Saturday, July 28, 2018

How will human values evolve as we approach the social singularity?


As explained in a recent post, Max Borders has coined the term, social singularity, to describe the transformation in social organisation that could occur following mass adoption of secure networking technologies. Some existing mediating structures could become obsolete, new forms of coordination could emerge and we might collaborate as never before.

In his book, The Social Singularity, Max relies heavily on spiral dynamics to discuss the way cultural values may evolve as we approach the social singularity. Spiral dynamics was developed by the psychologist Care Graves and popularised by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. It postulates that at different stages of development different values become dominant to help people to function in the life circumstances in which they find themselves.

The spiral is summarised in the graphic shown at the beginning of this post (copied from the toolshero web site). In brief, at first stage of the spiral, survival values are dominant. At the second stage, the dominant values are those of the tribe or clan. At the next stage, we have values related to power, glory and conquest. Then we have loyalty and deference to higher authority. This is followed by the values of science and commerce, and then the ethics of care and the politics of equality.

As we approach the social singularity, prior value systems will be transcended: more people will come to see themselves as interdependent beings, requiring some autonomy and respecting the autonomy of others. Beck and Cowan described the final, holistic, stage as an integrative system that “combines an organism’s necessary self-interest with the interests of the communities in which it participates”.  Max comments:

“This way of seeing the world is neither rugged individualism not crude communitarianism. It requires seeing ourselves through others and others through ourselves”.

What evidence do we have that humanity is heading in that direction? Questions have been raised as to whether spiral dynamics is firmly grounded in evolutionary biology and anthropology, but from the little I know of ancient history it seems to provide a plausible account of the way different cultures have emphasized different virtues. If we look at the economic history of the last few centuries, the story told by spiral dynamics seems consistent with the work of Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey about the emergence of a culture of economic growth, first in western Europe and then spreading to other parts of the world. The theory also seems consistent with the empirical work of Ronald Inglehart and Chis Welzel on value change, based on the World Values Survey. As noted on this blog a few years ago Chris Welzel’s book Freedom Rising provides evidence that as societies have advanced in terms of technological sophistication and education, emancipative values - relating to autonomy, choice, equality etc. - have more widely shared and the dominant life strategies of populations have shifted from an extrinsic focus on material circumstances to an intrinsic focus on emotional qualities.

That research doesn’t tell us how dominant values might evolve in the years ahead, but Max Borders makes clear that he sees people who are comfortable with subversive innovation – innovation that has potential to replace existing mediating structures including government agencies - as “the standard bearers for a future in which a better world can be dreamed by visionaries, socially constructed, and hard-coded into existence”. Max adds:

“As dreamers and doers, we are prepared to forgo the spectacle of elections and the blood sport of campaign politics. We want to take a vantage point from high above, looking at how we can reweave the latticework of human interaction to create a great reconciliation between private interest and community good."

If we view spiral dynamics and the values of the social singularity in normative terms, Robert Nozick’s suggestion that the pursuit of higher layers of ethics can be thought of as building on the ethics of respect, seems highly relevant. As I noted some years ago, Nozick saw four layers of ethics:

·         The most fundamental layer - the ethics of respect - mandates respect for the life and property of other people.

·         The second layer – the ethics of responsiveness – mandates acting in a way that is responsive to the inherent value of others, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish.

·         The third layer – the ethics of caring – ranges from concern and tenderness to deeper compassion, ahimsa and love to all people (perhaps to all living creatures).

·         The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness.

Subversive innovation offers a basis to hope that the ethics of Light could one day pervade the cultural values of many humans rather than those of only a few saints and sages.

Friday, July 20, 2018

How can we overcome confirmation bias?


This guest post by Leah Goldrick was originally published on her excellent blog, Common Sense Ethics. Leah acknowledges that confirmation bias is linked to pattern recognition, which serves a useful purpose. The confirmation bias problem arises when we seek out information to confirm what we believe and ignore everything else.

The documentary that Leah refers to in her first paragraph is worth watching. It illustrates how easy it was for a group of people who did not appear likely to be particularly gullible to acquire an unshakeable belief that the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.



Why is it so hard to for us the change our beliefs or to get other people to change their minds? A new documentary film Right Between Your Ears, examines the science and psychology of how people form convictions. According to producer Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist, certain aspects of human psychology make it very hard for us to be objective or unbiased.

People usually form beliefs by accepting what they've been told by someone they trust: parents, teachers, media and so on. Our beliefs can change when we learn new things. But when we become convinced of something, it is similar to a religious belief in the way our brain operates. We may react with anger when challenged. This human tendency often leads us to seek out information which confirms what we already believe and ignore everything else - it's a cognitive bias actually - called confirmation bias.

It seems obvious why confirmation bias can be a problem - it can prevent us making good decisions. It makes us rigid thinkers. Someone can easily fool us by simply appealing to our established belief systems. The good news is that there are some practical strategies to overcome this natural human shortsightedness that I'll let you in on at the end of the post.

How We Form Beliefs

Let me back up for just a second. What led me to write this post (besides my abiding interest in critical thinking) was the Shakespeare authorship course I recently took online via the University of London. Along with being just about the most interesting topic ever, the instructor, Dr. Ros Barber, focused the first lesson on the science of how beliefs are formed, cognitive bias, and how belief systems can crystallize into orthodoxies which may not be questioned without ridicule.

Dr. Barber interviews ​Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist and documentary film maker currently working at the Department of Neuroimaging at King's Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, about how we form our beliefs in the first place.

