Forget body camera footage (easily concealed). Forget online petitions (easily ignored). Forget donating money to some random organization (easily wasted).
There is a painfully simple, scientifically proven way to end police brutality, and it requires almost nothing from you.
If everyone who tweets or writes stories about police brutality did this one thing, I would not be surprised if police brutality would be over within about a year.
This miraculous thing is called gratitude. Specifically, gratitude that is publicly expressed. I’m not bullshitting, this is borne out by well accepted peer-reviewed science.
If everyone tweeting about police brutality took the time to seek out and find those currently under-recognized and ignored police officers who risked their livelihood to speak out against or physically stop police brutality, and then thanked them publicly with the same or greater fervor and frequency as they do for condemning bad cops, police brutality would be a thing of the past.
Science. It Works.
How do I know that this is true?
Because it is demonstrated consistently by a variety of behavioral studies.
Gravitation Toward Social Norms
In Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment (PDF), Robert Cialdini showed that messages emphasizing how “many people are doing bad thing X” backfire on themselves by reinforcing the unwanted behavior:
There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and—most relevant to this article—that rampant polluters are spoiling the environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.” Only by aligning descriptive norms (what people typically do) with injunctive norms (what people typically approve or disapprove) can one optimize the power of normative appeals. Communicators who fail to recognize the distinction between these two types of norms imperil their persuasive efforts.
A study on the effects of normative messages on modifying household energy use (PDF) found the same results.
In other words, by focusing exclusively on bad cops and re-sharing story after story about police brutality, you are broadcasting to the world: “It’s normal for cops to do this.” Since people gravitate toward what is considered normal behavior, that’s probably not the message you wanted to send.
The point is: it doesn’t matter if it actually is normal behavior, it needs to stop. By repeatedly emphasizing and focusing on how normal brutality is, we are keeping it alive.
In study after study it is shown that when you approach someone or some situation with pre-conceived behavioral expectations, and then allow your actions to be based upon those expectations, you then risk causing the expected behavior.
This should be plain old common sense. Imagine suddenly treating a random co-worker as though they were always up to no good. You might start treating them coldly with suspicion, and they in turn would react to your treatment of them negatively. Witnessing their negative behavior confirms what you “already knew” about them. This works well enough on random individuals, but introduce stereotypes and suddenly multiple psychological effects are at play across large groups of people, ensuring that the pattern repeats.
Similarly, consider the overall public story that’s currently playing out and its effect on new police recruits. If the “common knowledge” of the day is that police are brutal “pigs”, then what sort of people do you think will be gravitating to work as a police officer? Even if you had a natural inclination toward the field, wouldn’t you reconsider if it involved working with such people? Is it a surprise that “Police Face Severe Shortage of Recruits”? What then can be said of those who, knowing full well the sort of “normal” behavior to expect, still decide to join the force?
Praise, or positive reinforcement, is a time and battle-tested mechanism for encouraging and fostering desirable behaviors, and its influence can extend beyond its direct target. It is known, for example, that praising someone for good behavior influences and affects the behavior of their peers.
For best results, praise should be delivered as close as possible to the occurrence of the behavior that you want to reinforce.
Back To Gratitude
Speaking out against police brutality is easy for everyone—except police.
For some of the police officers that do speak out or try to prevent police brutality, consequences can include job loss or worse. But this no longer has to be the case if we acknowledge and publicly thank those who were brave enough to do it anyway.
Police need your help. It is up to us to help normalize good cop behavior.
It is not enough to merely expose bad behavior. If we slack off in expressing our gratitude for good behavior, we start to become part of the problem ourselves because the message becomes, “This is normal. We expect this behavior of you, and good cops aren’t even worth a ‘thank you’.”
I don’t think that’s the message we intended to send. Fortunately, by remembering and thanking those in uniform who courageously stand up to brutality, we can truly end police brutality for good.
So The Next Time You See Police Brutality Trending…
- Stop. Do not add to the existing cacophony by re-sharing it.
- Find at least one story or video about a police officer who took a stand against police brutality.
- Thank them publicly by name and share their story instead (with all the fervor that you’d otherwise reserve for denouncing the bad cop).
Your tweets and shares have an impact as well as consequences, so use that power wisely.
No Time Like The Present
Sometimes, all it really takes to change the world for the better is a simple ‘thank you.’
Don’t wait for the next brutal incident.
You can take real, meaningful action right now.1
— Greg Slepak (@taoeffect) December 18, 2015
Thanks to Andrea Devers for proof reading and research assistance.