Back to Thinking

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

“With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.”  – Robert Cialdini

As Alfred North Whitehead once suggested, one of the main conundrums of our evolution as a species seems to be that it has largely depended upon our ability to engage in more and more activities without thinking about them.  Hence a world built upon scientific discovery, full of ever declining numbers of people who are scientifically literate.  Hence a world of increasing complexity that we often meet with relatively primitive automaticity.

In her book, The Canon, Natalie Angier provides an entertaining primer on the hard sciences for adult non-scientists and along the way makes a strong case for the need for more of us to bring greater rigor and discipline of thought to the day-to-day.  She illustrates how we often operate with models of physical reality that are simply false.  In many cases, these models were ingrained at an early age and remain stubbornly embedded, owing to certain neurological tendencies.  Not understanding these tendencies, we remain convinced that we are more critical in our thinking than we actually are.

Angier cites as examples the number of coincidences and “miracles” that many people say happen in their lives that are convincingly explained by the laws of probability.  She also points out surprisingly wide-spread misconceptions about natural phenomena, such as the cause of the seasons (tilt of the Earth not distance from the sun).  While we can often get away with these faux pas, we also put ourselves at risk individually and collectively when we operate consistently in unquestioning ways.  In his work, psychologist Robert Cialdini (author of Influence) shows how we can be and are preyed upon by those who understand our tendencies better than we do when it comes to marketing campaigns(of both the economic and political variety).  And systems scientists have shown what damage our lack of understanding of systems archetypes can cause.

The message here is that we would be well served to step out of what Cialdini calls the “click, whirr” mindset, and become more curious about ourselves and the world we inhabit, to practice identifying our intuitive constructs, and when necessary to better align them with reality.  “Fermi flex” anyone?

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  • Curtis says:

    Likewise (looking forward to continued conversation). Thanks, Alex. Mentioned your post on Government 2.0 to a group of funders I was training today in Chicago. Quite timely. One participant said, “I’m realizing how valuable all those undergraduate sociology and psychology courses really were.” Bingo!

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