According to De Meyer, we form fairly rigid belief systems or perceptual frameworks out of necessity as we go through life in order to handle the information continually coming at us. Usually, our perceptual framework serves us quite well. But it can also be a major intellectual handicap when we are confronted with information which undercuts our established belief systems. De Meyer states:

"But beliefs become strongly held and particularly if we build our identity around them, they begin to act as perception filters. Indeed, it might be useful to think of a belief as a perceptual framework, something that helps us make sense of the world around us." 

Confirmation Bias

The problem with our perceptions being filtered through our belief structures is that it can create something called confirmation bias. We tend to interpret new information in a way that strengthens our preexisting beliefs. ​​When we are confronted with information which conflicts with our beliefs, we will often find ways to discard it. We also tend to search out information which confirms our beliefs rather than looking for more neutral or contradictory information.

For our general functioning in the world, we must keep our perceptual frameworks fairly rigid. So even when our brain finds data that is anomalous, confirmation bias can lead us to explain it away as an error. Experiments in the 1960s hinted that people are biased towards their beliefs. Later experiments focused on our natural tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives.

Anyone can suffer from confirmation bias: teachers, Shakespeare scholars, even scientists. In one study on confirmation bias involving scientists, over half of laboratory experimental results were inconsistent with the scientists' original hypotheses. In these cases, the scientists were reluctant to consider that data as valid. The anomalous finding was usually classified as a mistake. Even after scientists had produced an anomaly more than once, they would often choose not to follow up.

When we perceive, we construct systems of beliefs inside of our heads like a lawyer trying to prove a case. The more strongly we are engaged in a topic, the more likely we are to dismiss contradictory evidence. Basically on both sides of any debate, we have a system beliefs that tells us that we are right and the other side is wrong.

According to Ros Barber, "[When any conflict happens] it's been described as "a dialog of the deaf" because people can't hear the other point of view. They just think it's totally invalid." 

Cognitive Dissonance

So why does confirmation bias happen? It might be because of wishful thinking, or because of our limited mental capacity to process information. It could also have to do with a failure to imagine alternate possibilities (more on this later). Another explanation for confirmation bias is that people are afraid of being wrong, and fail to ask the right probing questions about their beliefs, instead reasoning from their already held conclusions.

When we are confronted with contradictory evidence, it causes something called cognitive dissonance - mental distress caused by information that doesn't fit in with our current understanding of the world. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and people will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid it.

​Cognitive dissonance was first theorized by psychologist Leon Festinger who argued that we have an inner drive to hold consistent beliefs. Holding inconsistent beliefs causes us to feel disharmonious. Festinger studied a cult whose members believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. He investigated what happened to the cult members, especially the committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs, after the flood did not happen on the proposed date.

The most committed cult members were more likely to rationalize their original beliefs (confirmation bias) even after experiencing cognitive dissonance in the face of the flood not happening. Loosely affiliated members were much more likely to admit that they had simply made a mistake and to move on. The more attached we are to a belief, the harder it is to change it. 

How To Think (and Debate) With Less Bias

​So what are the best strategies to overcome our natural human shortsightedness and bias? The first is to keep emotional distance in reasoning, and the second is to consider the other side (or sides) of any debate, a technique called the "consider the opposite," strategy.

1. Keep Emotional Distance When Reasoning

Given the natural human tendency towards confirmation bias, it is important to be at least somewhat dispassionate when reasoning and debating. I like to call this emotional distance. Emotional distance is just as much a character trait of a reasonable person as it is a strategy for handling cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias may in part stem from our desire not to be wrong, so by keeping emotional distance, you essentially are willing admit to yourself that you could have some things wrong. Don't be too attached to any particular piece of evidence. In any difficult debate we all may get certain parts of the puzzle incorrect.

Look out for signs of confirmation bias in yourself. ​ Remember that the more strongly held your beliefs are, the more likely you are to refuse to consider alternative evidence - like the cult members who invested everything in their belief in an impending flood.

Emotional distance also involves viewing debate as dialog rather than an angry fight. If your ego gets too caught up defending a certain belief, you are more likely to get angry when contradicted. Angry people usually double down and become more extreme on their point of view rather than considering someone else's. Keep in mind that politeness might actually be the secret weapon for getting someone to overcome their bias. Kris De Meyer suggests:

"When we do feel a pang of anger at being challenged, rather than responding very quickly we can step away from it for maybe a few hours or a day, think carefully about where that person is coming from, and then see if we can give them more constructive comments that then doesn't spark his or her angry response. Because it's those feelings of anger at being misunderstood and of being misrepresented that really are the ones that drive us towards more certainty. And if the conversation becomes amicable, it can be heated and passionate without being acrimonious and negative. The way to use [your knowledge of confirmation bias] is to question yourself and to reflect on your own assumptions and your own interactions with other people."

Maintaining emotional distance is powerful, but it may not be enough to overcome biases, which is why we should also use this second strategy:

2. Consider the Opposite

Confirmation bias may in part be the result of our limited mental capacity to imagine alternative scenarios. The consider the opposite strategy helps us to envision how else things might be. In a recent study, this technique was proven to work better than just attempting to remain objective.

Considering the opposite in everyday practice works like this: you take a look at a set of facts about something. Generally, you would try to discern whether the facts support your belief or not. If you are experiencing confirmation bias, you would probably imagine that the facts do actually support your belief. But when you force yourself to consider the opposite, you instead imagine that the facts point the opposite way, disproving your belief. This helps you to imagine alternatives to what you already believe.

