For anyone inclined to participate in citizen engagement it is essential to understand not only why it is important but also why it often fails to attract the support it deserves. Citizens aren’t blank slates or some kind of customer base that we can manipulate at will. They come from somewhere and their lived experience will often dictate how they respond. That is one of the reasons why the Boomers, Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers respond in different fashions in general.
Ever heard of the field of study in psychology labeled “attachment theory?” It’s not so much about the “bonding” experience as it is how individuals will access the world around them. It’s really about the importance of two-way communication in a person’s life and how it affects their relationship to their community.
Psychologists have discovered that every infant learns crucial aspects of its relationship with the broader world in the first few years of life. Infants develop attachment pathways based on how they are communicated with and fall into three main categories.
The first shows positive signs when the caregivers evoke consistent responses when the infant expresses signals of discomfort, hunger, happiness or anger. By responding affirmatively and with interest to such signals, the caregiver teaches the child that its expressions have an effect and can affect its situation. In other words, it can influence its world.
But if a caregiver responds inappropriately or inconsistently, then another outcome is perceived. The child learns that its entreaties have minimal effect on its surroundings and develops what psychologists term “anxious resistant attachment.” Such children often demonstrate anxiety, over-dependency, and feel a sense of early victimization. Over time, they can become easily exploited.
Infants that get no response fall into the third category, one in which the child displays anger issues at being consistently ignored and reveal anti-social behaviour as they get older. These are termed as infants with “anxious avoidance attachment” – a state that can induce intense anger, an inability to listen, and even violence. By getting no response when they were young, the force the issues as they get older.
Each child replicates how it was treated as it matures and enters adulthood. They begin to behave as they were treated in infancy. There are exceptions, but the rule still carries that people behave by how their efforts at communicating were treated when they were young.
Psychologists have determined that all this centers around the impulse of powerlessness. Those who couldn’t get appropriate responses earlier in life begin to take on their own personal rules of conduct as they age. Those receiving consistent and affirming responses in youth learn to work with their environment as they get older and believe they can affect the shape of their own lives.
All this should tell us something about why some cities have developed a certain sense of dysfunction in the living out of their social and community life. Our participation in society often reflects how it dealt with us as we learned to function within it. If democracy functions well and citizens receive affirming nods in response to the signals they emit, their attitude towards the community where they live is positive because they maintain a belief that they can affect their outcome through the scope of their efforts. For such people, self-expression is met with a response that listens and acts.
But what happens if leaders react inconsistently or go through seasons of silence? Citizens then feel adrift, removed from an environment that they cannot no longer affect anyway. They feel they are being manipulated and anxiety escalates as they realize they might be trapped within circumstances from which society’s leaders seemed disinclined to help them escape.
Worst of all, what happens when, after seasons of prolonged expression, citizens receive either little or hostile responses to their entreaties? They will learn to distrust politics, even expressing an extreme animosity towards it. In such a state, democracy can decline in rapid fashion and harshness can begin to form a city’s character.
There is a psychology to citizen engagement, just as there is to everything else. The effective deliberation with citizens spread over various generations will have to take into account how each reacts to civic overtures. Neglecting this reality can only result in frustration all around.