At any rate, reflexive responses should be seen for what they are. We shouldn’t let them kill good ideas, but should allow ourselves to entertain the idea without fear that it will consume us. Society needs to learn how to do that.