The consider the opposite strategy works particularly well with diametrically opposed beliefs, but always bear in mind that there may be more than one alternate possibility. Be willing to entertain various possibilities rather than falling victim to false dichotomies. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Should we look forward to the Social Singularity?


The social singularity should not be confused with the technological singularity, which Wikipedia defines as the hypothesis that invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change to human civilization.


The Social Singularity, as described by Max Borders in his recently published book of that name, relates to the way we (humans) organise ourselves in relation to each other. Max’s hypothesis is that at some point social organisation will be completely transformed as a result of mass adoption of secure networking technologies. When that happens some existing mediating structures will become obsolete, new forms of coordination will emerge and we will collaborate as never before.



What does that mean in terms that you and I can understand? The best place to begin is with the concept of subversive innovation. You might think it is tedious to begin an explanation by introducing another concept, but I promise to provide some concrete examples before long.

These days just about everyone knows what an innovation is. Most readers will be familiar with disruptive innovations that are making many goods more accessible and affordable. Subversive innovations “are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society”. The mediating structures that Max is writing about include: hierarchical firms; group-think practices among the scientific establishment that have led to widespread acceptance of numerous findings that cannot be replicated; centralised education which views students as having “heads like buckets to be filled with information curated by central elites”; long-standing practices of financial intermediaries; mainstream media that once generated social coherence; and national governments.

Readers will already be familiar with some of the subversive innovations that are occurring. Some firms are replacing hierarchical command and control structures with decentralised systems in which self-directed individuals create order by establishing networks to achieve common purposes. The Internet has enabled informal networks of people, often including amateurs, who question scientific dogma e.g. the paleo-diet movement. Disruptive innovation has begun in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Long-established practices of financial institutions are being challenged by block chain technologies, and cryptocurrencies are enabling people to transact without using national currencies or financial intermediaries. The Internet has disrupted the role of mainstream media in generating social coherence - making it possible for populists to challenge political orthodoxy, but also reducing the potential for views to coalesce around a deeply flawed narrative.

The potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government is in my view the most interesting idea in the book. We can already see this happening to some extent as innovating firms search out the weak joints in government regulation, particularly the regulatory barriers to competition that have enabled incumbents in various industries to prosper at the expense of the rest of the community. Think of how Uber’s ridesharing innovations circumvented regulations protecting incumbents in the taxi industry.

Max suggests that the potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government will be enhanced by the advent of smart contracts in which a host of humans can act together to achieve a common goal without middlemen. The coordinating mechanism of smart contracts involves distributed ledgers, programmable incentives and blockchain secured tokens. Tokens can align the interests of producers, consumers and investors in ways that may have potential to enable many types of public goods to be produced privately by profit-seeking entrepreneurs. It doesn’t seem possible at this stage to provide a concrete example of how this might work. Perhaps it can be thought of as crowdsourcing on steroids.

Where might this take us? Max suggests that the potential for people to forge real social contracts - contracts they choose to enter voluntarily rather than the hypothetical social contracts of political theory - “could become the killer app of politics”:

"Communities of tomorrow will form entire systems of mutual aid through digital compacts that have nothing to do with borders or accidents of birth. … Humanity will upload important commitments into social contracts. Cosmopolitan communities of practice will form in the electronic ether. What remains on the ground—goods, services, and the relationships of flesh-and-blood neighbors—will be a far more localized phenomenon. The days of outsourcing our civic responsibilities to distant capitals are numbered."

What Max has in mind is polyarchy – competitive provision of goods that have been provided collectively. The basic idea is that if there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods like health insurance or education, you should be allowed to exit one system and join another without moving to a different system’s territory. You could take resources you were once required to pay in taxation and use them to pay for membership of another community or multiple other communities.

So, what reason do we have to think that governments might one day be willing to recognize the right of exit required to make polyarchy a reality?

Max notes that new constituencies are forming around the benefits of the sharing economy:

"Special interests that once squeaked to get the oil are confronted by battalions bearing smartphones. Citizens, fed up with leaving their prayers in the voting booth, are voting more with their dollars and their devices. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute."

The Social Singularity mixes the author’s views on how things ought to evolve and how he expects them to evolve. Max acknowledges that he does this. The book offers readers an appealing vision of how the future could evolve and invites them to help make that vision a reality.

The book contains much that I haven’t written about in this short review. I should mention the link between the social singularity and spiral dynamics. Now I have mentioned it, I want to write more about it. Perhaps later!

I should also note before concluding that the title of the book, as presented on the title page, is The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Decentralization is a theme of the book. Max begins his chapter on the future of governance by quoting Vincent Ostrom:

“The fashioning of a truly free world depends on building fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing”.

 In a post I wrote a few months ago I mused about how Ostrom’s vision of decentralisation of politics could eventually become a reality. If I ever write on that topic again there will be a reference to Max Borders and the concept of subversive innovations will feature prominently.

The Social Singularity deserves to be read widely and thought about deeply.

Postscript

1. You might also be interested in a follow-up post on how human values may change as we approach the social singularity.


2. Simon Saval has drawn my attention to his excellent hand-illustrated guides for Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and Ethereum which have been designed to help beginners understand the technology. If you are interested, please follow the link.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?


According to Jason Brennan, a political philosopher, there are three broad types of democratic citizen:

·         Hobbits are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They don’t give politics much thought.

·         Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed world views. They tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions.

·         Vulcans think scientifically and dispassionately about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They try to avoid being biased in explaining contrary points of view.

