Friday, 6 June 2014

Why is learning so damn hard

Organizational learning happens, but is painfully slow – we all know that. How come? Cognitive psychology has two robust findings that explain part of the problem:
1.     Problem substitution
2.     Loss aversion

First, problem substitution – we’re hardwired to unconsciously substitute to complex real-life problems simpler problems we have the solution to. For instance, if I ask you to name the three most populous cities in the world:
1.     _______
2.     _______
3.     _______
The problem is more complex than it seems – for starters, are we talking about cities proper, urban areas or the metropolitan area.  The Wikipedia top three for metro areas is Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City. For city proper it’s Shanghai, Beijing, Karachi.

As you answered the question, your mind substituted to the real-life complex problem of the world’s largest cities (world? Largest? City?) the problem of “large cities I remember,” such as New York, Tokyo, Mumbai. This is not completely wrong, but neither is it right.

In an organizational context what happens is that faced with a problem everyone responds with their favorite solution – never realizing they had simplified the problem in the process, and absolutely convinced that the solution is the correct answer. This, for instance, can easily be seen in the political process where less educated people chose absurd solutions (tax imports heavily, punish misdemeanors brutally, repel immigrants violently, etc.) that correspond to over-simplifications of complex issues – and resent terribly when this is pointed out. Of course they know their solution is right and those intellectuals simply don’t have the guts to acknowledge it.

The second hardwired mechanism is that of loss aversion: we like winning, but not as much as we hate losing. Absolute values mean very little at the affect level – our emotions understand gains (J) and losses (L). As a result, learning something new is fun, but not if it means abandoning a cherished notion. We love to hear confirming evidence of something we already believe to be true but often forcefully reject evidence that would lead to losing a habitual belief.

Which why science is 1) so powerful (it forces us to change our minds) and 2) so cumbersome (the process to get people to change their minds through experimentation, publication, replication and peer review) – and why many of the cheats don’t believe they cheated. They hated losing their preferred explanation, so changed the problem slightly so that their data could confirm their favored belief – why all the fuss?

These two biases are hardwired in our stone age minds. Science, the social system to counterbalance this bias is extremely costly, heavy and demanding. How can we ever hope to have more rational casual conversations?

The trick is to practice the “7 theories” mental practice – having the discipline to formulate seven theories about every problem. By formulating it this way, the standard is the seven theories and the loss is when we come up one theory short. Once we have seven theories we’re less likely to over-simplify the problem because, although each of these theories is likely to fit a preferred solution, by the seventh, things don’t look so certain.

It’s generally assumed that open mind is a born with character feature – quite clearly some people believe more strongly than others. But it can also be learned by practice and by recognizing the in-built biases in our own thinking. In coming up with seven theories, chances are one of these won’t be too distant from what someone else is arguing, and this common ground can provide the stepping stone for further discussion. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing, just as agreeing doesn’t mean giving in.

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