Ancestor Worship versus Progress: An Unpleasant Lesson from the Trump Presidency

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Why are people resistant to change? Amongst the popular theories are fear of the unknown, self-doubt, and unfamiliarity of the “big picture.” These are all valid, but I’d like to propose another notion, one demonstrated by the Trump Presidency—the glorification of the past.

During the campaign, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” perfectly captured the imagination of anyone longing for the good ol’ days. After all, wouldn’t it be better if life were simple, before the advent of invasive technology, political correctness, and our hyperattentive lifestyles? Sure, this was also before the introduction of civil rights, vaccines, and the free flow of readily accessible information, but wasn’t it a more innocent time led by ethical leaders. The short answer is, “No,” there is no such thing as the good ol’ days.

Research shows that the intensity of negative emotions tends to be forgotten more quickly than the positive ones. This psychological phenomenon called the Fading Affect Bias states that we twist past experiences to match our predilections. Other research has shown that when evaluating the past, we are more likely to remember the positive, creating nostalgic preferences.

Whether evaluating the present or past, good experiences quickly come to mind. When evaluating the past, however, we are less likely to recall bad experiences than when we are evaluating the present. In other words, memory is much like a record store. It stocks the hits of the past, and both the hits and duds of the present.—Carey K. Morewedge

Whether we call it Fading Affect Bias, nostalgic preferences, or simply a convenient memory, these mental barriers play a major obstacle when trying to enact change management initiatives. Ultimately, they stop the pursuit of progress in favor of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is the belief that previous generations were nobler than the current generation, that former leaders were wiser and more virtuous. A deep dive into most historical figures proves this is not the case, but facts are worthless when up against nostalgic romanticism.

When people believe the past is superior to the present, they are unlikely to question long-held beliefs and practices. It is like the common excuse, “…but that’s how we’ve always done it.” Where I use to attribute this to a simple resistance to change, those prone to ancestor worship believe that an enhanced intellect created the process and who are we to doubt it. There are two ways to change this mindset, the painful and painless.

The painful way to break ancestor worship is to break ties with the ancestors. This is being demonstrated right now in the White House. George Will, a well-regarded conservative pundit and outspoken Never Trumper, recently wrote, “Trump is something the nation did not know it needed: a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.” Will goes on to praise the idea that Trump’s failing presidency will diminish the pomposity and power of the position, thereby allowing us to change how we view the role.

This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president…—George Will

If sitting back and watching someone implode does not feel like the optimal way to eradicate ancestor worship, there are less painful ways to deconstruct ancestral decisions. A few include:

Don’t disparage the past. People are emotionally invested in their antecedents. To insult this only makes it more difficult to build trust, influence, and gain support.

Get your facts together. Information may not be the most effective way to change minds, but it will prepare you to develop the best possible product.

Focus on enhancement. Make sure your message is about making improvements, not destroy and start from scratch.

Lose the ego. Do you want to be right or do you want to get something done? If you choose the latter, the process must be about the team, not you.

Persevere. Trying to reverse long-held beliefs takes time. You will need patience, endurance, and fortitude.

Don’t fall victim to nostalgic preferences. The past was not better and, even if it was, you can’t get it back. Work towards progress by respecting how things use to be and working towards making them better. The changes may not always be easy to bear, but the alternative is far more bleak.

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