The Elephant in the Room Chronicles

Guiding Light

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2018 at 12:06 pm

All this talk about Trumpism, the erosion of democracy and the emergence of autocracies around the globe got me thinking about my own path to where I am today.

It got me thinking about who and what influenced me along the way.  Happily it was no single person or event because if it was my life simply would be the outcome of pure luck, which it is not.  My guiding lights were wonderful academic mentors who introduced me to the wonderous world of literature.  From both I learned what matters and what to pursue in life.  It’s not power, prestige nor wealth.  It is knowing and doing good.

At first as a young treatment unit manger in a correctional facility I worried about what is the right thing to do dealing with staff and sentenced individuals.  I quickly learned that there are many ways of explaining what is the right thing to do examples of which are many in the current US political world.  For example, for a developmentally stuck adult the right thing to do is whatever one can get away with.  Or, it is right to take advantage of the other if the other lets it happen.

To rescue me from my confused and troubled state came my mentors and their recommended readings.  Gradually a whole new world opened and most importantly I learned about what is the good and how to pursue it through principled reasoning.  I learned that the good requires being fair treating everyone in every situation as inherently equal regardless of any and all superficial differences.  This approach admittedly is not always easy nor do I always do it well.  Before I can be a fully actualized principled person there is a long way yet to go.  At the very least though I know what I am striving for and why.


Doing Good- Principled Reasoning

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2018 at 12:04 pm

A funny thing happened to me on my way to a career in service of people.  At a very young age a panel of three competent senior managers, much to my surprise, saw fit to promote me to head up a treatment unit in a state of the art correctional facility.  My first concern was not about delivering a program. Being young I believed I knew how to do that.  But I had enough sense to know that I did not know how to make important decisions.  I wanted to know how to know what is the right thing to do in  all situations, big and small.  I soon learned that there are many ways of justifying what is the right thing to do.  For example, it is the right thing to do if you can get away with it.  Or, it is the right thing to satisfy one’s immediate needs regardless of consequences to others.  I also learned that it is the right thing to do if my particular reference group says it to be so.  These discoveries clearly were not very helpful.  They left me in a quandary which had to be resolved, the sooner the better.

Troubled but also spurred on by curiosity I began, as any recent graduate would, researching the topic and seeking mentorship advise.  Quickly a whole new world opened, a world that is concerned with not what is the right thing to do but what is the good.  I was introduced to the concept of morality and how moral reasoning evolves.  Most importantly I learned about principled reasoning and behaving accordingly.

Applying the concept principle reasoning and behaving accordingly at first was an elusive and complex pursuit.  Slowly but surely it started to become increasingly more understandable and easier to do.  Principled reasoning I learned is required to discern the good or just thing to do.  I learned that the good is about fairness, treating everyone equitably regardless of any and all factors.

Nevertheless, the concept principle in the context of moral reasoning, continues to challenge me. But for the most part asking the question ‘what is the principled thing to do’ serves me well making life’s difficult decisions a lot easier.

While I have a long way to go before being a truly principled person; at the very least I know what I am striving for and why.

What were you thinking: A very flawed assumption about how we function

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2018 at 9:31 pm

As children, some of us more than others, we were quite familiar with the question “what were you thinking?”.  As adults, we learned very well from our youthful experiences, we blithely continue the practice of asking from anyone of whose behaviour we disapprove, “what were you thinking?”  As a clinician, with some significant years of experience, I always ask the same question of everyone whose behaviour got them in trouble.  I know the answer but the question is a strategy to make a very important point.  The answer, almost always is, “I was not thinking.

The scientific fact is that when we act we are indeed thinking but not the way would like to believe we do. Almost all of us are, to borrow phrase, legends in our own mind.  We believe that we think rationally, consider the pros and cons, weigh the consequences, factor in our emotional states, the impact the emotions have on our ability to make decisions and after all of these ‘computations’ we then make the best choice act on it.

Outside of an experimental laboratory setting nothing could be further from the truth.  There are several reasons for this most of them having to do with functionality.  To think like in this laborious way takes time and real life does not afford the luxury of such pondourous deliberations.

In reality our thinking is quick, automatic and requires no effort.  It is based on or emanates from the underlying structure of how we perceive the world and how we make sense of our experiences.  Nobel laurite Daniel Kahneman calls what we actually do System 1 thinking and what we would like to believe we do as System 2 thinking.  Unfortunately, because like most highly specialized scientists, in his explanation of the two systems, he does not venture too far afield of his focus.  As a result the practical benefits of knowing that System 1 thinking primarily dominates is less than optimally realized.

The structure of our cognitive processes, our thinking, is developmentally determined.  For the most part it is indeed at a subconscious level but most assuredly greatly influences the System 1 quick automatic decisions we make and then act on them.

The better, but incomprehensible to most people, question we should ask therefore is “what developmental cognitive structure stage perspective caused you to behave in this unacceptable way?”  Of course we do not ask this question.  What we assume is that everyone thinks the way we believe we think, the exception being that we think better.  The solution therefore is that we just have to teach them how to think better and once they think better they will also behave better.  There is even a name for this intervention strategy based on some markedly narrow scientific investigation.

While arguably cognitive behavioural therapy has some empirical evidence in support of it, the benefits could be for better if the cognitive developmental state structure was incorporated into the explanation and intervention strategies.

The strategy to teach badly behaved people to think better, System 2 like, before they act is tantamount to changing that which is adaptively functional, namely thinking automatically fast. It is simply unreasonable to expect anyone to mostly engage in time consuming laborious thinking before taking action.

However, it is not unreasonable to pursue strategies known to alter the structure of stage specific reasoning.  It is done all the time with our children when we deliberately expose them to developmentally conducive experiences.  Some clinicians do exactly the same with badly behaved people in residential therapeutic communities and in counselling sessions.  The strategy is to create cognitive conflict that the individual then resolves over time by constructing new more comprehensive ways of reasoning and behaving accordingly.

Once again, the folly of science ignoring the principle of isomorphism is revealed.

All three, Kahneman, cognitive behaviour therapy and those engaged in habilitative intervention strategies could benefit greatly from familiarity with the others.  Instead of engaging in a narrowly focused area of study a synthesis of information from related fields would be a far greater contribution to knowledge and to the human condition.  Moreover, such synthesis also validates optimism insofar as while quick automatic thinking is required literally for survival the structure on which it is based can and does change.  As our cognitive development advance it drags along with it increasingly more responsible behaviours.

In brief, while narrowly focused expertise can be extremely valuable its true value is determined by the extent to which it informs other areas of focus.  Therefore, for most of us without the luxury to focus narrowly as Professor Kahnemon it is far better to read, study and sample as far afield as we possibly can.