Session 4: Breaking the Mould

You can watch the recording of the session here

Despite the wreckage of neoliberalism, and the hyper-partisanship of modern politics, there are many areas of agreement between people. Survey after survey shows what people consider most important in life and it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are left, right or centre, the same key values are shared by most people: 

  • Relationships and sense of belonging - family, friends and community
  • Happiness
  • Personal health
  • Financial security
  • Sense of purpose

There is even general agreement on several topics: 

  • Current inequities are a bad thing
  • Government could do with an overhaul
  • We need to address mental health and the health care system
  • The environment is under threat.
  • A majority of people think climate change is caused by human beings

Yet, it seems like nothing changes. Governments keep trying variations on a theme and wondering why they don’t get different results, or why things are getting worse. 

There are many psychological factors that make us mental prisoners of neoliberalism, and over the last 50 years monied interests have brought to bear the influence of right wing think tanks through the development of language and subliminal messaging that normalise the concept in our thinking. We also identified economic, social, and administrative and governance factors that impede change, and asked how we can break the mould and make real progress towards a just and sustainable province?

Psychologists Dr Lesley Schimanski and Dr Lisa Gunderson addressed the question, what is it about the human psyche that makes it so hard to bring about change? 

4 major factors:

  • Confirmation bias - people only tend to hear what they want to hear and discard information that does not fit with the narrative to which they subscribe
  • Cognitive dissonance - a mental conflict that occurs when a person's actions do not line up with their values and beliefs, or when someone has contradictory attitudes or perspectives about the same thing that makes them feel uncomfortable. People want to be in balance, so they tend to stick with that which makes them comfortable.
  • Pluralistic ignorance - this is where one person in a group mistakenly believes that everyone else holds a different opinion from them and therefore does not act or speak out on an issue. People don’t want to be the first mover. They want to be on a level playing field with others
  • Fear and discomfort - it is natural to be afraid of the unknown. Fear keeps us safe. But when we talk about fearing losing power, privilege or identity it is not that we fear change, it is that we are comfortable with the status quo, and deviating from the status quo is a risk. People especially fear losing their social group.
  • Ambivalence to gain - studies have shown that people are far more concerned about what they might lose as a result of a change, than attracted by what they might gain.

To overcome people’s natural resistance to change, Dr. Schimanski suggested that we should let go of trying to convince people with facts when we are canvassing.  She talked about “deep canvassing” and the importance of listening to people on their doorstep, in order to understand where voters are coming from. Voters often change their own minds through these conversations, especially if canvassers ask probing questions in a sensitive and respectful way. It was noted that such conversations are time consuming and should be held ahead of the writ period.

It was noted how other cultures communicate through stories and the importance of storytelling was stressed in influencing people and changing behaviour.

If we understand each other better through conversations and telling our stories it will be easier to “pop the normative bubble” and be the one to speak out for change.

We talked about tipping points for change. Damon Centola’s research suggests that only 25% of a population needs to adopt an idea for change to happen. It was noted that it only takes one person to be on your side to give you the courage to speak up.

It was also noted that historically, movements tend to start with a small group of committed individuals who use their power to disrupt and to get their opponents to change. For instance, it was a group of white males who voted to give women the right to vote.

It was noted how personal change is so difficult and takes courage, but is easier when the change you believe in is very important.  Dr Sanjiv Gandhi spoke about why he left his career as a pediatric heart surgeon to go into politics, and talked about his hope for a “better good”. He was frustrated by the barriers to change in a health system that is regulated by people in government who have no experience in a healthcare setting, and how difficult it was to overcome the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude in the hospital where he worked. 

There are many factors that may precipitate change; and, there are some examples of dramatic changes that have taken place, for example, the response to COVID, the collapse of the Soviet Block, the Arab Spring, and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Michael Barkusky was brought up in South Africa and told the story of how change came with the fall of apartheid, and the factors that enabled the transition with relatively little bloodshed. He talked about how white voters feared black rule, but South Africa was on a road to disaster and something had to change. He talked about the importance of recognising other people’s fears. He identified 20 different factors ranging from activism to international pressure that were instrumental in bringing about the change, no single one being the dominant factor. Using multiple different strategies can result in change. He also noted that a lot of energy was wasted  by internecine battles.

Changing the government machine is very difficult - major surgery, not band aids are required. “The government is allergic to change” according to Melanie Mark.

The “Take-Aways” - a summary of key points from breakout groups and chat

  • The concept of deep canvassing was well received, although some were concerned about the amount of time it takes and having enough volunteers trained to do it. There were requests for more training for door knockers and in active listening.
  • Listening and learning resonated with many
  • The idea of “community consensus democracy” was talked about
  • Joy-based approaches and storytelling were emphasised
  • It was suggested that we should be doing things on the ground and be seen helping people.
  • The need to develop a simple message to convey.
  • There was a suggestion that we need to appear to be more of a “force” and look like we are winning. On the other hand, there was the feeling that we should try not to appear to be a threat.
  • People were heartened by the idea that we don’t need to have 50+1% of people on board and that we can bring about change starting with relatively small numbers of people.
  • The need to rebuild trust in government was seen as a barrier. Many were concerned that the political system is broken.
  • The need to reach out to the vulnerable, marginalised and disenfranchised with our story was identified.


  • David McRaney, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion.  2022
  • Dr Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. 1999
  • George Lakoff, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to your Brain and It’s Politics.  2009
  • Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.  2007
  • The Psychology of Political Messaging” Speaking of Psychology with Drew Westen. 2018
  • The 25% Tipping Point” YES!
  • Damon Centola, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen.  2021
  • The Leadership Lab (Deep canvassing)
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