Making sense of the world
Occasionally it can feel as though there are a thousand and one ways of making sense of the world. That is, of understanding why people think and behave in the way that they do and of knowing what can be done to help people live the lives they want to lead. Not a month goes by without the publication of another book telling us about the most important thing we need to know if we want to solve our problems – be it the importance of willpower, the power of ‘influencers’, the art of taking things more slowly, or of the significance of ‘group-identity’ and belonging.
While some of these ideas are no doubt useful, it can be a struggle to keep track of all the lessons that are supposed to help guide our day-to-day actions. Indeed, many end up competing with one another for our attention, and often it is the salient ones that triumph over the most important. Hence the nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s work on ‘influencers’ just now.
To find our way out of this maze of different concepts, it can be helpful to take a step back and try and view the whole picture. In practice, this means drawing upon a set of ‘meta concepts’ through which to make sense of the world. These aren’t lessons or rules as such, but more ‘lenses’ that can be applied to view different issues more clearly.
At the RSA, there are a few lenses that are either dominant or emerging. Here’s a brief summary of three:
Cultural Theory tries to make sense of problems by viewing them in terms of the different ‘cultural understandings’ that are at play. First conceived of by the anthropologist Mary Douglas during her studies of different communities in Africa and elsewhere, Cultural Theory suggests that there are four dominant understandings that can be found (to varying extents) in different groups and areas: egalitarian, individualist, hierarchical and fatalist.
Whether these different cultures are present depends upon two different criteria: Grid and Group. Grid relates to the importance of rules and structures, whereas Group refers to the importance of collective control and consensus. Where there are high Grid and Group orientations, we find hierarchical cultures. Conversely, where there are low Grid and Group tendencies, we find individualist cultures.
The message at the centre of this theory runs as follows: efforts to address challenges need to draw upon and broach all of these different cultural understandings if they are to effect change. Since every community contains some element of Grid and Group, efforts at tackling problems are unlikely to bear fruit unless they accommodate each perspective. We need a mixture of rules (Hierarchicalism), norms and community values (Egalitarianism) and incentives and support structures (Individualism). Matthew Taylor recently used the example of cash-in-hand work as one particular challenge that could be better addressed by applying the lens of cultural theory. To date, we have an overtly ‘elegant’ hierarchical approach (through sanctions and inspections), at the expense of egalitarian (nurturing tax fairness) and individualist ones (tax/benefit incentives).
The notion of mental complexity was developed by the Harvard professor Robert Kegan some years ago. Mental complexity refers to how we know, not just what we know. Kegan identifies a number of stages of mental complexity (or ‘adult development’), each of which offer people greater scope to see things objectively rather than subjectively. See the graph below.
This ‘subject-object’ relationship is important. When we take things as subjective, they ‘have us’, whereas when we take things as objective, we ‘have them’. The difference is between being caught in the grip of something with your blinders on, and being able to take a step back and get some perspective. Kegan uses the analogy of the scriptwriter vs. the actor. The actor follows the lines and is caught up in the minute-by-minute action, whereas the scriptwriter views things from afar and is able to edit the script as they see fit.
In short, higher levels of mental complexity give people a greater awareness of their emotions and attitudes and allows them to take more measured decisions. When applying this lens to view different issues, it prompts us to think about whether people are mentally ‘up to the task’ of undertaking the behaviours and actions we expect of them.
One example of where this has been used to make sense of an issue (beyond the territory of organisational management) is the RSA’s work on the Big Society. Our argument, published in a report earlier this year, is that the Big Society presents people with a ‘hidden curriculum’ of emotional and relationship-based tasks that require a certain order of mental complexity – the ‘self-authoring mind’ – which the majority of the population do not hold.
The concept of Values Modes suggests that there are three main value groups: Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers. Where you fall within each of these groups depends upon the extent to which you are ‘sustenance driven’, ‘outer directed’ or ‘inner-directed’ (there are sub-groups to each of the main three). Settlers, being primarily sustenance driven, like stability and security; Prospectors, being outer-directed, look for things that confirm their identities and boost their self-esteem; and Pioneers, as mostly inner-directed, seek out the new and novel.
Two of the foremost proponents of Values Modes, Chris Rose and Pat Dade, argue that used in the right way, it can be an invaluable tool for understanding how different policies and initiatives are likely to affect people’s behaviours. For example, one of their key arguments is that you have to tailor initiatives and messages to fit different value groups. You can’t expect to heavily influence a Settler’s behaviour by showering them messages about new trends. Highlighting social norms would be more appropriate, but then this wouldn’t do as much to shift the behaviour of Pioneers who are less concerned about what other people are doing.