The Habit of Mass Shootings

I've written before about how I feel about guns and mass shootings.  It's no secret.  But today, after 10 people were killed and more wounded in Roseburg, Oregon, I realized there was a pattern of behaviour going on.

Charles Duhigg has written a brilliant book called The Power of Habit.  It came out a few years ago, and honestly, it changed how I think about a lot of things.  You know those decisions you make on a daily basis?  The ones that make you think what you think and do what you do?  The ones that make you who you are?  You didn't make them.  Your brain made most of them for you.  Have you ever driven to work and arrived to realize you'd been on autopilot?  That was your brain working based solely on your previous habits.

Here's a little picture of how it works:

For example, take that little red notification on your Facebook page.  Facebook designed it brilliantly so that you see that red number (The Cue) and your brain tells you to click on it (The Routine).  What you get from clicking is a release of feel-good hormones in your brain (The Reward).  It feels really good when someone likes your post, doesn't it?

You might feel like you have a choice not to click on that red number.  But Facebook knows how much you like that good feeling, so the more red numbers you see (tags, friend requests, messages, etc.), the more you want to click on them and get that brief hormone response.  This is the same reason that grocery shops give you coupons based on the shopping decisions you've already made. 

That may seem scary to you, as it does to me.  These companies know how we work.  They understand that we do so little independently.  We aren't free to choose at all.

Today, I had a realization.  Mass shootings are exactly the same.  Our pattern of behavior is the same time after time after time.  Sadly, the timing of our habit loop is getting shorter and shorter.  We are getting complacent and numb despite the fact that we are dealing with this more often.  We are feeling terrible for less time.  We are addicted to feeling of safety and freedom we get from expressing our outrage after each of these shootings.  We feel, we respond, then we forget.
You know who doesn't get the luxury of forgetting, who will live this cue over and over? The friends and families of the victims.  The communities whose names will be synonymous with death and destruction and fear.  The universities and high schools who strive to protect and care for their barely adult students.  I'm sick and tired of learning the names of towns that I'd never heard of before these shootings.  Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood.  I don't want to wake up one day to Perry, Georgia being the newest place that no one had ever heard of but now everyone knows. 

But there are people who want this loop to be the way of life for everyone, just like Facebook wants the red number to be our lodestar.  Believe it or not, there are people who talk about freedom all over their website and yet, they don't want you to be free.  They want you to be stuck in this loop over and over.  Not the cue, but the response.   They know you better than you know yourselves.  They know that a lot of you will speak out and use the internet to work through your feelings of grief and helplessness.  They know how quickly their opposition will burn out.  They also know that many will want a way to respond differently.  They will want to go out and try to keep this from happening.  And the way they will suggest?  Buy a gun.  Arm yourself.  Then, you won't feel afraid.  Then, you can forget. Then, you will be free.

They know you will do this because this is the habitual response.  All they have to do is issue a press release about freedom and defending yourself.  They assist the news networks in telling you.  They call and email and send you letters saying "This will work.  You will be free of fear."

They do this because they think you are clueless about the habit loop.  If they knew that you understood their best tactic, they would hold no power over you.

Your best way to be really, truly free?  It's to change your habit.  But how do you do that?

Simple. You can substitute the opposite of the reward. 

Stay uncomfortable.  Stay vulnerable.  Stay angry.  Pretend you are one of those people in those towns that absolutely cannot forget.  See how your response changes when you cannot feel safe, when you cannot send your children to school without worrying.  Follow that.  Even if others think it's wrong, at least it will be different.

Break your habits.  Be free.  Please.


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