I have been theoretically curious about the growth of ‘behavioural economics’ – the science of how desired behaviours can be encouraged and rewarded in large populations – and I can sympathise with some of the more public-spirited aims of its generators who started out wondering how people might be encouraged to support charities for example, or donate their organs after death. But in terms of its practice, I get the same chill factor as with any kind of behavioural engineering, especially when it becomes embedded in state policy-making as with the UK government’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ more commonly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’.
One of the fiercest critics has been Frank Furedi who argues that when we are positioned to make ‘right’ choices rather than engage in open debate, we are in effect ceasing to be choice-makers at all and the important political challenge of influencing us through ideas and argument is eroded. This leads in his view to the denigration of moral independence, ignoring our right to dissent and reject options, and limiting our capacity to judge value for ourselves.
All this came to mind as I’ve been re-reading George Kelly’s original writing about the role of the PCP professional and noticing the careful attention he pays to our response when clients choose solutions which we would not have advised for them. He poses the usefully provocative question of whether we are left with a feeling of failure, of having pitched our constructs against the clients’ constructs, and lost. He suggests that at such times we have lost sight of our role in the service of others, since surely our aim is enabling people to exercise their “initiative, originality and independence”.
This perspective prompts useful questions for leaders in organisations as well as leaders of states. Do we want to become ‘choice architects’ nudging people to comply without thinking much about it thus avoiding troublesome ‘resistance’, or do we want to relate to others as engaged and active colleagues, encouraging people to exercise their critical thinking, moral judgment and creativity? Of course we will need to construct a framework of shared purpose, but can it be elastic enough to embrace a variety of positions? And of course we will want to propose best options, but are they complete plans or are they malleable enough to be shaped through discussion and argument? Do we employ nudge methods to get people where we want them with few questions asked, or do we work harder to engage everyone in debate, allowing ourselves to be sometimes disappointed, sometimes surprised, sometimes thwarted, sometimes amazed?
10 November 2013
will o’brien: I have been disposed to see ‘nudge’ as a relatively benign programme with helpful intent, I admit to not having though through the implications to this degree. Would you point me in the direction of Furedi’s comments? 19 November
From time to time I am invited to join presentations on the topic of ‘diversity’ in organisations. There will usually be people making economic and business arguments about diversity as competitive advantage and they generally get a positive response to their convincing stats charts. And there will be others who argue from a moral standpoint that embracing diversity is simply the right thing to do, which generally leads to a lot of nodding and/or a certain amount of shuffling, depending on the industries involved.
My contribution from a constructivist perspective is rooted in George Kelly’s theory of loosening: that the introduction of new elements provokes movement in our construct systems, opening up the possibility of developmental experimentation for individuals and the collective, and kickstarting the creativity cycle.
Preparing some material last week, I came across a refreshingly different angle in a column from by Cass Sunstein which celebrates serendipity rather than controlled elaboration but reaches similar conclusions.
Critiquing the personalisation of news, Sunstein writes in praise of ‘old-fashioned newspapers’ which offer us vast amounts of content we wouldn’t have chosen in advance, describing this as “an architecture of serendipity in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn’t select. Much…seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing”. He contrasts this with the ‘architecture of control’ offered by personally-selected and individually-targeted news which enables us to see exactly what we want and avoid the rest, according to our existing tastes.
Sunstein argues for serendipity as highly desirable, an important feature of freedom and self-government rather than an an obstacle. “Those who read only what they identify in advance end up narrowing their horizons; they may create echo chambers of their own design”. He believes that this closed circuit of experience aggravates political polarization, whereas “an architecture of serendipity can reduce that effect [and] create a kind of social glue by creating common understandings and experiences for members of a highly diverse nation.”
The language of building ‘an architecture of serendipity’ as opposed to disappearing into ‘echo chambers of our own design’ struck me as both powerful and useful. George Kelly’s work on loosening also includes a celebration of the random, including experiments with association and juxtaposition, allowing us to realign constructs in a makeshift way without concern for inconsistencies. “Loosening releases facts, long taken as self-evident, from their rigid conceptual moorings [and] once so freed, they may be seen in new aspects hitherto unsuspected, and the creative cycle may get underway”.
