Career or hobby? The life-saving work of countering others’ recipes for disaster

I started my day today by reading Ezra Klein’s interview with Holden Karnofsky. He’s the co-founder of GiveWell, an organization that studies charities and helps figure out where donations really make the most impact. And now he’s the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, which looks at the same questions from a much broader perspective – which decisions today could have the biggest positive impact for the long-term future of humanity?

As he describes it, “My job is to look for ideas that are not only important but also neglected. And so, I’m always looking for what could be the next big thing that could matter for a ton of people that’s not getting enough attention.”

And that got me thinking. The work I’ve done with Gerard Saucier at the University of Oregon is very much in this vein. Together we wrote a major paper about the patterns of thinking that underlie one of the biggest sources of premature death in the 20th century: genocide. Or rather, “democide,” a term that includes genocide, state terror, and other forms of politically or economically motivated mass murder of civilians. We studied 20 cases from around the world, reading everything we could get our hands on that was written or said by the leaders and perpetrators, gathering the specific passages of text that revealed their related thinking patterns, and identifying the common themes.

Now, it’s possible to look at this research very cynically and suggest that we’re telling future evil leaders how to do genocide more effectively. The trouble is that evil leaders already know how to do this very well. The Nazis actually studied what the Turks did in Armenia and what the German Empire had done in southwestern Africa, to make their own plans more effective. Others seem to have an intuitive knack for it. They don’t gain a lot from having it spelled out for them.

The rest of us, on the other hand, need these tools. We have to recognize these thought patterns when they start appearing in politicians’ speeches. And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean academics – I mean that everyone, everyone needs to be able to react skeptically rather than getting sucked in.

Gerard’s team is continuing this line of research. We took all the data we collected from the genocide study and spent months distilling it down to its essence and studying the phrases they used, so that we could come up with survey questions that represent all the key themes. Our colleagues Ashleigh Landau and Nina Greene are taking the lead on a paper that describes the survey, which can be used in two ways: to gauge how popular genocidal ideas are becoming in a community, and to help experts analyze the speeches of leaders and others to alert the rest of the world when such ideas are being promoted. This work can complement existing monitoring programs, which are focused more on economic and social conditions, and maybe someday it can help save lives.

I mean, if a tool like that had been around thirty years ago, it would have caught the Hutu leadership in Rwanda laying the groundwork for killing about a million people. That’s a big deal.

And when it comes down to it, all of my own writing projects are lined up to support this kind of work. I’m not analyzing data to show how prevalent various mindsets are, though – I’m working at a different stage in the scientific process. I’ve identifed some of the big questions that follow from a study like the one we did, and I’m coming up with conceptual frameworks that help us organize what we already know and help us see the gaps that remain.

Here’s an analogy. When Dmitri Mendeleev created the first periodic table of the elements, he was organizing what chemistry already knew about each of the types of atoms. His new organization system made patterns and gaps in knowledge much more obvious, and that revolutionized the field. We can do this for patterns of thinking too!

So, for example, here are three questions that follow from our earlier research:

  • How do leaders get their people’s attention and mobilize them?
  • How do they keep that attention and discourage critical reflection on their goals?
  • And how do they make abstract ideas more dynamic and exciting?

We have some partial answers. For example, strategic use of our collective stories (meta-narratives) is absolutely essential for those wanting to mobilize their public to do things contrary to their usual moral standards. I’ve written extensively here about how leaders can craft their stories to evoke precisely the emotions they want, and how they can discourage people from questioning them. Right now I’m working on a paper about all the techniques that leaders (and advertisers) use to make ideas more emotionally compelling, organizing them into five major categories that cover a wide spectrum. I can’t even imagine why no one has done this before.

So when I read about Karnofsky and all those people investing in our future, I’m forcibly reminded that nobody is paying me to do any of this.

Middlemarch-by-George-Eliot2But… why should they? I’ve been rereading Middlemarch, George Eliot’s highly regarded 1871 novel. One of the main characters, Mr. Casaubon, devoted his entire adult life to collecting page after page of information so that he could write a “Key to All Mythologies” – but he never sat down and wrote it. Eliot tells us that the most characteristic result of all his hard work was “not the Key to All Mythologies, but a morbid consciousness that others did not give him the place which he had not demonstrably merited.”

Let’s avoid that mistake! Before I do something wacky like, say, setting up a Patreon so the world at large can underwrite my career as a thinker (ha!), I’d better get more results out there.

Stay tuned!

(Header image source:  Students’ mural to raise awareness of the Rwanda genocide.)

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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