Exposure and comfort

One of the psychological studies that the authors of Decisive reviewed for their commentary of how we make decisions (and how we can improve that process) related to findings that the most-viewed words are the best-liked, which provides some powerful evidence of the ‘familiarity breeds more contentment’ idea (p. 164).

This aligns with other findings that confirm the ‘mere exposure’ principle, which affirms that human beings have a strong preference for things that are familiar.

This gets at what I wrote about yesterday–the need for policymakers to really understand the realities of the lives of those who will be most affected by their policy changes and, indeed, the need to flip that ‘exchange’ idea on its head, so that clients are the ones coming closer to the seats of power.

In a way, what some of these studies about the effects of exposure suggest is that, on one level, it may not matter so much where and how we’re bringing disparate populations together, only that we are.

It gets at the idea that maybe culture change has to happen before, or at least alongside, policy change, and that changing people’s hearts and minds matters a lot in promoting the kind of justice we crave.

I struggle with that, as you know. I tend to come down more on the side of ‘get power so you can dictate the terms of the debate’ rather than ‘engage in mutual dialogue’.

Not very social work-y of me, I know.

And findings like this remind me:

There are people of good will whose attitudes and beliefs about the populations I so firmly believe are getting a raw deal in this society are shaped, in large part, by the same structures that lock people into strata.

It is a form of privilege, I believe, the exposure to injustice and to diversity afforded to me by my parents, my education, and my social networks.

We have, then, an obligation to share that access with others, for the transformational effects it can bring.

And there are examples of this everywhere: in the spring break trips that students at my alma mater take to work in disadvantaged communities, which move them to the point of tears, even 10 years later; in the ways that social work students find themselves dedicating their careers to populations they previously thought they could ‘never work with’; in the way that my grandparents discovered upon moving to the U.S./Mexico border that they actually really like Mexican people; in the way that even people with entrenched heterosexist beliefs find themselves championing the rights of the particular gay people they have come to know.

And so, I wonder, armed with evidence about how (and some of why) this proximity effect works, how we might use it in our advocacy.

How can we structure our services so that we break down barriers between populations, perhaps through developing intentional volunteer efforts, increasing the profile of our clients, and targeting outreach at influential community leaders?

How can we organize issue campaigns so that they reduce negative emotions about the populations with which we work and help targets to identify with our clients?

How can we, on the flip side, increase clients’ exposure to policymakers and advocacy arenas, in order to help them feel more comfortable advocating, too?

How can we consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly position our work so as to build exposure and familiarity…with an eye towards how that engagement can change how people think and interact and, ultimately, legislate?


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