Cass’s article in on the Bloomberg website:
18 October 2013
fiona duggan: This reminds me of a conversation some years ago about the display of knowledge in a national museum. The trend was towards reorganising collections to tell a particular story, usually in a linear way with clear entry and exit points. The observation was that this approach focused on one way of looking at a particular collection and the concern was around how well one particular telling of a story might work for a wide range of interests. The original layout according to Victorian classification systems allowed viewers to enter the collection at any point and in their own way – as somebody with a general interest in the subject content, as a specialist, as an artist interested in shape and form, as a child, as a student, and so on. Move forward 20 years, and it seems to me that the British Museum hit a very nice balance in its ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, curated by Grayson Perry – bringing together artefacts from across the collections for a temporary period of time, juxtaposing them in thought-provoking ways that, for me, certainly opened up new ways of looking and thinking. 19 October
francziska magdalena: Just to draw your attention to the links between George Kelly’s perspective on Constructivist Psychology and William Stephenson’s (Q Methodology/ Scientific Structure of Subjectivity) parallel perspective. Stephenson applied Q Methodology to highlight difference in the quality of subjective experience and how it relates to a person’s self-reference. He considered the difference between, say, reading a favourite newspaper on a Sunday at home, in front of a log fire, after breakfast – compared to say, reading a newspaper with the objective of discovering instrumental utility. The former has a quality of ‘warmth’ and it evokes warm feelings in the reader – this, Stephenson called, ‘Hot Communications’. In contrast, the latter evokes ‘cooler’ feelings. ‘Cool Communications’ are instrumental – their evaluation is ‘measurable’ in terms of the object-relations involved; ’Hot Communications are transformational - their evaluation is ‘measurable’ in terms of the subject-relations involved. However, as in quantum physics there always exists a relationship between them. 20 October
Bubbles first, and to Lawrence Weschler. Recent talk of ‘re-inflating the housing bubble’ has reminded me of an article he wrote a couple of years ago. Weschler is always a good read. Jay Allison once wrote that “If you are at a party and Lawrence Weschler tugs at your arm, you are lucky because it means that something has fascinated him and he wants to tell you about it so you will be fascinated along with him, and that’s pretty much how his writing works too.” I agree, and here’s what he has to say about bubbles:
“The word “bubble” just has an inescapably happy feel to it, conjuring up kids and parties and sudden iridescent poppings, screams of laughter, the giddy clapping of happy hands and an overall lack of consequence. Things get a bit more pedestrian with the more up-to-date dot-com and housing bubbles. But still, seriously, where’s the harm?”
He goes on of course to point out the actual harm that lies in our being continually soothed by the innocence of the word, “invited to contemplate, with relative equanimity, hearing that fateful ‘pop’ every so often, as the inevitable price to be paid for the market freedoms of the unregulated capitalistic system. Ah well, kids will be kids.”
Weschler muses about the difference alternative metaphors can make, wondering if there is a more useful way to express the ‘bubble’ phenomenon, one more resonant of its disastrous consequences and the trail of damage it leaves. How about ‘tumour’?
“The tumor is set against the interests of the greater organism of which it was once a part. Its brief is to flourish at all costs, to thrive at the expense of the surrounding healthy tissue. Followed to its inevitable conclusion, this means doom for both the host and the tumor….What if, instead of that playful word bubble, we tried something a bit more accurately descriptive when growth at any cost became the goal: “the dot-com tumor,” “the subprime tumor,” “the derivatives tumor.”
As we become lulled by bubble-talk, it’s so very useful to have the performative power of language demonstrated in a such a stark way. He ends:
“Words matter. Metaphors frame thought. Pay them heed and tend them well.”
So, to burst balloons, and other timely metaphors, and Michael Symmons Roberts. News is breaking this evening that he has won the Forward Prize for poetry, and many congratulations to him – a richly-deserved win for his wonderful collection Drysalter. Deep in this treasury of short poems, and perfect for our topic, is ‘String Theory’. The poet draws our attention to a leftover fragment of string as it hangs behind ‘the wall-length glass‘ of ‘an abandoned finance house’ from which workstations and computers were removed ‘when bets went sour’. It starts:
Exactly what depends upon this length
of twine pinned to the ceiling (remnant
of a long-forgotten leaving do) nobody knows
The poem ends:
If only they had paid some heed to this
jute pendulum, tipped with a scrap of balloon,
had noted how the draughts and mood-swings
made it tick and feather, because, yes,
this was the instrument, calibrated
to perfection, quivering with the future.
