Anyone with a child is likely to have used the phrase, “I know you don’t like it but just try it”. Implicit in this interaction is fear of the unfamiliar – the child’s mind is set against something they have never experienced.
In children and adults alike, a sense of unfamiliarity or otherness is a common catalyst for people taking a negative view. We are comfortable and safe with things we know because historically, playing it safe has proven to be a good survival strategy. From a social perspective, we trust people in our group and are wary of those outside of it.
Pre-COVID, most people fell into the trap of thinking that many of the deaths on our roads were caused by tourist drivers. Despite the same number of road deaths occurring after the borders were closed, people still struggled to relinquish that belief. The ‘otherness’ of tourists makes them an easy target to blame.
We are hardwired to balance risk and safety. If we aim to reduce risk by prioritising the safety of what we know, we also remove the possibility that we will find better things or improve our current situation. It is in seeking this balance that we only tend to embrace things that are unfamiliar when there is a clear advantage in taking a risk.
Furthermore, we do not decide on everything we are exposed to from a neutral position. Prior experiences influence us and often predetermine our reactions. Someone might tell you they do not like Guinness even though they have never tried it, solely because the beverage’s colour is associated with something they have tasted before and disliked.
Unfamiliarity creates feelings of uncertainty, and we respond in a flight, fight, or freeze mode to this feeling. Flight results in avoidance of trying something new, whereas fight entrenches negative feelings – most often the problem with people’s view of ‘out’ groups. Freeze is not helpful either as it means we do not do anything, and our mindset remains in stasis mode.
Because we have decided that we dislike something, even though we have not tried it, one hurdle we must overcome is lack of attention. Why would someone pay attention to something they have no interest in?
Another hurdle is to combat the fear of risk. Taking risks can be costly and unconvincing unless there is some clear significant advantage. Status quo bias is hard to overcome.
A final hurdle relates to social norms. The tourist driver example is amplified when everyone seems to agree with you that tourists are the problem.
One way to overcome the human factors associated with otherness is to lighten the uncertainty around unfamiliarity. Humour can serve to attract attention as well as diffuse anxiety and make the fear of risk seem foolish or painless.
The other way to tempt people out of their comfort zone is through intrigue. Curiosity can be a motivational driver to balance safety and risk. How might you make people curious to understand or experience otherness?
A third strategy is around the use of social norms. We know that when what we understand to be societies expectations around norms, social norms (what we see other people doing) and our persona norms are out of balance there is the opportunity to create change by taking on the imbalance.