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Thinking Long Term to Solve Social Problems

Tim Burr

July 11, 2017
Tim Burr

Recently, a book was published with broad implications for education, finance, healthcare and social policy. That book, “The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die” by Keith Payne, summarizes the increasing body of research that shows how environmental factors – in this case social and financial inequality – have more effect on people’s decision making than previously thought. For organizations that use communications to help solve social problems, this poses significant challenges. Understanding the research and its implications can mean the difference between creating a successful initiative and one that falls short of its goals.


The author, a social psychologist, begins with the paradox of self-defeating behavior. Why do some people choose immediate gain, which can have disastrous consequences, over long-term planning and effort, which have a greater chance of sustained success?


He contends that short-term thinking may actually be a survival strategy. Study after study shows that, when faced with uncertainty, people adopt shorter-term strategies. This would make sense. If your future is uncertain, it will be better for you to get things now because you may not get them later. Research further demonstrates that we make these short-term decisions unconsciously, which is why, to many researchers, this short-term survival impulse appears innate.


What does this have to do with inequality? Based on a series of studies, the author argues that inequality can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty. If one group is advancing and another group is staying in place, the latter group can feel more than stagnant; they can feel like they’re falling behind.


How can we use this information to help solve social problems? Research suggests that if people are made aware of the short-term dynamic, they can resist it. And if they can focus on what they want out of life and have a plan for how they can get it, they can lessen the stress of uncertainty.


What these approaches have in common is they move people from an emotional thought process to a rational thought process. Princeton Partners has used this strategy in our programs to help people avoid and overcome social problems. Activity Works, All Star Health Squad, Health + Hospitals Corporation, and our work with the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton and Mercer County have all emphasized concrete steps that people can take to improve their situations. This makes their situations comprehensible and manageable and helps them focus on what’s important – being their best selves.