When I attempt to relate these citizen types to the stages of adult development identified by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, discussed in my last post, it is obvious that Vulcans have self-transforming minds. I have the impression that other types of democratic citizen tend to exhibit lower stages of adult development in their political views than in other aspects of their lives. There isn’t much incentive to behave like a responsible adult in the political arena since your vote is unlikely to be decisive. Some Hooligans may be self-authoring (self-directed) in the sense that they have chosen for themselves which political team to support. In their role as citizens, however, Hooligans are characterised as having the socialized minds of faithful followers. Hobbits may be socialised, or even self-authoring, in some aspects of their lives, but they are disassociated from politics.  


In his book, Against Democracy, Jason suggests that few citizens are Vulcans. Nearly all citizens are either Hobbits or Hooligans. Hooligans have more political knowledge than Hobbits but are still prone to make systemic mistakes on many important issues in economics and political science. The cumulative impact of their incompetence has adverse consequences for other citizens. On this basis Jason argues that there are good grounds to presume that some feasible form of epistocracy – a system that gives competent and knowledgeable citizens more political power than others - would out-perform democracy, in which all citizens have equal voting rights. Epistocracy would still result in rule by Hooligans, but would give greater power to competent and knowledgeable Hooligans.

Jason is against democracy only in the sense that he considers that some form of epistocracy would be likely to produce superior outcomes. He acknowledges evidence that democracies have done a better job of protecting economic and civil liberties and well-being of citizens than dictatorships, one-party governments, oligarchies and real monarchies.

In the light of the bias and ignorance of voters, some readers may be wondering how most modern democracies have managed to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Jason suggests that has been prevented by several moderating factors including the power of the judiciary and government bureaucracies to set their own agenda, the power of political parties to shape the political agenda independently of what voters desire, and politicians who have generally been much better informed than voters.

That line of reasoning supports the views of Joseph Schumpeter, a famous economist who argued about 70 years ago that the success of democracy was problematic unless it was strictly limited.  In my book Free to Flourish I noted that other famous economists, including James Buchanan and Milton Friedman, suggested that additional constraints needed to be imposed on democratic politics to avoid bad outcomes.  

In the preface to the 2017 paperback edition of Against Democracy, Jason notes that in recent years more people have become willing to consider the flaws in democracy. After mentioning Trump and Brexit he goes on to make the point that his criticisms of democracy are based on information on voter ignorance that has been known for a long time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explore whether there has been a change in the moderating factors that have hitherto ensured that outcomes are better than they would have been if the prejudices of ignorant voters had prevailed.

The change I have in mind is the declining power of the major political parties to shape political agendas in ways that moderate the ill-informed desires of electors. It strikes me that over the last decade or so, innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of ill-informed Hooligans and the populist politicians who promise to give effect to their views. Ill-informed Hooligans can now more easily establish links with like-minded people who share their misconceptions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns. Consequently, in some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of ill-informed Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growth in political influence of the ill-informed Hooligans seems likely to be detrimental to the future well-being of citizens in democratic countries.

Jason outlines a range of possible forms of epistocracy that might reduce the political influence of Hobbits and ill-informed Hooligans. Most of these suggestions involve taking the right to vote away from ill-informed people or giving their vote lower weight.

However, it is difficult to see how those proposals could ever be politically feasible while most citizens continue to have some faith in democracy. Even citizens who have shown no interest in politics in the past are likely to place some value on their right to vote. They are likely to perceive that it has existence value. The right to vote offers all citizens the potential to participate collectively in voting an oppressive government out of office, should the need arise.

It seems to me that when government by ill-informed Hooligans produces economic disasters the best response we can hope for will be for changes to be made in the rules of the game to tip the balance in favour of better economic policies. This could involve such things as more effective public debt ceilings, and making proposals for changes in tariffs and other trade barriers open to scrutiny by an independent agency responsible for reporting publicly on national economic benefits and costs. A couple of years ago I suggested some more fundamental institutional changes to make government in Australia more accountable in an article in On Line opinion.  

The question in the heading of this article is prompted by Jason’s favourite epistocracy proposal, government by simulated oracle:

 "Suppose there is a range of candidates from various political parties. We can ask citizens to provide their anonymously coded demographic information and then take a test of basic objective political knowledge. They then rank the candidates from most to least favored. Using these data, we can determine how the public would rank the candidates if the public were fully informed. Whatever candidates ranks the highest, wins." 

I am not attracted to the idea of adjusting the preferences of voters in this way, but I wonder whether a significant proportion of voters might be willing to accept the guidance of an oracle to help them to decide how to cast their votes. What I have in mind is that individual voters would be surveyed to determine their preferences and then offered impartial expert voting advice based on their responses. At present there are any number of commentators offering voting advice, but effort is involved for individuals to find and interpret this information. I am not aware of any oracles offering unbiased voting advice tailored to individual voters.
How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?     

Sunday, June 24, 2018

How can people become more open to critical evaluation of their own views?


It might not be obvious to everyone that it is desirable for people to be open to critical examination of their own views. The process of critical examination takes time and energy and can be unsettling. If it leads a person to change his or her view, relatives and friends might disapprove.


What is the problem with immunity to change? One problem is failure to actualize potential. In the first chapter of their book, Immunity to Change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey provide evidence suggesting that immunity to change of attitude tends to hinder mental development of adults. Survey data indicates that there is potential for mental development to continue throughout adulthood, at least until old age. Development tends to occur unevenly, with periods of change followed by periods of stability.

Researchers have identified three adult plateaus of development corresponding to different meaning systems that people use to make sense of the world and operate within it:

·         A socialized mind enables an individual to be a faithful follower and team player.

