Saturday, January 5, 2013

Some Random Thoughts on Gun Laws

Because of the Newtown tragedy, the ever-divisive issue of gun regulation has consumed all of the oxygen in our public discourse. Well, that and the fiscal cliff. My thoughts on the fiscal cliff come later. For now, let me say a few words about guns.

You know me, I really try not to get too ideological about stuff. I want to see and read the evidence, come up with an opinion, try not to cling too hard to it, and hopefully evolve as I learn more. I believe most of these issues are larger than we realize, with enough room for reasonable people to have different points of view. I think this is true for gun laws.

A few points:

I really think we should avoid writing broad affecting laws based on one extremely rare on-off event. Here's one example:

In this video, Suzanna Hupp describes an incredibly tragic incident where she was involved in a mass shooting while eating at a restaurant with her parents. Her parents end up dead while she survives. As a result of this incident, she has made it her life work to enable people to carry concealed weapons as a means of protection.

It's a powerful story, but it's only one event that will never be repeated again in its exact detail. We should always consider the effects of our laws more broadly, realizing that an individual law may have less-than optimal consequences in certain circumstances but still provide a higher level of safety and societal benefit overall.

Similarly, suggestions to arm every elementary school or better arm every kindergarten teacher or banning the exact weapon used in the shootings at Newtown is equally wrong. We need to look at the data broadly.

My second point is that I find it rather frustrating how hard-lined and reactionary the pro-gun movement has been on this issue. They will not compromise one iota, taking the most extreme interpretation of the second amendment possible. These people are against all gun regulation, all of it, so reasonable ideas are shutdown, ideas that may save many lives. Obviously the same criticism can be said of the gun-control movement.

One extra point to add to the NRA's stridency on gun control is their willingness to wrap themselves (and their bad arguments) around the second amendment of the constitution. Friedersdorf makes some good points here.

Even if we presume that the 2nd Amendment exists partly so that citizens can rise up if the government gets tyrannical, it is undeniable that the Framers built other safeguards into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to prevent things from ever getting so bad as to warrant an insurrection. Federalism was one such safeguard; the separation of powers into three branches was another; and the balance of the Bill of Rights was the last of the major safeguards.
Yet the conservative movement is only reliable when it defends the 2nd Amendment. Otherwise, it is an inconsistent advocate for safeguarding liberty. Conservatives pay occasional lip service to federalism, but are generally hypocrites on the subject, voting for bills like No Child Left Behind, supporting a federally administered War on Drugs, and advocating for federal legislation on marriage. (Texas governor Rick Perry is the quintessential hypocrite on this subject).

And on the Bill of Rights, the conservative movement is far worse. Throughout the War on Terrorism, organizations like the ACLU and the Center of Constitutional Rights have reliably objected to Bush/Cheney/Obama policies, including warrantless spying on innocent Americans, indefinite detention without charges or trial, and the extrajudicial assassination of Americans. The Nation and Mother Jones reliably admit that the executive power claims made by Bush/Yoo/Obama/Koh exceed Madisonian limits and prudence informed by common sense.
My issue with people who wrap themselves with the Constitution is that they do so conditionally, when it serves their ideology. The same can be said with the use of data to back up their points.

I think we should avoid reactionary, stubborn ideology especially when the issue is as complex as the appropriate amount of gun control to apply. Friedersdorf actually links another article that is also worth quoting here:

If you really dig into it, what NRA advocates are really arguing for is the right to commit treason at least in this article.
Freedom is the product of orderly democratic governance and the rule of law. Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms. Free states are defended by standing armies, not militias, because free states enjoy the consent of the governed, which allows them to maintain effective standing armies. Like every other free country apart from Costa Rica, the United States has a standing army in times of peace, and has since 1791, when the founding fathers realised a standing army would be necessary to fight the irregular popular militias of the continent's Native American peoples. (Guess who won?)
I'll close this post with a link from Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he doesn't own a weapon.
But I also believe that one does not simply do violence -- or live prepared for violence -- and remain the same. I carry all of West Baltimore with me, and I am in constant conversation over the fact that that part of me is wholly inappropriate for this world. That part -- the part that is analyzing every person who walks up on me, who is trying to figure out every angle, who sees a crowd and walks the other way -- is fit for a world of violence. That pose is totally draining. (It has no time to go off and learn French.)
I honestly don't have a strong opinion on guns. I'm not sure it's practical to ban assault rifles. Too many people currently own them or want to own them. And we tried a ban once, but the law was so riddled with loopholes it proved counter-productive. I think there are some good suggestions out there. I'm partial to Douthat's suggestion to hire more police generally while locking fewer people up. More security equals more safety.

