You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.

What does it mean to be strategic?


“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

A social change strategy is more than just a plan of action designed to achieve a goal. It cannot be easily diagramed, because successful movements have distributed, as opposed to centralized leadership. Strategy is more than planned activities written in the boxes of a logic model.

This does not imply that you are in a constant state of improvisation. To be strategic is to understand that a wide variety of actions done with an informed perspective, or worldview, can contribute to collective success.

Those actions cannot necessarily be orchestrated by or coordinated from some center of operations. Localized opportunities present themselves, and people take advantage of them. Plans emerge with constantly evolving circumstances.

In this regard, strategy is more of a position, than it is a plan. A commitment to your position provides a lens through which you will know if your actions complement those across a movement.

“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.”

– Leon Trotsky

Revealing the Invisible


“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

Change Happens at the Center

We tend to think of change as something that happens at the margins. That’s why people use phrases like “the leading edge,” or “pushing the envelope.” If we are deliberately acting to make social change, however, that change happens at the center. Experienced community organizers know this. It’s why they spend time with people in the middle. Let me illustrate how this works.

us vs themTake any issue; polarizing or mundane. We are led to believe that there are two sides: for and against; us and them; red state blue state; you get the picture. Painting this less complex picture is easier for both zealous advocates, and lazy reporters. It makes for good drama. When it comes to change, you will rarely get the people deeply rooted in the “them” side to flip 180 degrees to the “us” side (or vice-versa).

twoWe know for a fact that this is not a complete picture. There are many people who are, in fact, neutral. They may simply be unaware of an issue. They may be conflicted and ambivalent,  or they could just be apathetic.

threeThere are also individuals who are passive in their support for us, and people who passively support them. The people in this category fall in a continuum of varying levels of commitment as well.

fourThe key to creating the change that you want to happen, is to spend less time where there is little return on the investment of your time — hurling verbal bombs at the folks who will never change their minds. What you want to focus on is moving people over just one position on the chart, beginning with the people who passively support your cause. The smallest of things can move pieces of the middle.

People’s personal experience guides their opinions. Their experience also defines their self-interest. If you understand this , and organize around this principle, eventually, a tipping point of sorts makes the movement toward change unstoppable.