·         A self-authoring mind can generate an internal belief system/ ideology/ personal code and is self-directed. It places priority on receiving the information it has sought and creates a filter which determines what information it allows to come through.

·         A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology and systems of self-organisation. Individuals at this level of mental development value the filter they have created to separate the wheat from the chaff, but they also value information that may alert them to limits of their filter.

Individuals at each successive level of mental development can perform the mental functions of the prior level as well as additional functions. A person who had attained the self-transforming stage of development can be self-authoring when required to develop and execute a plan of action, and can also be a team player when that is appropriate.

Studies involving several hundred participants suggest that most people (58% of respondents) have not attained a self-authoring level of development. Of the remainder, only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds. The studies probably exaggerate the level of personal development of most of the population because they were skewed towards middle-class professionals.

This research seems highly relevant to questions considered recently on this blog about echo chambers in the social media and the reluctance of many people to listen to opposing viewpoints, as well as to consideration of the ingredients of good leadership. The vast majority of those who aspire to be able to reflect objectively on the limitations of their views of how the world works are likely to be biased against seeking information that might challenge those views.

As the title of the book suggests, Immunity to Change is about overcoming the psychological resistance that that prevent us from making the changes we want to make in our own lives and within organisations. The book is replete with examples, drawn from the extensive consulting experience of the authors, to illustrate how people can identify and deal with hidden fears that prevent them from making the changes they want to make. Most readers of this book are probably aspiring to leadership positions or attempting to change organisations, but much of the material in it is relevant to anyone who is attempting to make changes in their lives.

I will focus here on the approach to overcoming internal resistance that the book might suggest for a person who wants to become more open to critical evaluation of his or her own views on issues that have become highly politicized. I will provide my own responses to the series of questions suggested by the authors, rather than speculate about how others might respond. Hopefully my introspection will have some relevant to others.

1.       What is your improvement goal?

As already noted, I want to be more open to critical evaluation of my views on issues that have become politicised. My reason for doing this is that I suspect the opposing side on such issues might sometimes have genuine concerns that are worth considering.

2.       What are you doing/ not doing instead?

I rarely read opinion pieces by commentators whom I consider likely to be opposed to my views on controversial issues. I have sometimes expressed the view that I need to be paid to read such commentary.

When friends and relatives challenge my views on controversial issues, my response is often overly defensive. I begin such conversations with the intention of ensuring I understand the opposing point of view, but I am easily diverted to point scoring.

3.       What hidden competing commitments prevent achievement of your improvement goal?

When I imagine myself reading commentary that is opposed to my views I feel that I am likely to be bored by a recitation of views that I have previously rejected. It seems like a waste of time. However, I must also acknowledge fear that reading such commentary could be unsettling. The authors of these pieces often do their best to appeal to the emotions of their readers. I acknowledge some concern that I might need to modify my views if I start feeling sympathy for the plight of victims of policies that I support. The hidden commitments underlying those concerns are not feeling unsettled and not being swayed by appeals to emotion.

My defensiveness in conversations on controversial topics with people with opposing viewpoints seems to be related to the tendency for such conversations to degenerate into point-scoring exercises in which participants attempt to attach labels to each other. I am concerned that I might respond in kind if conversation partners disrespect me. The hidden commitments are to avoid being labelled and to avoid losing self-control.

4.       What are the big assumptions that underlie this immune system?

I accept that the hidden commitments identified above act as an immune system to prevent progress toward my improvement goal. I can see why I am unlikely to be able to make much progress merely by forcing myself to read commentary that is opposed to my views, or by telling myself not to become defensive when discussing controversial issues. The hidden commitments identified above have been acting as an anxiety reduction system.

 The authors of Immunity to Change explain the concept of “big assumption” as follows:

"We use the concept of big assumptions to signal that there are some ways we understand ourselves and the world (and the relationship between the world and ourselves) that we do not see as mental constructions. Rather, we see them as truths, incontrovertible facts, accurate representations of how we and the world are.
These constructions of reality are actually assumptions; they may well be true, but they also may not be. When we treat an assumption as if it is a truth, we have made it what we call a big assumption."

The big assumptions underlying the hidden commitments I have identified seem to be related to self-trust. There is an assumption that I can’t trust myself to feel sympathy for the plight of some unfortunate people without losing my mental faculties. There is also an assumption that I can’t trust myself not to lose control if I am disrespected.

Identifying those big assumptions was an “aha” moment for me. The absurdity of the assumptions seemed obvious as soon as they were identified.

However, Kegan and Lahey emphasize that the process of overcoming immunity to change does not end with identifying big assumptions. The next step is to design tests capable of disconfirming the big assumptions. The tests involve changes in usual conduct that generate information that we can reflect upon to challenge the big assumptions. The authors emphasize that the purpose of running the tests is not to see whether performance has improved, but to generate information to provide a learning experience.

This is where my story ends. In writing this article I have ‘tied myself to the mast’ with a public commitment to test my big assumptions. However, it could be counterproductive to disclose what tests I have in mind, and I’m certainly not going to promise to write a sequel to tell you what happens.

Even if it achieves nothing more, this exercise of identifying big assumptions has made me more appreciative that the difficulty other people have in being open to critical evaluation of their own views could well be attributable to deep-seated fears.
I recommend Immunity to Change to anyone struggling to understand why they are having difficulty in making the changes they want to make in their own behaviours.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

What should be done about echo chambers in the social media?



