Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Manipulation of Public Opinion: An Unpleasant Truth

The Trump phenomenon and the recent hand wringing about how social media can manipulate public opinion has brought something about the human condition into stark relief.

While the rest of the species on the planet and Mother Nature herself would probably disagree, one obvious advantage possessed by homo sapiens is our higher cognitive ability. Humans have busy brains. What nature did not provide us with, to this point at least, is a larger processing unit for attention and short term memory. Sadly, this part of our brain seems to be rather under developed and it means that we cannot fully attend to a lot of stimuli at any one one time-attention and short term memory are interdependent.

This lack of ability to attend to a lot of things at one time in our environment was not much of a problem when we were wandering around in small nomadic tribes and life was much simpler. Well, at least when it came to information processing: survival might have been something much more complicated.  In the 21st century this lack of processing power has increasingly become something of a problem.

We adjust to this inability to attend to lots of stimuli at any one time by using what are called cognitive biases. These involve such unconscious activity such as making assumptions from a small amount of information, stereotyping (from which vilification of other groups comes), trusting what we think are reliable sources, accepting things that happen to fit with our current belief systems, and ignoring evidence in favour of convenient beliefs, for example (there are about 20 or so of them).

These biases are short cuts that mean that we can allocate our processing power to other things. They have always been there and are not recent phenomena. We have always been prone to believing what we hear from others, particularly if the source is someone we like or admire, and if what we are hearing fits in with our current beliefs about the world. We take it for granted that what we are being given is the truth. Advertisers have known for a long time about how easy humans are manipulated by simple images and slogans. Misinformation has also been with us for eons too. Our gullibility is the result of what can best be described as a neurological shortcoming.

High speed communication, the Internet and Social media has just made the whole process a lot easier, more pervasive and faster. It is amazing at how quickly misinformation can circulate via Facebook or Twitter. Not so amazing, given what we know about the human brain, is how quickly people believe what they read, no matter the source. Images make the message even more believable. And how quickly we are manipulated.

Just as happened prior to electronic communication and social media, people are not prone to take the time to check the facts. This is particularly true if what they are reading fits with their current believes and biases. It is much easier to believe it and gleefully pass it on. To check the facts just takes too much effort. Much easier to adopt a lie than to find out the truth.

But we were probably doing this when we first crawled out of the swamp. It’s just that now we are doing it on a grand scale. The master manipulators are just laughing at us. Sad, when it just takes a little bit of effort to check before becoming a co-conspirator.

Not sure about you but it bothers the hell out of me and I have become a lot more prone to check out things before I repost. Even better, take action and inform your network of the error.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Reflection

Being able to reflect or even be reflexive is frequently mentioned in the vast literature on leadership. It appears as a useful skill in order to improve leadership performance and one’s development as a leader. There is something tantalisingly sensible about this idea. However, my educated guess is that not many people plan time for reflection in the course of their busy day, let alone do it effectively. Most people I know are too frenetic to even think about thinking about thinking-if you get my drift.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in a lifetime of studying humans is that the thing that is making us unhappy is often the thing also getting in the way of improving or doing something about our situation.

So, in this instance, when chronic busyness and maybe even stress is interfering with our ability to function effectively, maybe even be happy, the cause gets in the way of doing what we need to do most-take time out. Maybe to reflect.

Neuroscience suggests that reflection is a key component to learning. It seems that after information is received as a result of experience we reflect on it in our brain’s temporal lobe before taking it to the next level. It seems that this is critical to memory and, obviously, memory is essential for learning. Our brain does this automatically for us, out of our awareness.  There is more to learning of course, such as the release of chemicals that reward us, using the information, context and a range of other factors.

Often, in my work as a psychologist I’m talking to the unconscious mind, trying to develop understanding that will create change that will be completely out of awareness for the person until maybe later. But there is nothing more satisfying when I’m working with clients and they have that sudden rush of realisation, that ‘Hah, Hah’ moment: sudden conscious awareness. I’ve had this experience myself when I’ve had a sudden insight and it can be exhilarating, as is the behaviour change that follows.

The ability to spend reflection time every day is something we should teach in school as a life skill. And it’s something that should be inbuilt into leadership DNA. It’s that ability to relax a little, thing through what’s happened, consider the appropriateness or not of our behaviour, how we might have done things differently, how we have affected people and how we have affected ourselves.

It’s what our brains do automatically. But how wonderful would it be to be able to take control of some of this, enhance the ability and to continuously learn rather than doing the same damn thing over and over again.

Reflection. Something to reflect upon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Learning for Organisational and Individual Change: A Process for Real Outcomes

In previous papers and blogs, I have banged on a bit about the difference between the acquisition of competences (knowledge and skills) and what, for the want of a better term just yet, real learning. Competencies are essential for being able to function but may or may not be applied, synthesised into our repertoire of cognitive and emotional functioning. Real learning involves this synthesis and results in change. Learning involves understanding the world in different ways, in being able to apply competencies in novel circumstances rather than just the familiar, and there are behavioural consequences. Learning is a dynamic process and more than the sum of its parts.

On the face of it this may seem inconsequential, perhaps, but in my world it is a serious distinction. Most of my work with organisations and individuals (as a coach or therapist) involves the need for change. As you would know changing behaviour, ingrained habits, is no easy task for a whole host of reasons, which I can go into another time. At the heart of change is real learning, it is beyond knowledge and skills.

Didactic, teacher-centric approaches, just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to change and real learning. Again, I won’t go into the details because the evidence is overwhelming that didactic teaching does not lead to learning except in rare circumstances-certainly if it is the main modus operandi.  I need to reassure you that this approach is alive and well in training rooms and in educational institutions around this vast globe of ours.

Enter stage left, self-determined learning or heutagogy. Competencies, knowledge and skills are important, it is the content that provides a basis for action. But the learning for action involves a more complex process.

Based as it is on the idea of human agency, the approach to change has to be learner focused, problem focused, intent on the questions that the learner has and subsequently develops. Coupled with a search conference approach my change designs collect information about the needs of the learner first. Then the workshop is shaped around a conversation, a dialogue. The sand continually shifts as the learner learns, is baffled, fails and finds themselves. This is a flexible adaptable curriculum.

But the baby doesn’t go out with the bathwater. Resources are provided either directly or through links to the Internet. Content and skills come up, and I have a clear list in my mind of what is essential and I build it in as we go. As one participant said to me in a workshop, ‘You said you don’t have an agenda, but you do because we covered all the competencies by the end even though we meandered everywhere today’.

And there is a list for the learner too, so they understand what competencies are required. But like all learning experiences there are always content and skill gaps that the learner fills for themselves in the face of need. The key is to ensure the inquiring mind is able to find what it needs. Most learning occurs later, outside the formal training/education experience.

This is no approach for the faint hearted. You need to know your stuff and need to be able to facilitate. There is no Powerpoint to use as a cheat sheet and no program times except for morning tea and lunch. You need to be able to work in an ambiguous environment that the ‘classroom’ becomes. Control shifts to the learner and to change rather than revolving around the myth that if I tell somebody something then they will do it or be able to do it.

These are dynamic experiences and great fun. You can go to to see what heutagogy or self-determined learning is all about or to and look at the blogs about heutagogy. Or just check it out by searching on heutagogy in your browser.

Or we can run a workshop for you on how to design exciting and real learning experiences for change at