1st October 2013
Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts is published by Cape Poetry. (Don’t click Amazon – please support your local bookshop)
Any mention of the NG transports me in memory to the shelf of aged well-worn and much-treasured yellow-spined magazines that I grew up with. Enchanted by their mysterious exotic fold-out maps, I scoured them each term to cut and paste into school projects, regularly transfixed by astonishing and terrifying pictures of wild beasts stampeding, rock crystals forming, galaxies exploding, deep-sea monsters rising…
Bloch’s topic is failure and her field is exploration. She offers a range of interesting perspectives, reminding us that ‘even at their most miserable, failures provide information to help us do things differently next time’, and citing alpinist Pete Athans: ‘I learned how not to climb the first four times I tried to summit Everest. Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.’
Later he describes his motivation to continue: ‘If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation. Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.’
She also notes that luck plays a role in any endeavour, citing climber Alan Hinkes who ‘has had his share of misfortunes: broken his arm, impaled his leg on a tree branch “like a medieval spear”, sneezed so violently near the top of Pakistan’s 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat that he slipped a disk and had to abort the climb. “I probably should be dead,” he admits, but “I haven’t had any failures. I have had near misses and close shaves.”‘
While many of us try to ignore or avoid looking at our failures, or alternatively become bogged down in the shame of them, she presents a useful slant from explorers who remember their failures and continually analyse them. She points out how successes may be less well attended to, and how this can lead to over-confidence and further failure: ‘During the 1996 Everest season, in which 12 climbers perished, mountaineering experts wrongly felt they had the mountain wired and pretty well sorted out. In truth, the formulas can get you into trouble, and failure keeps you on your toes.’
She also features the story of Shackleton’s 1914-16 expedition to cross Antarctica seeing it as a valuable reframing of failure. When his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice and expedition appeared doomed, Shackleton’s goal ‘quickly shifted from exploration to ensuring a safe return home for himself and his crew. Persistence. Resilience. Adaptability and crisis management. All are key themes in exploration, as in ordinary life.’
According to Bloch, explorers tend to take the long view, recognizing the illusory nature of failure and success. ‘You get lucky a few times and start to think that’s skill. Success and failure in cutting-edge exploration is a very fine line.’
The full article, which feels like a good choice for a new season, is at:
16 September 2013
jenny newland: The whole theme of mistakes as an essential part of learning has been centre stage for the last couple of months. I have recently completed an online course with Jo Boaler at Stanford University (How We Learn Maths) and produced the attached poster as one of my assignments. Changing cultural attitudes to mistakes was an important starting point of her course, and the importance of giving students the message that you grow your maths brain by making mistakes (backed up by neurological studies that show that the brain forms new connections when you make mistakes and no new connections when you get the right answers all the time). Maybe you’re familiar with the work of Carol Dweck (also at Stanford) on growth and fixed mindsets? She writes a lot on the same theme, though not specialising in maths. 22 September
Preparing some notes on education last week led to a search online for Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’. At the time I didn’t remember the exact title or the author’s name and I included ‘unscientific’ in my search terms.
This is what I was after:
“A science that insists on possessing the only correct method and the only acceptable results is ideology and must be separated from the state, and especially from the process of education.”
Feyerabend describes all ideology – and science itself – as historical phenomena and promotes the study of many things, including fairy tales and other cultural stories, to gather the range of information needed to arrive at free decisions. “An essential part of a general education … is acquaintance with the most outstanding propagandists in all fields, so that the pupil can build up resistance against all propaganda, including the propaganda called ‘argument’.”
All good provocative stuff, but the joy of a not very well-defined web search lies in the many curious links encountered along the way, including these two fragments of unscientific treasure:
First, a blogger on tech security (Icamtuf) who had posted a range of interesting arguments against metrics: that many frameworks promise to advance adaptability and agility yet offer relatively static benchmarks; that seemingly-convincing data discourages observation and change; that dysfunctional organizations can find false comfort in a checklist or sets of indicators; that focusing on hundreds of data points takes your eyes off the new and the unknown…and so, interestingly, on.
