Stop Interventions that Backfire

The Prevalence of Backfire Effects After the Correction of Misinformation, College of Social Science and Humanities, Northeastern University — Briony Swire-Thompson, Postdoctoral Researcher, Network Science Institute

As parents, wanting the best for our children, we always think it right to prescribe a life for our children. It is because that is the way we know how and live by, isn’t it?

In the workplace, wanting an undertaking done to beat a deadline and knowing how to get the job done, we step in to take on the task hoping the leaderboard will reflect an added point in our year-end appraisal. We have, haven’t we?

Walking on a busy street, to extend help to a mendicant asking for small change, we reached down our pockets. The heartwarming action makes both us–giver and receiver–feel good, doesn’t it?

However, in our daily lives, in the conduct of family, work, community, or with our livelihood, we look to the government to provide the satisfactory governance for us to sustain our decent lives or to live the life we desire. On the contrary, for the marginalized the only recourse to an empty stomach is to ask strangers for small change to buy food.

What do all these life scenarios have in common? Intervening. We intervene between individual situations or problems thinking that we are helping solve the problem or alleviating the situation but conversely it repeatedly occurs, worse, it backfires on us. Despite all the good intentions, we never see the end to the throes of mundane problems.

These situations or problems can be avoided up front by minding how to strengthen the ability of the individual or organizations such as the government system to shoulder its own burdens. Such burdens are economic policies and its consequences. Taxes are an example. Economic policy-makers justify that in order to oil the government machinery and maintain financial balance, taxes in all forms — from source to consumption — ought to be collected.

This systemic notion, helping the system to help itself, has always been the practice for the fiscal management of the government, but the burden of regulation and its implementation are distributed over other social and economic systems — something politicians and technocrats refuse to understand about what effectual intervention is in people’s lives. The secret perhaps to designing real governance and policies is to begin not with looking into established measures of fiscal management, but with a series of questions:

  • Why are the correction mechanisms failing?
  • How can obstacles to their success be removed?
  • How can mechanisms, if successful, be made more effective? And,
  • Who are the policies ultimately accountable to and who benefits?

The snare of shifting the burden

In Systems Thinking, shifting the burden, dependence, or even addiction arise when a solution to a systemic problem reduces or camouflages the symptoms, but does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Whether it is a substance that dulls one’s perception or a policy that hides the underlying trouble, the drug of choice interferes with the actions that could solve the real problem.

All these point to the question of why, despite citizens’ outcry and political opposition, those in power remain to be recalcitrant in their positions. This also leads to questions no one citizen dare ask himself: Why do we need government at all in a construct we know it to be? Have we truly created our own real options to live the lives we need? More so, have we made true lasting corrective actions to shrink the government of its “burden” on us? We, in all the history of civil rights, have relegated to elected leaders the “burden” to make for us the lives we live.

If the intervention that was designed to correct the problem causes the self-maintaining capacity of the original system to atrophy or erode, then a destructive reinforcing feedback loop is set in motion. The system, in this case the government, deteriorates; then progressively the same solution is then required. Power wants to perpetuate power. This is the vicious reinforcing cycle of human dominance–over other living beings and other humans. History tells us this. We are entrapped in our own inattentiveness to the inter-relatedness, the inter-connection, and the rippling effects of our actions.

The way out

The best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in. Beware of symptom-relieving or signal-denying policies or practices that don’t genuinely address a problem. Take the focus off short-term relief and put it on long term restructuring.

If you are the intervenor, work in such a way as to restore or enhance the system’s own ability to solve its problems, then remove yourself. A true leader requires little power over his followers.

Going back to the life scenarios, accordingly ask these questions: Will forever hovering over our children make them adults who can stand on their own? Does stepping into a task at hand make us the leaders that we can be at the expense of developing our coworkers’ capacities? Does shelling out a few coins here and there for charity really correct for good the wicked problem of poverty?

Unknown to us, we constantly are misinformed. And many times we are not given the opportunity to learn to make sense of our world to make wise decisions and actions. Not if we start to create our own systems that are more able to maintain our desired state of life and not dependent on persistent social narratives and government interventions.

The Government has a dependency on us. We can create alternative narratives with new paradigms. We can build our own system before removing the interventions our government created for us or, better, when the government collapses under its own weight or continues with a momentum railed toward a ravine.

If we are the ones with an unsupportable dependency then we need to create a system capability for ourselves. Let’s do it right away: in our homes, in our workplace, in our communities. The longer we wait, the harder the withdrawal process will be from this incessant life conundrum.

Lest everything we do or act on backfires, and we will be forever in this vicious downward spiral into oblivion.

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Nameless People: their ways, their spaces, and their tools.

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Namenlose Leute

Namenlose Leute

Nameless People: their ways, their spaces, and their tools.