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Those Who Study History Will Repeat It.

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on May 24, 2017

Nuclear Explosion

There is an oft-repeated phrase, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” I disagree. I think the way we study history, and the lessons we internalize from history, force us to repeat history ever more destructively. By studying history incorrectly for so many years we are at the point where human extinction is becoming a frighteningly real possibility .

The intent of studying history is to remind us to learn from our past mistakes. It’s the reason we say “never again” when the atrocity of genocide occurs, every single time. However, when we study predominately negative attitudes and behaviors, with relatively little time devoted to positive attitudes and behaviors, it reinforces the negative. To change our future, we need to focus on the positive forces for change until they become our dominant mode of operation.

Repetitive and consistent messages across a range of media change attitudes and behaviors – both positively and negatively.

Our study of history and current events is 90% reinforcement of negative behavior, feeding our engrained negativity bias. The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman first addressed the cognitive biases which keep us negative.  “We have a negativity bias, which is the tendency to give far more information to negative details than positive ones and the confirmation bias, which is our tendency to selectively look at information or see information that confirms our preexisting notions, which is fine except that our preexisting notions are typically negative and therefore, we’re reconfirming our negative expectations.”

Think about the history you studied in school and the stories you hear on the news. War. Revolutions. Civil unrest. Rioting. Genocide. Betrayal of treaties. Slavery. Pollution. Extinction of species. Power-brokering with the intent of dominance or inflicting harm. Terrorism. History is a dismal recounting of the harm which humans inflict upon each another and on our environment. We are forever shackled to the worst aspects of human history as the lessons are branded into our consciousness. Being human, we then improve on our knowledge base, to the point that we now even target children. It is frightening to think we could sink any lower, but the negative messages continue to create the template for future action.

The messages coming at us from every angle are unmistakable. This is your history. This is your present. Survival of the fittest. Bludgeon the beliefs of others or they will bludgeon your beliefs. We are told the intent is to shock us into opposition and change, but assimilation and acceptance of the horror is the inevitable outcome and our history becomes our future once again.

Repetitive and consistent messages across a range of media change attitudes and behaviors – both positively and negatively.

Think about the history you aren’t taught, or the history which receives only a passing mention. Nicholas Winton saved 669 Jewish children from death during World War II. When Jerry Yang was 10 he knew one English word, he went on to co-found Yahoo and changed how we interact. High school students boycotted school conditions, eventually leading to the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision and desegregation. The actions and accomplishments of women and minorities, virtually ignored for 5,000 years.

There is good news to report currently. We reduced global poverty by 50% in 30 years. Renewable energy smashed global records in 2015. Guinea worm may follow smallpox into the eradicated disease category. A 21-year old may have found a way to clean the oceans. The uplifting and unified response of the people in Manchester to the recent terrorist attack. These stories tell us the right actions to take. They give us a roadmap to follow.

It will be a challenge to change course. Only 17% of our brain is the “thinking” portion, the prefrontal cortex. The remaining 83% is focused on reacting. Included in the reacting portion is the amygdala, the reptilian danger-detecting section of the brain. The amygdala is larger in men then women. This has serious implications when men hold the majority of decision-making positions globally. The physiological imbalance may make men more likely to pursue the fear-based approach. This inherent bias alone should cement the argument for equal gender representations in all leadership positions – political, corporate, and social.

I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to create positive change. Cat videos go viral for a reason. As do pandas on a slide. They make us feel good. The internet is full of stories of good deeds, of happiness, of everyday gestures that remind us of our shared humanity and the right actions, the actions which teach us to create a positive history. The man who helps a boy accused of stealing medicine for his mother. The mothers who propel their children to reach their full potential. Despite our hard-wired prehistoric ‘danger! danger!’ tendency, we still seek out the positive, which tells me we can train our thinking brain to overrule our reptilian reacting brain.

To strengthen your own higher-level brain function, identify the people, the attitudes, and the emotions which make positive change occur and study their techniques and the outcomes. Dissect how people stand up to tyrants and autocrats. Embrace and incorporate the ways literature and the arts and music have changed opinions, challenged the status quo, and showed us the new normal. Focus on how science and technology have expanded and improved the world positively. Most of all, relegate the negative behaviors and attitudes as cautionary footnotes, not as the main event.

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome. It’s time to change how we study history, while we still have time.



Start rewiring your brain now with positive messages.

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History of the phrase “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it”:
Santayana is credited with the initial idea. In 1905 he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Although also, incorrectly, credited with saying “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it”, Winston Churchill had a different though accurate take though on the matter, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

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