Underneath his post, missing his point with complete perfection, is the comment: “As much as I enjoy most of the posts here, this just feels like a rant without any evidence to back it up”
Then, best of all, I was distracted into reading fragments of Nabokov, (yes, I was way off task by then…) including this most glorious opening to a long paragraph which I am definitely poaching for future use:
“A special study, which I do not plan to conduct, would reveal, probably, …”
19 July 2013
(image: Cabaret Mechanical Theatre http://www.cabaret.co.uk/)
alex swarbrick: I like the Nabokov quote especially – something to open an essay with, perhaps! I also identify with the challenge to spurious data, which reminded me of a hilarious (although it was intended to be entirely serious) presentation I once sat through on metrics. I don’t know whether you ever saw the film ‘Chicken Run’, but if you did, you’ll maybe understand why the image that grew as these accountants droned on about measuring and benchmarking every movement, breath, and output of hapless employees was of Mrs Tweedy stood by the chicken pie machine meticulously measuring all the ingredients for optimal productivity! 20 July
lionel: That Nabokov quote sounds far too much like something out of Ian Duncan Smith’s office: ‘I believe…’ – metrics have their value you know! Seriously though I enjoyed all of this, and the end-of-term feel of it. 20 July
mary: my lovely Nabokov quote lost to IDS!!! devastated….
Alongside so much news of war and conflict and so many polarised debates, these two wise thoughts came my way, challenging, reminding….
“Our culture is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. The best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and being stretched by that”
“We have to continue to shake off what we sometimes think we know in order to lend our imaginations to vibrant and sometimes agonistic spectrums of experience…affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment. An absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same”
23 June 2013
This week I enjoyed an overview of the work of Albert Hirschman by Cass R Sunstein in the New York Review of Books. Hirschman is described as seeking, from an early age, to ‘prove Hamlet wrong’, seeing the character as immobilized and defeated by doubt. By contrast, he was convinced that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal.
“He was a great believer in doubt – he never doubted it—and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong?”
One of his notable essays explored the ‘overproduction of opinionated opinion‘, and advocated the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes. Sustein comments: “Hirschman thought that strong opinions might be dangerous to the health of our democracy because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been”.
My attention was also caught by the reference to one of his later books: A Propensity to Self-Subversion (the title of which calls to mind Spencer McWilliams’ notion of The Personal Anarchist). Hirschman is described as celebrating skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and capturing “not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.”
Overall he seemed “delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation.” This was after all, the inventor of ‘possibilism’, who wanted to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.”
Sunstein sums up with this: “The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong, not just Hamlet.”
I also rediscovered this 1929 poem by Robert Graves which travels a similar path, and, if we can read it with a tad more humility than the original voice, it offers a fine description of constructivist doubt, and of its contrast pole:
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, l question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He is in a new confusion of his understanding;
I am in a new understanding of my confusion.
The full review of Hirschman ‘An Original Thinker of Our Times is at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/may/23/albert-hirschman-original-thinker/?pagination=false
17 May 2013
charlotte ormston: It’s an interesting thing, learning from doubt… I guess because in order to make something new out of something shattered and uncertain, you need to believe in, or trust, the new thing that you’re making, and this seems like the opposite sensation to doubt – do you see what I mean? I find that a really interesting position. It’s what I tried to investigate in my Nietzsche dissertation last year. Also, how can you be creative without potentially ‘overproducing opinionated opinion’? I guess the healthiest position to be in is a kind of middle ground between the push of certainty and the pull of doubt?…constantly adapting and evolving ideas, keeping yourself and your creations on their toes… 20 May 2013
paul rooden: I’m doubting I that I agree with any of this – but it’s very thought provoking. What did ol’ George Kelly have to say about doubt then? 22 May 2013
mary: Quite a bit, and he references Hamlet several times. Theoretically, we would probably be looking at incomplete CPC and creativity cycles. Here’s an example of Kelly on the potential paralysis of doubt: ‘trying to balance off the secure definiteness of a narrowly encompassed world against the uncertain possibilities of life’s adventure’. I like the language – you can hear the nudge towards extension (possibility, life, adventure) but only as hint, and with due respect for dilemma.
