Law in Contemporary Society

Harnessing the Power of Sleepwalking

-- By AliceHenderson - 14 May 2012

The Sociality of Bees

Early in the semester, we touched on a biological similarity that humans share with certain invertebrates- that we are influenced by the minds of others in our species; we think we are conscious decision-makers, but our natural social psychology is not to think independently of our community. We are members of society as are bees in a hive.

A recent New York Times article discussed consumer marketing as the methods either of inserting new products into existing habit loops or incentivizing new habit loops. The studies that serve as the basis for these marketing techniques show that habit-formation is the brain's natural desired alternative to actual decision-making as a means of energy conservation. Rats in a maze will receive a cue (the gate opening), begin a routine (sniffing along a path toward the smell of chocolate), and upon finding it, associate the routine with a reward (the chocolate), thus creating a habit loop. As this pattern is established and the behavior is proven to achieve positive results, brain activity decreases dramatically, unless there is a change in placement of the reward. So once a habit is formed, to convince the brain that the exertion of energy is valuable, the reward has to change.

For Proctor & Gamble, whose market research was profiled in the Times article, this meant changing the focus of a commercial to sell more Febreze. The ads that focused on eliminating odor didn't sell the product because they didn't incentivize consumers to change their existing cleaning habits. The ads that brought the product to nine-figure sales were successful because they changed the reward. They showed Febreze as the new finishing touch on an existing cleaning regime, attaching the product to an established ritual.

Because of these shared human tendencies, law and politics behave as functions independent of logic; they are tools to control the unconscious impulses that give consent to power. No depth of policy is discussed in political campaigns, and I am typing this paper on a MacBook? Pro.

Some Took To The Streets

Despite sharing hive-mind qualities with invertebrates, countless individuals have proven that we can grow a spine. In the ninteenth century, John Brown's acts of terrorism escalated tensions in the country that arguably contributed to the Civil War. The positive effects of Martin Luther King's activism almost exactly a century later are even harder to deny. I'd be willing to bet that Sandra Fluke owns an apple product, but she nevertheless harnessed her revolutionary potential to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on women's health and contraception on February 16th of this year. As we come upon acts such as Ms. Fluke's in our current time, though, it becomes more difficult if not impossible to evaluate results. There are those among us who have been spurred to action, but 21st century examples of American social protest (i.e. Occupy Wallstreet) appear comparatively impotent, particularly without the perspective that time provides. Given Ms. Fluke's background as a women's rights activist, it is fair to assume that she was seeking to maximize her effect. Yes, she briefly captured the nation's attention, but is that all? Can we credit her testimony with any positive change in reproductive rights?

Even as beings highly susceptible both to overt and subconscious influence, we are perfectly capable of taking a stand in recognition of injustice. We can act alone. We can coordinate others to act with us. The capacity is clear, but the result will always be uncertain. John Brown and Martin Luther King are national legends who changed the course of history, but others who take to the streets will merely become historical anecdotes.

Staying at Home

Carrie Nation, a figure of the temperance movement and former wife of a severe alcoholic, would enter saloons to throw rocks at liquor bottles and destroy bar counters with a hatchet. As she was motivated by a personal passion to fight alcoholism, rationality played little part in her acts of defiance. Though she desired these things, she did not need to know that others would follow her or that national policy on alcohol consumption would change; she acted on the premise of individual responsibility. Some of us are stopped from literally taking to the streets by our adherence to or need for rationality, our mistaken belief, even, that we are bound to it. There is no certainty or even likelihood that I will see a return on that investment in personal fulfillment, recognition, or actually ameliorating a social injustice. I'm disinclined to exert the energy, consciously, and unconsciously.

In class Professor Moglen asked a student if she could imagine herself ever taking to the street, and she answered honestly, “Probably not; I have no personal incentive to do so. I am comfortable.” An element of human nature that ties in with the mentality to behave as those around us and to want the same things as those around us is the inclination toward the status quo. We are creatures of habit; to literally, physically protest without personal incentive goes against our very nature.

Altering Our Non-Revolutionary Habits

The Febreeze ad that focused on eliminating odors was unsuccessful at selling the product. With constant exposure, people no longer recognize bad odors in their homes, so a successful ad had to introduce Febreeze as a new reward worth the added energy of altering the habit loop.

If behavioral science really does explain the multimillion-dollar sales of a superfluous cleaning product (and I think Apple would say yes), then maybe it is an underutilized tool for social change. The comfortable American who has grown accustomed to the bad odor of someone else's injustice may not be convinced to take to the streets, but he can be influenced to make a new behavior a part of his existing rituals. If we were to move the chocolate to a different part of the maze, could we then attach 'attention to social inequity' to a habit loop, increasing ability and desire to engage?

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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:46 - IanSullivan
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