I think there are other things to be done around gun safety. If people were a little more pragmatic and a little less ideological, I think we could move the needle a little bit and we could all be safer. Granted wishful thinking.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Psychology of Influence

Early in December I had the privilege of attending a conference for work where I got the chance to hear a presentation by Dr. Robert Cialdini: an expert on the science of influence, a professor of business at Arizona State University, and an author of best selling books covering this area of expertise. He was a masterful presenter but more importantly he shared some really interesting ideas that I personally found really helpful.

He presents six fundamental principles of influence, principles that when applied prove influential in determining the kinds of decisions we tend to make. As human beings we are bombarded with information, so naturally we use shortcuts to help us choose in the face of limited knowledge. These shortcuts generally work well for us. Being conscious of these shortcuts will help us expand our sphere of influence. These principles may seem obvious, but I think the few of us really leverage these principles in a way that might increase our ablity to influence others.

People are motivated to act when the object they are pursuing is hard to obtain. They are even more motivated to act when there is a risk of losing what they already have.  A salesperson is more effective trying to sale insulation for a home, for example, when they describe it as a way to prevent the homeowner from losing money (a scarce resource) verses a way to save it. There are certain skills that are difficult enough to obtain that few people have them. These people are scarce and valuable. Often our time is of short supply and in the myriad of things we can be doing day-to-day, we should be focused on activities worthy of spending this scarce resource on. This is a powerful shortcut for us because often things are more valuable when they are in limited supply.

Commitment and Consistency
People are far more likely to follow through when they have made a firm commitment to do so. A restaurant owner having trouble with people making reservations but failing to show up needed a way to encourage their customers to call and cancel first. They were only successful in doing so, when they asked the customer directly if they would call to cancel if their plans changed. Getting a verbal commitment increased the likelihood of follow through. Getting it in writing is even more powerful.

Nobody wants to be thought of as a free loader or moocher. A powerful way to gain influence is by giving something to others. Gifts that are unexpected and personal yield the biggest response in return. This is a source of power that we all too often give up. When we help someone at  often we hear the words “thank you”, and in response we often say “no problem”. We de-emphasize and even dismiss the gift we just gave decreasing the likelihood that our gesture will be returned in kind. Rather, we should amplify what we did. “Of course, this is what friends do for one another”. This is important; we really do need each other. We need others to sacrifice just as we must if we want to collectively accomplish hard and important goals.

Entire industries have been built up around the fact that people will buy products from people they like. Tupperware and other products rake in money because they convince large number of people to sell their products to their friends. We are more willing to sacrifice for someone we like. We want to work with people we enjoy being around. To gain influence, we should build relationships. One powerful way to do this is to offer sincere, regular compliments to our colleagues. Do not be stingy with honest complements.

Those who are considered to be an expert in their field will also have influence over others in relation to their authority. If we want to have influence, we need to make sure others are aware that we have the expertise to warrant others to trust our opinions. Before Dr. Cialdini made his presentation, he was introduced by the person who pulled together the conference. In the introduction, the organizer presented a long list of Dr. Cialdini’s credentials on the topic of influence: his books, his research, his awards. When Dr. Cialdini was ready to present, the entire audience was ready to listen. Getting a trusted source to vouch for you is a valuable way to establish credibility.

If no one is available, we can improve our trustworthiness through credible honesty. If we start out by listing our weaknesses first, we are more believable when we follow this by mentioning our areas of strength. In one of the most influential commercials in history, Avis Rent-A-Car used the tag-line, “We are number two, but we are trying harder. The honesty of the first phrase was apparent, making the second part of that phrase more believable.

Social Proof: Consensus
A powerful short-cut for us in decision making is to follow the lead of the group. If many people are in line to purchase an iPad, our curiosity is peaked and we have a stronger desire to purchase one ourselves. The power comes when there are many other people doing a certain action and even more so when people similar to us are doing it. In our communities, churches, clubs or at work, we have a natural collection of people who have a lot in common. As a result we have a natural sphere of influence. We should use it to our advantage. One person doing the right thing will influence others to do it as well. Lead by example.

One point that was clearly emphasized in the presentation was to use these techniques ethically. We want to be an influence for good. We want to convince another of something that is actually true and worthy of their consideration.  We are marshaling evidence to facilitate good decisions. If we are actual experts, we want to use our expertise to marshal appropriate influence. We want to sacrifice for others, similarly, we need others to sacrifice for us. We are better for it.