In 2019, the majority of Americans probably would have described the CDC as a valuable and important institution, staffed by medical experts whose mission is to protect the public from dangerous illnesses. Today, many of those same people view the CDC as a deeply corrupt organization with a powerful political agenda, deep pockets, and shady ties to the pharmaceutical industry. For millions of Americans, the CDC paradigm has been utterly destroyed and replaced by a very different one.
What caused that? Why did so many people believe one thing in 2019, only to believe something totally different just two years later? What can we learn from this, and how might it apply to the broader spectrum of political discourse?
We don’t necessarily think a whole lot about paradigms, but they’re always with us. In fact, they run our lives. Virtually everything that we think, say, or do happens within the context of one or more paradigms. If you want to change the world, you first need to change the paradigms that govern human thoughts, words, and actions. If you can achieve that, it’s all downhill from there.
But changing paradigms is hard; they tend to be extraordinarily stubborn. If facts and reason are to prevail, however, we must find a way to circumvent the distortions that paradigms impose upon human thinking.
Want to win people’s hearts and minds? Go after their paradigms.
So what exactly are paradigms, and why do we have them?
As human beings, we’ve developed mechanisms through which to make sense of the world. Language, for example, is a collection of abstractions that help us to organize reality into useful chunks of information.
When I look at an object in the middle of the room and think “chair,” I’m making certain assumptions about that object’s attributes, such as its ability to hold up under the weight of an average adult. When I think “chair,” I’m implicitly imbuing that thing with purpose. Chairs are for sitting on. That’s not so much because they’re exclusively suitable for that function, but rather because my “chair” paradigm tells me so; that’s what it’s for.
The “chair” abstraction also becomes the model through which I see reality. Even in the absence of any immediate need to communicate with another person, I still carry this linguistic abstraction for “chair” everywhere I go. Even when I’m alone, my thoughts conform to the linguistic models that are available to me. I rarely look at a chair and ask: “I wonder if I could use that as a stepladder.” OK, perhaps occasionally, — but generally speaking, the “chair” abstraction itself tends to dictate the boundaries of my thoughts about these things.
This is a mental shortcut, of course. Because I have a linguistic abstraction for “chair,” I can save myself the effort of constantly analyzing the world around me, struggling to determine which objects I can safely sit on, and which I cannot, — or what the hell that object might be doing in the middle of the room. Abstractions bring order to this quaint little universe that I live in.
Paradigms are similar, but more complicated. They’re mental models that purport to explain how the world works. They are our primary means for making sense of things. Just as I have an inherently limiting abstraction for “chair”, I also have mental models for how the world works.
By their very nature, paradigms create boundaries that limit the range of useful and acceptable thoughts, words, and actions. If an incoming fact falls outside of my paradigm, then it’s not real. It’s not possible. It’s not even worthy of my consideration.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t respond to those incoming facts, though. If my own paradigm is under attack, I might very well be motivated to destroy that threat. Why do we see such widespread popular support for limits on free speech? Someone somewhere is feeling insecure about their paradigms, and they really don’t like hearing it. Granted, there’s a lot of social engineering going on here as well, but whoever is doing it clearly understands the power of paradigms.
Unfortunately, paradigms cause us to filter out information that might otherwise be important. As human beings, we like to think that we collect facts and then draw conclusions. In reality, we draw conclusions (that is, we adopt paradigms), and then we filter all incoming information such that it confirms and validates our point of view.
Consider this: “Government exists to serve the people. Despite some abuses, it’s fundamentally good. The more government can help people, the better.”
Or this: “The more government purports to help people, the larger it grows and the more corrupt it becomes. Government is quickly perverted to serve its own ends.”
If my mental models tell me that big government is inherently corrupt, then my default stance on a proposed government program will be somewhere between skepticism and outright rejection. If I’m driven by the belief that government should be predisposed to intervene and help people, my default position will be favorable.
Is Donald Trump a criminal, or a populist hero? Was January 6th an insurrection spawned by the outgoing President, or an elaborate influence operation conducted by anti-Trump forces inside the government? It depends on whom you ask. We’re dealing with very different sets of facts, because we’re operating from different paradigms.
As human beings, we tend to embrace any information that validates our paradigms. We reject information that challenges them.
The problem, of course, is that other people are following the same pattern… except they’re not like us. Those people have “bad” paradigms!!!
If you want to persuade someone to your point of view, you can continue to flood them with a barrage of facts, but keep in mind that you’re up against a very powerful filtering mechanism. Paradigms can be extraordinarily stubborn things.
A better strategy is to present people with questions. Prompt them to inquire. Let them find their own answers, if they’re intellectually honest enough to do so.
What Breaks a Paradigm?
There are two ways to destroy a paradigm. The first is a slow, steady drip. Like a trickle of water falling in the spot on the same stone for hundreds of years, the paradigm is gradually worn away until it loses its grasp. A new paradigm slowly emerges to replace it, often imperceptibly, over a long period of time.
Patience may be a virtue, but few of us have it in such large quantities. Sometimes it takes an entire lifetime.
The second pattern involves a sudden and sometimes traumatic realization, often brought about by crisis. A powerful but undeniable event occurs that falls squarely outside the boundaries of the old paradigm. It simply cannot be true, and yet it is. Something impossible happened. Cognitive dissonance ensues. The old paradigm simply no longer works. We struggle to make sense of it all, piecing together new paradigms to replace the old ones.
9/11 was a paradigm-breaking event. COVID, too, has turned the world upside-down. At a personal level, paradigms might be broken apart as a result of a diagnosis, a layoff, the death of a loved one, or some other traumatic event.
For the passengers aboard the Titanic, the paradigm shift came too late. The “unsinkable ship” paradigm turned out not to be an accurate model for reality. And so they just kept dancing…
As I said, paradigms are stubborn.
Traumatic life events are uncomfortable when they happen, but the resulting paradigm shifts often prove to be a net positive in the long run. That’s what happens when we hear someone say “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It’s hard to imagine, but for those who have been through it, there is triumph in survival.
Not all precipitating events are necessarily bad, of course. Sometimes it’s that “Aha!” moment when someone realizes that they are capable of much more than they ever thought. That creates a wonderful kind of paradigm shift that can be equally life-changing.
Who creates your paradigms?
Keep in mind that when old paradigms die, new ones always replace them. Sometimes this happens organically, but in many cases there is a deliberate effort to shape the new reality. When crisis occurs on a large scale, social engineers get busy constructing and selling new paradigms to the population at large. Beware. When a crisis occurs, watch out for this.
The post-9/11 paradigm was “a new kind of threat”. That gave us the Patriot Act.
In the wake of COVID, millions have shifted to the paradigm that says “We’ve been lied to for years. Question authority.” That’s a good thing in my view, but it’s worth noting that not everyone has moved in a positive direction. Millions have adopted a new paradigm in which free speech (which they call “disinformation and misinformation”) has the power to kill people. In the context of that mental model, limits on free speech make perfect sense. Someone designed that new paradigm and they’re selling it to anyone who might listen.
Paradigms come to us from social groups, from the news media, and from popular culture. Persuasion techniques are constructed around narratives designed to develop and strengthen one paradigm or another.
The best defense is to watch for those hidden agendas and be open to new information. The best offense is to seek to understand other people’s paradigms, look for incongruencies, and apply gentle but firm pressure to bring them around to your point of view.