chris walker: This posting was delightfully provocative – it chimed with a conversation recently with friends, one of whom is an actor. He suggested one dimension for thinking about people is those that believe they are right and those that have doubts. He was considering that an actor who believes they are right will find it difficult to get into a character, and a successful actor has to have doubt, to hold the possibility that the character might have a whole number of different takes on a situation. 24 May 2013
carl richards: I enjoyed this, and thought you might like this quote from Richard Feynman: “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know“. 4 June 2013
Over the past year or so, I have noticed a shift in the kinds of work which organisational consulting colleagues are engaging with, a change which may perhaps be connected with the current popularity of 1-1 and small group coaching. Rather than large-scale interventions, there seems to be a trend towards working with with very small groups or with a few key individuals, but still with scope for generalised feedback into the wider organisation.
The shift of focus is interesting. There is less emphasis on overview, representative sampling, comprehensive analysis or working towards strategic recommendations. In contrast, work might start where the interest or energy emerges. The themes gathered from individual examples and case studies tend to throw up unusual ideas and generative questions, suggesting points of departure for new conversations and highlighting potential connections which can be considered propositionally. It can be a creative and energising process.
In his essay on the miniature in ‘The Poetics of Space’, Bachelard wrote in praise of the magnification of small things as giving us a quite new take on the world. He proposed that the magnifying glass might ‘furnish us with documents of pure phenomenology’, leading to surprising discoveries rather than familiar ‘worn-out words’. Under imaginative scrutiny, he suggested, details will reveal themselves and ‘patiently take their places’, uncovering what has previously gone unnoticed and requiring us to deal with these things afresh. And it does feel refreshing to hear people attending more actively to individuality, exceptions, diversity, the unrepresentative, puzzles.
One of my own clients reflected recently that whereas in the past he had valued consulting to help him ‘see the wood from the trees’, he now finds the reverse is true: ‘Consultants are able to do some close reading for us in key spots. We are continually pushed into big-picture thinking and strategising on a global scale. These days we need help seeing the trees in the wood’.
17th April 2013
I was listening last week to a group of arts educators as they were sharing and developing defensive arguments for their very place in the academy, and exchanging concerns about the potential despondency of their students as arts and humanities are repeatedly and publicly devalued. Our subsequent discussion was about hope, and the difference between a falsely ‘positive’ attitude to current challenges, and a more genuine stance of constructive hope.
On the way home, a diversion into a charity bookstore threw up a treasure of a book by Seamus Heaney – the transcript of his 2003 lecture at Dundee University where he gave one of his typically inspiring and robust arguments for art:
‘Basically, the experience of art firms us up inside. It fortifies our subjectivity. The world comes at us minute by minute, day by day, presenting us with every kind of emotional and professional and historical predicament so that as individuals we are always in danger of losing trust in our resourceful selves…forgetting that we have a stake in the ore of our selfhood and negotiating instead in the coin of the moment, the currency of the ephemeral. In this situation, poetry and art and cultural memory kick in like an emergency power system to reinforce the self, besieged as it is by the constant clamour and distraction of circumstance.’
I had some trace memory of Heaney writing about hope, and yesterday I tracked it down to his much earlier Oxford lecture on The Redress of Poetry. He references Simone Weil’s inspirational law – ‘Obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin’ – and talks about her idea of ‘counterweighting’. Heaney suggests that in poetry – and I imagine he might agree, most art – a counter-reality is placed on the scales, ‘a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own balance against the historical situation…a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances’.
And then I found the quote I had vaguely remembered which is actually from Vaclav Havel:
‘Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out’.
20 February 2013
Pictures by Brigid Collins from ‘Room to Rhyme’ – much more of her beautiful work is at www.brigidcollins.co.uk
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Troth sir, I can yield thee none without words, and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
‘Skiver v striver….how did this false dichotomy, which has been at the heart of the rhetoric around the government’s attack on benefits this week, catch on? It has seeped so far, so fast, into the national consciousness as a meaningful idea that the very people vilified by it – the people who know they are unemployed by circumstance and not by choice – feel their lives judged against its fictional benchmarks… The word “cheat” now fits so snugly against the word “benefits” that they run together as a single concept.’
Zoe Williams, Guardian
‘Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there….’
John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket
(Feste image by Hannah Tompkins http://shakespeare-art-museum.com/Rummy/Rummy-Cont.html)
11 January 2013