The Metric System as Predator

Very interesting. I recommend it.

Very interesting. I recommend it.

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?

Vote for Your Favorite Pro-Metric System Slogans

One idea that came concurrent with the inception of the project was T-shirts. Really. Not only as a way to raise money for production but with the notion that if people are interested enough to wear a pro metric T-shirt it might get other people thinking about the issue and raise awareness. Awareness is the first step to helping prepare for the change that needs to take place.

To back this idea up, allow me to quote the Heath brothers, from their bestselling book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: (Had to take some liberties with emphasis from the book due to the blog’s template.)

We all talk about the power of peer pressure, but “pressure” may be overstating the case. Peer perception is plenty. In this entire book, you might not find a single statement that is so rigorously supported by empirical research as this one: You are doing things because you see your peers do them. It’s not only your body-pierced teen who follows the crowd. It’s you, too. Behavior is contagious.

To help perpetuate peer perception, I’ve generated slogans I thought would work to spur metric adoption. I’m sure I’ll come with with more but here are some to start with.

I plan to make products available with them so knowing your favorites would be very helpful. Please take a moment to tell me which ones you like best. (I’ll roll out more as time goes on.)

Here’s an example of one of them translated into a design: (thanks to my multitalented daughter Laura):

What the slogans might look like

A slogan example

(Please note: For right now, please don’t send me your suggestions for new ones. There are legal implications and intellectual property considerations. May run a contest in the future once I’ve gotten the details sorted out so hold on to them until that time. In fact, try to think up more than the one that just popped into you head and write them down for future use. Thanks!)

May also have to change some a bit since Burma has now announced its intent to convert  to the metric system. But, hasn’t happened yet so I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Layout also gets complicated so I used colons where I thought some of the line breaks should be. Some are also a bit of an “inside joke” so ignore them if they don’t work for you.

I’ll leave the poll open for a few weeks since I would like lots of input. Feel free to share this with folks you know. Thanks, Linda

Note: Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print. Page 227.