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?