Why bother reading a book by Cass Sunstein which suggests that echo chambers in the social media are becoming a problem for democracy and that something should be done about them? That was a question I had to ask myself before deciding to read Sunstein’s recently published book, Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The people who are likely to be most enthusiastic about reading this book will be concerned about echo chambers already, and be fans of Sunstein. I was already concerned about echo chambers before reading the book, but reading other books by Sunstein did not induce me to join his fan club. From his interview about this book with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk, I thought some of the views presented would be challenging. 
I was in no hurry to read the book.

That illustrates a problem with echo chambers. Many of us have a tendency to avoid being challenged even when there is potential to learn something useful from people who have opposing viewpoints. I only read the book because I have recently been thinking and writing about the potential benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints.

The book was worth reading to help me clarify my own views. In summary, Sunstein suggests: 
“to the extent that people are using social media to create echo chambers, and wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they are creating serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such”.

The serious dangers that Sunstein is referring to include group polarisation, the spreading of falsehoods within echo chambers, a high degree of social fragmentation and greater difficulty of mutual understanding.

The author doesn’t claim that this is currently the general pattern, or that group polarisation and cybercascades are always bad. He recognizes that it is sometimes good for a perception or point of view to spread rapidly among a group of like-minded people. His claim is that group polarisation can, nevertheless, be a significant risk even if only a small number of people choose to listen and speak solely with those who are like-minded. Enclave deliberation can cause members of groups to move to positions that lack merit e.g. terrorist agendas. “In the extreme case, enclave deliberation may even put social stability at risk”.

Turning to the second part of the quoted passage, readers may wonder how Sunstein can argue that a system of free expression can be consistent with regulation of consumer choices.  His argument seems to rest on two propositions:

·         First, free speech is not an absolute – despite the free speech guarantee in the U.S. constitution, government is permitted to restrict speech in various ways e.g. attempted bribery, criminal conspiracy, child pornography.

·         Second, the free speech principle should be read in light of the commitment to democratic deliberation rather than consumer sovereignty. From the perspective of supporting democratic deliberation, regulation of television, radio and the Internet may be permissible to promote democratic goals.

I’m uneasy about the second proposition. The U.S. Supreme Court would presumably disallow legislation which purported to support democratic deliberation in a manner that conflicted seriously with fundamental freedoms. In parliamentary systems that have no constitutional guarantees of liberty, however, legislative action to support democratic deliberation could be far-reaching and ideological. For example,  it could mandate coverage in school curriculums of the foundations of democracy in the history of western civilization, or alternatively, its foundation in the history of protest movements and revolutions.

The purpose for which Sunstein seeks government action to support democratic deliberation is to ensure a measure of social integration by promoting exposure of people to issues and views that might otherwise escape their attention. He writes:

“A society with general-interest intermediaries, like a society with a robust set of public forums, promotes a shared set of experiences at the same time that it exposes countless people to information and opinions that they would not have sought out in advance. These features of a well-functioning system of free expression might well be compromised when individuals personalize their own communications packages—and certainly if they personalize in a way that narrows their horizons”.

I support those sentiments  but I am wary of government intervention in support of them.  Seemingly benign government action in support of public forums can be counterproductive. I have in mind particularly the Q&A program of Australia’s public broadcaster. This is a taxpayer funded public forum which exposes people to opinions they would not seek to be exposed to. On issues that have become politicized, the people watching the show might be entertained by the antics of those presenting opposing views but are unlikely to have gained a better understanding of the issues.  

There are already many public forums on the Internet. If people choose to join forums that don’t welcome dissent from prevailing views that is akin to people avoiding public places where public demonstrations are held. That choice should be respected. 
If a growing proportion of the population chooses to spend an increasing proportion of their time echo chambers rather than open forums, that is a cultural problem with potential implications for democratic deliberation.  it should be dealt with as a cultural problem rather than a public policy problem.

Those of us who are concerned that echo chambers are becoming more prevalent should remember that sectarian echo chambers have warped democratic deliberation in the past. How were those religion-based echo chambers dismantled? I can’t claim to know much about the history, but I doubt that government intervention played a significant role. It was a cultural shift. It was presumably led by influential people within some factional forums who took a stand in favour of allowing dissenting voices to be heard. Influential people outside the echo chambers must also been active in encouraging individuals to think for themselves rather than to parrot the views of church leaders and sectarian politicians. In many organisations, tolerance of dissent came to be viewed as the norm and thinking for one’s self came to be viewed as a virtue.

Could that happen again?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are the ingredients of good leadership?


As I contemplate leadership failures in some major organisations, in Australia and elsewhere, it strikes me that the people responsible for those failures have not been meeting the norms of behaviour expected of responsible adults. For example, it doesn’t seem like responsible adult behaviour to persist in charging customers for services that they haven’t received.

That has me wondering whether the prevailing emphasis on inspiring organisational leadership rather than efficient administration could be responsible for a decline in the quality of senior executives. It seems to have become possible for some people to rise to the top by learning how to present a vision and flatter stakeholders, without acquiring management skills and business ethics along the way. Perhaps we are seeing a shallow leadership culture displacing the long-standing management culture that encouraged business leaders to take pride in being trustworthy.


Should the gurus who began promoting an emphasis on organisational leadership about 30 years ago be held responsible for the shallowness of leadership in some modern organisations today?  As that question arose in my mind I decided to revisit a book that I had read about 30 years ago - On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, a famous leadership guru. I had a vague recollection that Bennis argued that organisations need leaders, not managers. 
My recollection was correct. The book contains a heading: “Leaders, Not Managers”. Under that heading there is a list of differences between leaders and managers. For example: “The manager administers; the leader innovates” and “The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon”. I don’t see recognition that organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

However, the concept of leadership that Bennis advanced is far from shallow. He can’t be held responsible for readers who think leadership just involves mastering jargon about visions and stakeholders.

