I have experience in change management and communications but I’m reading a book that helps explain why some people have such a strong, negative reaction when the subject of metric adoption comes up.
Tame the Primitive Brain
The author of Tame the Primitive Brain: 28 Ways in 28 Days to Manage the Most Impulsive Behaviors at Work, Mark Bowden, asserts that our brains developed in a modular way. First, we needed the ability to control things like heartbeat and breathing, but not in a conscious way, and that is our reptilian brain. As the oldest part of our thinking systems its primary objective is survival of the organism in which it resides. Next, the limbic part of our brains helps regulate our emotions and memory—a little higher functioning. And finally, there is the latest addition to our thought house: the neocortex. This part of our brain provides consciousness and allows higher-level thinking like the use language and planning for the future. (I’m really glossing this over so see the book for more information.)
Because they’ve been with us the longest, the primitive parts of our brain make very rapid decisions about whether something is a threat or not so we (and many other creatures) can respond accordingly (that whole fight or flight thing). In terms of evolution, this rapid decision making was ideal for hunting down our food—or not becoming something else’s food.
It’s these same parts of our brains that cause us to pull a hand away from a flame without thinking about it but they also apparently make quite a few other decisions for us without involving that much slower moving (though much more sophisticated) neocortex.
How this processing effects adoption of new ideas—including metric adoption
Thus, our brains have evolved to respond to threats of all kinds automatically without much processing and that’s where we get into trouble when it comes to new ideas and the suggestion of change.
As long as we’re relatively comfortable, we tend to prefer everything stay the same. A change represents a potential threat and should be avoided. Change means risk and, to our primitive brain at least, risk is risky and should be avoided. Change is a predator that could mean something bad.
Should a change look like it’s coming (all else being equal) our default position is to be negative about it since it always appears to be the safest choice.
But what does our reptilian brain do if it does not detect anything either inside or outside of an environment that it can quickly identify as safe or unsafe? What if there is insufficient data, too much data, doubt or confusion? What happens then? (page 33, Kindle location 846)
The author goes on to says that when there is confusion, we assume the worst because, historically, that was the scenario that would most likely keep us alive. He gives the example of a cave dweller who hears a noise outside at night. Which person is more likely to survive, the person who automatically translates that sound as menacing and picks up a weapon just in case or the person who blithely rolls over and goes back to sleep? The former, of course, and our minds tend perceive the unknown as threats since it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”
Uncertainty and the metric system
To close my loop, metric adoption is something that most people have never given much (if any) thought to so their first instinct is to reject it instantly—the metric system conversion is processed just as we would respond to a predator —a threat. Believe me, I’ve seen it firsthand: the panic or concern on people’s faces is unmistakable. And people will come up with the pretty lame reasons to justify their instincts to reject but it’s not their fault, remember the fallback position is to view change as threatening.
Suggested response to immediate metric system adoption rejection
According to the author, we might want to follow the course of action:
So when you get what feels like a snappy, impulsive or ill-judged negative response from a colleague, customer, or client—anyone from whom you are really seeking a “yes”—try this approach: Just say okay, and upon leaving or finishing the call, ask the person to think about it. Then come back later with more information and see if you can change his or her mind. (Page 39, Kindle location 942)
The hope is that over time, and with more information, the neocortex will kick in and people will process the new information using the more developed part of their brains. Once that happens there is a greater possibility that a change might actually be viewed as beneficial—and in this case, deciding that perhaps metric system adoption might be the best course of action after all.
I do recommend you get more of the background on this topic and read the whole book. It really is quite interesting. And if it could improve your life, isn’t it worth the small investment?
I wonder if anybody ever thought to examine the emotions of metric proponents.
As for this metric proponent, my main emotions when dealing with this subject are frustration and despair. It can sometimes be so depressing when you realize you’re tilting at windmills. I also experience a sense of pointlessness in things like getting a metrestick or trying to incorporate it into my daily. After all, how can I communicate with people around me using metric units? They aren’t familiar with them! Using metric units only serves to make things more confusing, so why bother?
Some more emotions are a sense of loss and resentment. For me, metric units are completely non-intuitive, and it’s the U.S. customary units that feel “normal”. I remember as a kid wondering why the metric system didn’t have a good equivalent for feet when it did have one for metric, showing what was intuitive to me. I would have needed to grow up with the system for metric to be intuitive, and had metric gone through in the 70s and 80s, I would have, as I was born in 1984. But because of the idiots around at the time (and who are still around), I didn’t get that chance. And most people seem to be quite willing to put future generations through that.
So in my daily life, metric units just aren’t very “real”, they’re an abstraction, some nice idea pushed by a bunch of out-of-touch nerds and geeks, who’ll carry a metrestick around and measure everything around them in the hopes of becoming at least somewhat familiar with the system, but when visiting their club anyone with any social sense will realize this is most certainly NOT “where it’s at”. Try using metric units in everyday conversations to make them relevant, until you are so tired of all the confusion surrounding them you finally give up and go back to customary. Because you can’t change these things on your own. This is something that must be done collectively, not as individuals, and the collective here ain’t doing it.
So I hoped to express my emotions as a metric proponent and the anguish metric advocacy puts me through despite supporting metric. It’s a total grind.