CHOICE-LESS CHOOSING…The Future Of Gun Violence  

Rob Reiher Ph.D.  

In today’s day and age, we have more access to information than ever before. With the click of a button, we can find out anything we want to know instantly. This has led to what I call the “age of choice-less choosing.”  

Choice-less choosing is created by the dynamic relationship between the accelerating speed of change in society, and our inherent brain-based limitations to cope with the increasing amount of information and change that is occurring. 

We’d all like to believe that we have unlimited capabilities to adjust to higher and higher levels of incoming information, but that is simply not the case. Instead we select certain kinds of incoming information and neglect other kinds.  Here in lies the issue. Would you rather select new information that creates a sense of pleasure during times of stress, or select incoming information that creates pain?  Big tech and business understand this, and this is the origin of our higher and higher levels of “choice-less choosing.” 

While the youth exposed to trauma are certainly more at risk to commit types of suicidal /violent acts, now we need to pay attention to what is happening to all kids, not just those considered showing higher levels of mental health issues or those classified as mentally ill.  

As kids have been experiencing the steep rise in screen time, internet use, cell phones, and social media interaction, the real tradeoff they have been making is between their two forms of communication… internal and external.   Internal communication refers to “one way” communication with ourselves (self reflection, metacognition and inner dialog) and external communication refers to “two way” communication with others and the world outside us.

One of the shifts toward higher and higher levels of outside communication, in our present Attention Economy, is the magnification of violence in the media, in kids media, programs and products.  As a media consultant I have often been asked to consult for a major media company that I assumed was focusing on positive programming, products, and films for children, only to find out that was not the primary agenda. 

I can’t tell you how many corporate meetings I attended where gaining the child’s attention was the single primary goal, in order to create the company’s competitive advantage.  This was most often done with a complete disregard for the impact on a child’s development. I heard comments like, “Let’s do something that has never been done before, like maybe gouge out the evil guy’s eyeball, or add a new type of really cool weapon with a much higher level of power, shock and awe.”   

The upward swing in childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety must include this increase in violence in the media.  Desensitization to violence and consumer boredom go hand in hand. The last thing a media professional wants is for his audience to be bored.  But the elements that underlie desensitization, as it applies to the increasingly aggressive portrayals of power, must also be considered, as part of what children are dealing with today.  When we add these factors into the coping mechanisms kids currently use for stress along with social media, more and more kids are experiencing trauma in their lives, and are reaching for a variety of entertaining coping strategies to escape and distract them from their stress.  This continues to escalate, translating into higher levels of depression and anxiety, based on ineffective coping methods.  Meanwhile, the real skills and abilities needed for coping with the uncertainty and the accelerating negative changes in society remain unaddressed and therefore unavailable for many individuals. In our attention driven economy, with its increasing levels of “pleasure based” noise (distraction, disruption, distortion, disinformation, overload and disengagement)” we can temporarily relieve and deflect our pain through denial, but we will still remain clueless as to how to gain higher forms of cognitive control.  

Choice-less choosing is decision-making from the “outside in”, not from the “inside out”.  It’s amusing, entertaining, and simple…stress relief and compensation, without much concern for the long term implications or psychological impact.  It has the label “choice-less” because it’s more automatic and pleasure based than reflective and thoughtful.  Research supports the importance of developing our more effective forms of coping with the outside world. These include a wide variety of “proactive” coping strategies (active choosing) that prepare and protect, providing the needed skills to transport one into the future.  Over time, as the brain is continually “rewired” to eliminate stress through choice-less choosing and distraction, we begin to make more tradeoffs, limiting our ability to deal proactively with overload and change. When this occurs, we resort to the more primitive types of power leading to higher levels of violence and physical abuse.   

As we struggle with the increasing levels of gun violence in society, we must take a fresh look at the factors causing choice-less choosing and the relationship to our personal forms of power. When we begin to lose our proactive or higher brain based coping skills we can only resort to the lower forms of power that are available to us. 

Child development offers a perfect example.  Think about the limited types of power a very young child has available to demonstrate his autonomy. Crying, whining, screaming, tantrums, etc. are physical – emotional forms of power and autonomy, devoid of higher cognitive skills because at a younger developmental age and stage thoughtful self reflection is simply not available yet.  As development proceeds, higher brain based cognitive skills become available.  But what if the “outside-in” stimuli, manufactured and manipulated by “big tech” become more and more dominant. What happens to the “inside -out” types of proactive coping, especially when it involves more “work” and less amusement and pleasure?    

To gain a clear understanding of gun violence, we must take into account our changing context and its accompanying implications.  This means looking at all aspects of the issue, from the motivations of shooters, their coping styles, the entertainment context, noise, the attention economy, and socio-economic factors. Only by taking all these things into consideration can we hope to make progress in addressing this complex problem.  While some of the motivations for gun violence include personal grudges, gang activity, and mental health issues, socio-economic factors, information overload, reactive forms of coping and choice-less choosing are also key factors contributing to the problem. 

We truly need to change the way we think about how people are coping with increasing levels of stress, overload, personal power and entitlement. Only then will we be able to make progress in addressing this increasingly complex problem of gun violence.