Bennis presents the view that “leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully”. He explains:

“The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning – from one’s own life and experience”.

Bennis lists the ingredients of leadership as: a guiding vision; the passion to pursue that vision; integrity (encompassing self-knowledge, candour and maturity); trustworthiness; and curiosity and daring.

Those seem to be characteristics that would be displayed by any flourishing adult. As noted in an earlier post, human flourishing also requires alertness to the new opportunities emerging in changing circumstances.

That makes me to wonder whether there is any difference between the characteristics of a good leader and those displayed by any flourishing adult human. Toastmasters International, an organisation dedicated to assisting members to acquire leadership skills, as well as to improve communication skills, suggests one possible difference: “Great leaders inspire others to follow them”.

That difference is probably not important. Flourishing adults tend to display attributes required to attract followers, even when they don’t seek to be followed. They can’t avoid setting an example of behaviour that some others might choose to follow. As implied in the mission of Toastmasters clubs, the development of communication and leadership skills results in “greater self-confidence and personal growth”.

Perhaps I should try to sum up. It does seem possible that recent leadership problems in some major organisations are attributable to a shallow leadership culture. Some of these problems might have been avoided with a more conventional management culture - less emphasis on public relations and more emphasis on maintaining efficient and ethical management practices. Leadership gurus, such as Warren Bennis, might have contributed to such problems by downplaying the importance management skills. Nevertheless, the ingredients of leadership identified by Bennis are characteristics of flourishing adults - people who act with integrity. Organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

 One question which I have not addressed is whether it is possible to identify intermediate stages in acquiring leadership capabilities. Do you have to learn to think for yourself before you can be a leader? Does Robert Kegan’s concept of self-authoring represent an intermediate stage in development of leadership capabilities?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why ask questions?



Ruins of the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi where  “Know Thyself” was inscribed.



When I started blogging, about a decade ago, I decided that the title of each article would be a question. That seemed like a good way to explore the relationship between freedom and flourishing. As I saw it, the response to each question would lead to further questions. Looking back, the scope of the blog has been broader, and the exploration process less orderly, than I had originally envisaged, but I am still asking questions.

Asking questions makes me it easier for me to stay on topic when I am writing. It also prompts me to reconsider whether I am answering the right question. I have found it is not easy to ask questions that get to the heart of an issue if you don’t know much about it. I have often revised questions in the middle of writing an article as I have learned more about the subject matter.

Not long after I started blogging one of my friends asked me if I was aware of Betteridge’s law that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. At the time my response was that Betteridge’s law didn’t apply to my blog because a yes or no answer was not applicable to most of the questions I asked myself. That is still the case. Of the 19 questions considered in the blog over the last year, there were only 4 that could be answered yes or no and there was an even split between positive and negative answers.

Another friend made the comment that the approach I had adopted on my blog was somewhat Socratic. I doubted whether that was so, but I knew little about Socrates. A few weeks ago I decided that it was time I learned more about Socrates.

Socrates didn’t leave behind any books for us to read but it is possible to obtain a reasonably clear picture of his views from what others have written. The most important source is Plato, who was a follower of Socrates, but Plato seems to have used Socrates as a spokesman for his own views in some of the dialogues. I am relying here on Luis Navia’s book, Socrates: A life examined, which uses some other sources – including Xenophon and Aristotle - to distinguish the views of Socrates from those of Plato.

Socrates seems to have been a gregarious man who went around Athens talking to all sorts of people and asking them philosophical questions. He was loved and admired by a small group of devoted friends. It seems likely that most Athenians viewed him as an eccentric figure and were indifferent to his philosophical preoccupations. However, a few influential citizens viewed him as “a dangerous man who would question and challenge the beliefs and practices of the state religion” and “pour contempt on long-established political practices and customs”. That led an Athenian jury to find him guilty of irreligiosity and to sentence him to death in 399 BC, when he was 71 years of age.

Are the views of Socrates relevant to us today? One view that seems highly relevant is the idea that it is possible to obtain wisdom on ethical questions. Socrates rejected the relativism of the Sophists - teachers of rhetoric and public relations - who believed that ethical values were meaningless. The Sophists apparently believed that it is impossible to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong. I guess that Socrates would encourage us to view the core values of organisations – which often include integrity and similar concepts – as meaningful. He would discourage us from following the post-modern view that promises to adhere to such core values should be viewed as merely public relations exercises.

Socratic dialogue is also relevant to us today. For Socrates, the search for wisdom was based on the dictum “Know Thyself”. The point of departure of the dialogue was Socrates’ confession of ignorance about the correct definition of a moral state or mode of behaviour and his request to a companion to explain the concept. The explanation led to further questions, which uncovered inconsistencies in the view originally expressed. It was common for the discussion to end inconclusively, leaving the companion confused, but perhaps stimulated to think more deeply.

Luis Navia suggests that for Socrates the rigorously methodic and painfully honest examination of the things we say brings to light the thoughts that ultimately structure who we are. He suggests that Socrates’ goal was the unveiling of the human soul:

“Nothing is more important, nothing more urgent, than understanding who we are. This is the meaning of that memorable statement … : ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’."

