Six Degrees of Separation
I was researching small network theory (aka the Watts-Strogatz model) today for work on social media (because I am definitely the worst person to talk to at cocktail parties
There is an essential significance to the fact that there is a link between understanding how all of the
… today we are witnessing a moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves.
– Albert Bandura, How People Commit Inhumanities, Psychology Today (Bandura, a noted social psychologist, is the author of Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves)
Milgram, in 1969, experimented with being able to transmit information to a target person (his words) by having subjects mail a document only to those they knew on a first name basis. See Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram, An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem, Sociometry, Vol. 32, No. 4 (
Changing Emotions in Insular Groups
So while Milgram’s works address our connected world and our willingness to engage in harmful conduct when persuaded to do so by someone with authority, social media shows a world where individuals are commonly perceiving themselves as under attack by outside influences.
The question becomes what content can be shared to reduce the perceived threat and the risk of violence. Showing that a perceived threat is false does little to counter harmful conduct because perception is more powerful than truth. However, changing the emotions a person feels in response to someone they perceive as an outsider has a powerful impact on whether they perceive a threat. See Lukas J. Wolf, Ulrich von Hecker, and Gregory R. Maio, Affective and Cognitive Orientations in Intergroup Perception, Sage Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 6, at 828 (Jun. 2017), citing Esses V. M., Haddock G., Zanna M. P. Values, stereotypes, and emotions as determinants of intergroup attitudes, in Mackie D. M., Hamilton D. L., editors. (Eds.), Affect, cognition and stereotyping: Interactive processes in group perception, pp. 137-166, Academic Press (1993)
Changing emotions, replacing a feeling of unsettling anxiety with warmth when someone perceives an outsider, is a difficult task. In wartime, this is the stomach-churning counterinsurgency mission of “winning hearts and minds.” Perhaps the sinking feeling that I get when I think that changing our biases is as difficult as counterinsurgency is fitting. We seem to be in a time where all cultural segments are acting like insurgencies, militantly targeting outsiders.
Strangely, what seems to work in opposition to these perceptions is the sort of emotionally-charged work used in storytelling and advertising (perhaps in another context, this would be considered the work of propaganda).
What can counter the current crop of insularism? Stories that capture the heart. This becomes the key challenge for those who oppose extremism: how to use persuasion to capture the hearts of extremists.