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Behavioural Themes for 2023
Our annual ‘prediction’ of the big issues shaping the world, through a behavioural lens.
This annual round up of the themes was a tricky one to create – at least in part as so much seems to be in flux. And then we realised that this was itself the ‘meta-theme’; it seems we are at a point of transition where much is being renegotiated. Change as ever, it seems, is never off the table.
#1 The evolution of unknown knowns:
Donald Rumsfeld famously said that there are ‘known-knowns’: when we know we know; but there are also know there are ‘known-unknowns’; when we know there are some things we do not know. But we are also guided by ‘unknown-knowns’: what we intuitively know but do not always explicitly recognise or see. We are so used to life being a certain way that it is only when the normal course of events is disrupted that we can see just how much we value certain behaviours and rituals.
This reflects how we as humans have mastery of an environment: everyday expertise means we no longer need to give a whole range of things attention and can instead focus on known knowns and prepare for the known unknowns. But as the world continues to change in unpredictable, chaotic ways we are surprised to find ourselves recognizing things that we had taken for granted, as if we were seeing them for the first time, such as our capacity for adaption.
#2 Managing possibilities:
Some things seem impossible – the notion of Russia invading Ukraine may have been a theoretical possibility, but it was widely dismissed and considered unlikely to happen. But once it actually happened then of course we saw that it was indeed always entirely possible. Conversely the threat of a global pandemic was widely considered to be a possibility, simply being a matter of when; but when it was upon us then we could not quite believe it in reality and was often being contested through denial, down-play and conspiracy theories.
This tells us something about the nuanced and complex psychology of our knowledge environment. We strike a delicate balance between what we know and what we believe, often turning upside down more familiar notions of ‘facts’ and perhaps instead recognising that often our focus is as much on ‘plausibility’ and possibility as ‘objectivity’. 2023 will see more consideration of what belief actually entails and how this interacts with the way in which events unfold around us.
#3 Viral intimacies:
We are living in a world in which viral risks are forcing a dilemma between on the one side the intimacies of social life as we share breath and on the other side our health; this is not just COVID but the risky and little-understood blends of infectious diseases that we are now experiencing and are likely to proliferate into 2023. It is unusual and somewhat socially challenging to wear masks in a social situation: even on public transport where social engagement is not expected.
The wearing of a mask says something about us now more than ever, it is easy to be perceived as an ‘out-group’, marking ourselves as members of a group that either cannot participate in the intimacies of sharing air (having health vulnerabilities) or will not (being in a position of privilege or choosing to socially distance ourselves.) How we navigate this pathway between intimacy and protection may well come to the fore in 2023 if the virosphere continues to be more challenging.
#4 Collapsing of boundaries:
Another aspect of viruses is that they challenge the metaphors that shape the way we live our lives. We tend to treat them anthropocentrically, seeing them as “foreign invaders” from which we must defend ourselves. But what is becoming clear is that we are starting to see the need for new mental models. First, viruses are us: we each carry approximately 174 species in our lungs alone, most of whose functions are unknown. We cannot easily draw boundaries between viruses and our bodies. Second, viruses are increasingly being seen as less as ‘things’ with power, and more they represent a dynamic, deeply interconnected set of processes that can form a distributed field of power and action.
This means that the things we aim to protect ourselves against are not as solid and stable as we might have thought but are in fact ‘processes’ in a constant state of change. As has long been pointed out, metaphors matter for they offer ways in which we can make sense of the wider world: as anthropologist Heather Paxson points out:
“dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought to live with one another.”
We expect to see these metaphors subtly challenging and shaping the nature of our conversations about ourselves in 2023, as we are all armed with new ways of thinking about ourselves in terms of where and how boundaries are set and categories formed.
#5 Contemplating the impossible:
Greta Thurnberg famously said “To do your best is no longer good enough. We now have to do the seemingly impossible.” In a world where it is predicted we are in the midst of mass extinction event and there is a lack of progress to tackle this then no wonder that so many people feel helpless despair. We need to take guidance on possible futures from other sources: one such as ‘cli-fi’ novels about climate change that guide us into possible ways we might think of alternative future. Or Afrofuturists whose work is rooted in the desire to transform the present for Black people. To do so, Afrofuturists imagine a reality in which Black people are the agents of their own story, countering those histories that discount and dismiss their contributions.
The work by people such as Octavia Butler who says she learnt to imagine an alternate future to the drab-seeming life that was envisioned for her. Her writing built new worlds, imagining different ways of relating to others, what was possible in the future, as well as who was possible.
The question is whether in 2023 we will continue to see the work of marginalised groups gain more ground, shaping our collective imagination for different ways of living.
#6 The rise of protection:
The cost-of-living crisis means that 2023 promises to be a year where we can see more clearly than ever how our material condition, much of which is out of our control, ‘forges’ the individual’s experience of wellbeing, with one thinktank suggesting that 30 million people in the UK will be ‘priced out of decent standard of living by 2024.’ Of course, a significant minority of the population have long had to live in conditions of very real financial hardship but now that a much greater swathe of the population is affected, it is not so easy to assume it is the personal responsibility of the minority and their shortcomings.
The conditions of this are now such that, as we saw with COVID, when faced with existential risk, our community response is typically a sense of solidarity around measures needed to protect us. We are with widespread support for employees taking industrial action to protect themselves against the worst financial crisis in living memory. That 2023 will see ever greater demands for protection with claims that the ‘cost of living crisis’ is a sign our society has gone fundamentally wrong.
#7 Inverting reality:
Are we in a situation where we seek ever more extravagant displays to engage, enrage and entertain us but which muddles notions of reality? The TV series Ancient Apocalypse gained millions of views to hear about a thoroughly debunked theory that a super-intelligent ice-age civilisation was wiped out, a theory which it is claimed that ‘Big Archaeology’ is silencing. The Netflix series Harry & Meghan has proved to be compelling viewing, with some fully supporting their position whilst simultaneously being criticised in some quarters as being misinformation.
Perhaps in 2023 we will be in a better situation to examine the way terms such as disinformation, misinformation, fake news are often weaponised to serve particular ends, sometimes serving as a vehicle to communicate unpalatable views, political dissent but also entertainment.
We would like to take this occasion to thank you for reading and look forward to continuing our mission in ’23 of offering a behavioural science take on the big issues shaping the world.
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