I have also consulted a book by Richard Paul and Linda Elder entitled The Art of Socratic Questioning, to obtain a contemporary view of this topic. The book is full of questions that might be useful to teachers and other leaders of group discussions. The authors suggest that as well as serving the purpose of helping students to distinguish what they know and understand from what they don’t know and understand Socratic questioning can “ help students acquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue, so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others)”.

The authors identify four directions in which we can pursue questions about a belief:

·         How did you come to believe that?

·         What reasons, evidence or assumptions underly that belief?

·         What are the implications of that belief?

·         What opposing thoughts or objections would others raise, and how would you respond to them?

If we practice disciplined, self-directed questioning we have potential to be able to cultivate the “inner voice of reason”. This has potential to help us in many aspects of life, including blogging.

So, has the approach I have adopted on my blog been “somewhat Socratic”? The main Socratic element has been the initial question, which is the title of each article. It might be a good idea to make the blog somewhat more Socratic by making some future post specifically about question/problem definition.  For example: What are the underlying questions that need to be considered to come to grips with issue X, Y or Z?

Perhaps this post has raised more questions than it has answered. What important questions have I left unanswered?

Friday, April 27, 2018

Is Steven Pinker too optimistic about the future of liberal democracy?


Steven Pinker’s aim in Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and to show that those ideals have worked to enhance human flourishing.

In response to one of Pinker’s earlier books I was prompted to consider whether Enlightenment humanism is the coherent world view that he claims it to be. In this book Pinker makes clear that he views “the ideals of the Enlightenment” to be synonymous with the open society and classical liberalism.  He argues that four themes tie the ideas of the Enlightenment together: an insistence on applying reason to understand our world; use of the methods of science; humanism, defined in terms of a focus on the happiness of individuals rather than the glory of tribes, races, nations or religions; and the hope for progress through political institutions that are conducive to human flourishing. Pinker regards liberal democracy as “an Enlightenment-inspired institution” and “a precious achievement”.

In my view Pinker succeeds admirably in showing that for the last two and a half centuries application of those Enlightenment ideals has enhanced individual human flourishing. Much of the book is devoted to evidence of the massive progress that has been made in the quality of life enjoyed by people on this planet over that period. I recommend this book and Max Roser’s Our World in Data web site (the source of much of Pinker’s data) to anyone who needs reminding that ‘the good old days’ were not so great.

Turning to the future, Pinker is more of a hopeful realist than an optimist. He recognises that “the darker sides of human nature – tribalism, authoritarianism and magical thinking – aided by the Second Law of Thermodynamics” have potential to push us back. In an early chapter he points out that in a world governed by entropy and evolution, the default state of humankind is characterized by disease, poverty and violence. A large and growing proportion of humanity have been able to escape from the default state through ongoing adherence to the norms and institutions fostered by the Enlightenment.

As I see it, the prospects for further progress in human flourishing in the liberal democracies will be strongly influenced the effectiveness of this form of government in delivering economic policies conducive to ongoing productivity growth. Productivity growth will obviously be required if people continue to aspire to have higher disposable incomes, but it will also be required to generate the additional taxation revenue needed to prevent public debt spiralling out of control. That is because spending on social welfare programs – particularly health care and retirement benefits - is likely to rise as the proportion of elderly people rises. Resort to higher tax rates would be likely to have adverse effects on incentives to work, save and invest, and thus reduce productivity growth.

Pinker notes that with stronger safety nets in place, the poverty rate for elderly people in the United States has plunged since the 1960s and is now below that for younger people. However, generous safety nets have a down-side. People in the liberal democracies face traumatic adjustments in the years ahead if governments are unable to meet public expectations of ongoing funding of existing programs at current levels.

Pinker recognizes low productivity growth and “authoritarian populism” as potential threats to human progress but does not draw out the links between these threats. Most of the populists that he is concerned about do not strike me as being particularly authoritarian, in the sense of enforcing strict obedience to authority. Nevertheless, they are stasists, seeking to undermine the Enlightenment values that have enabled technological progress and international trade to contribute massively to human flourishing since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Pinker’s discussion of the recent causes of low productivity growth is adequate, as far as it goes, but he fails to emphasize the potential for additional damage to be done by populist politicians seeking to capitalise on fears of the disruptive impacts of globalisation and technological progress.  

Pinker makes the important observation:

A challenge for our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism”.

He is scathing in his description of current electoral politics:

Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people”.

In support of this assertion Pinker cites: the rational ignorance of voters; the bundling of disparate issues to appeal to a coalition of voters with geographic, racial, and ethnic constituencies; and media that “cover elections like horse races, and analyse issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches”. He notes:

“All these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and towards perfervid self-expression”.

Pinker’s suggests that for public discourse to become more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as possible. His discussion of the ways in which issues become politicised and proposals for depoliticization of issues was covered in my last post on the benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints. His discussion ends by noting that the discovery of political tribalism as an “insidious form of irrationality” is “still fresh and largely unknown”. He appeals to readers:

However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena to discourage us from the
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”
.

Pinker may not sound particularly optimistic about the future of liberal democracy, but he may well be too optimistic. Unfortunately, in addition to the irrationality he discusses, we are also confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy. As explained by James Buchanan (see this post for the reference) failure of the liberal order is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

We seem to be heading toward what might be described as a democratic tragedy. As noted in an earlier post, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing users of common pool resources in the absence of norms of restraint.

Perhaps, as more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, efforts will be made to reform political institutions to produce better outcomes. It is not obvious how that can be achieved, but we should not allow ignorance to prevent us from seeking solutions.

In my view Seven Pinker is on the right track in urging people to be hopeful:

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.