Saturday, November 04, 2006


Historical Memory, Social Change and the Limitations of the Human Psyche Challenges Facing Nonprofits and Society as a Whole
by pam ashlund

Two problems are troubling me tonight: 1) Progress is so slow (in every arena, but it's social change that I have in mind here); and 2) For whatever reason, human thought falls victim to the most base errors; preventing us from seeing and thinking clearly.

Progress is slow: The challenging part of any academic endeavor is that we have to start over again with every generation. Unlike physical genes, these non-physical meme thingy’s are not transferred by DNA through reproduction (or any other physical mechanism).

Fortunately, there is some overlap of generations to achieve a modicum of historical memory. The invention of the printing press didn't hurt either (should I be saying silicon chip?).
Still this darn transmission process is SO fragile. The dark ages almost wiped out all of human knowledge were it not for a couple of cloistered monks tucked away here and there. It all came down to copying manuscripts by HAND. This whole image was burned into my memory by the fabulous PBS history populizer (author/host of The Day the Universe Changed), James Burke, and has haunted me ever since.

By way of illustration, in 1993 when the Clinton Administration launched the AmeriCorps program, a cadre of young and enthusiastic Clinton staffers charged in to create a government agency and program that would be new and different.

I'm sure they didn't know what they were in for. The staff created a model where "volunteers" were paid a monthly living allowance. Nothing wrong with that (idealistic, efficient, etc.); except that State Law contradicted that form of pay (violating wage and labor law). It took five long years to resolve that, where all of the nonprofit agencies geared up and paid living allowances, then reverted to an hourly wage, and then (when a specific exception for the AmeriCorps program was established), went back to the living allowance model (first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is?).

Clinton created the first new federal agency in 20 years (which unlike Health & Human Services or the Department of Labor), had an unusual name, the "Corporation for National Service". Even the Federal Department name being called a "Corporation" challenged the status quo.

In other words, the new (enthusiastic, motivated) generation learned quite a few lessons the hard way. By the time "Year Ten" of the AmeriCorps program had rolled around, I'm afraid it had succumbed to governmental bueracracy.

Obviously we stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us, and even if we cannot rise above the tide of history, a knowledge of the lessons of the past can't hurt.

It's a cliche and a truism, nonetheless, I recommend using this quote as a daily mantra and tool for self and organizational analysis:

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, 1863-1952
Human thought, flawed by base errors, hinders clear thinking:

Social Psychology's perspectives on personality traits and human motivations and limitations, are as an important factor as heeding the lessons of history.

Recall the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes describing life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well how about this quote from the critical thinking website:

much of our biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced.
Why do some people have no trouble acknowledging that limitation while it seems an insurmountable hurdle to others? Psychological research offers a few answers, one being a personality trait dubbed "self-monitoring". Posited by Snyder in 1979 and substatiated by volumes of data since, high self-monitoring individuals have better work performance and are better leaders than their low self-monitoring counterparts. Oddly, low self-monitoring individuals are dominated by a quality of "being true to themselves". I wouldn't be surprised if more of the folks drawn to work in the nonprofit sector (or helping professions in general) might be of the low-self monitoring variety.

Research on the behavior and psychology of "groups" offer similar insight. Tyler Cowen, blogging in Marginal Revolution: Small Steps to a Much Better World writes:

Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity.

But why does this illusion persist?”Check out his blog to see Tyler’s answers.

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1 comment:

Trucha said...

"Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity."

Wow! That flouts the conventional thinking on this topic, but I've been secretly harboring this "truth" myself. What comes to my mind is an exercise I was trained to do (through AmeriCorps, no less!) and which I led countless times. This exercise involved a plane crash scenario and having to rank in order of importance a list of survival items. First, individuals would be instructed to create their own rankings list. Then, the individuals would all get together and would be forced to create a collaborative group rankings list. Finally, the two sets of lists (the individual lists and the group list) would be compared to the "experts' list" (supposedly the "real" or true answers or rankings). Theoretically, the results would purport to show that the group rankings list was closer, on average, than many of the individual rankings lists and, therefore, one had a better chance of "surviving" if everyone stuck together (or something along those lines).

What I found in doing this activity was that often times the group ranking was slightly better (closer to the experts' ranking) than the rankings of some of the individuals. However, I also found that there were plenty of individual lists that were closer to the experts' list than was the group's. So what was the message for these people? I always just kind of shrugged at them and then continued on with the charade. Also, while the group ranking list may have been "closer" to the experts' list in many cases, I always wondered, "Even though it's closer, is it close enough to ensure survival?" This was unclear.

The application of all this for me was that in the back of my mind, I make a secret determination for myself that if I ever was in a similar real-life situation, I would rely on what I thought was best, not on what the group thought was best. I guess I figured that there would be some type of bell curve in effect, and that the group consensus, since it would always include the opinions of those with suspect judgment, would always be destined for nothing higher than a C grade. And a C grade might just get you killed in a real-life situation.

I can't help but think of what transpired during Hurricane Katrina. The group (government?) consensus was "go the the SuperDome and wait." But that was a C answer at best. It seems that the not-so-subtle message that most of us got after watching the TV coverage was that in the event of a similar national emergency, do not rely on the government (the "big group") to save you; you'd be better off relying on and saving yourself. Similarly, I also can't help but think of the shift in opinion which occurred after the 9/11 plane hijackings. Prior to this, the conventional "expert" opinion was that individuals should not resist hijackers or bank robbers, etc. But afterwards, there was a shift (and I'm not sure if that shift ever received tacit endorsement by the government) to emphasize that in certain situations, it would be better for individuals to act because you might be able to save yourself (i.e., by tackling and subduing the shoe bomber) or save others (i.e., by rushing the cockpit and sending the plane down into a vacant field in Pennsylvania rather than a building full of people).