Monday, May 31, 2010

Bad Thinking Habits — Groupthink and Riskcreep, plus NST and PST

David Brooks' May 28, 2010 article (http://tinyurl.com/39yuc5s ) in the New York Times, which starts out with the Deepwater Horizon explosion, resulting oil leak, and political maneuvers related to the catastrophe, moves quickly into recognition that ". . . the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology." The concluding paragraph, referring to psychologically generated thinking errors notes, "There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest. This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society."
True and very reasonable, as always David. But from my perspective the psychosocial society in which we live is even more complex, harder to predict, manage, or fix than that of the technical society. If we take each of us as human systems, we can't predict, manage or fix ourselves, nor often can others, professionals or not, predict, manage or fix themselves — or us.
A major part of the individual human system is our self-talk. It's a tool of our thinking process which sometimes is accessible to others directly through our "out loud" talk, or indirectly to others by the inferences made from what we say. To add to the complexity, when we're in a group, of two or ten, we're subject to outside as well as internal sources of influence plus the pressure to conformity, or opposition, created by group membership and interaction. 
That whole subject led me to remember a book I'd read a few years ago, The Logic of Failure (1997) by  Dietrich Dorner, a German psychologist and professor. The subject  of the book is the nature of thinking required to solve complex problems. Dorner notes that feelings and affect, values and motivations are always a major part of the context of thinking.  He dismisses the idea that there are any secret mental techniques that will enable the human mind to solve complex problems. ". . . there is no magic wand or hidden treasure that will instantly make us deep and powerful thinkers. Real improvements can be achieved, however, if we understand the demands that problem solving places on us and the errors that we are prone to make when we attempt to meet them. Our brains are not fundamentally flawed; we have simply developed bad habits."
OK. Finally, a sequé to my stuff about the NaSTy thinking habit — and also the bad extreme positive thinking habit. What fits so well is Dorner's explanation that our failures are not caused by a fundamental flaw, but a little mistake here, an unspecific goal there, an occasional overgeneralization, a too elaborate plan, a forgotten step in the implementation. 
We women too are trying to solve complex problems, often interpersonal rather than technical, and if we think of our NST as a bad habit rather than a neurosis, not at all a failure, but a continuing series of small mistakes in thinking, it seems much more manageable and easier to change.
PS Doerner also says parallel female thinking is best to deal with complex problems. Hurray! Let's use it not lose it. More about this thinking strength in the next lighter blog post!


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