Seeing What I Actually Know

I know what I know.  Right?  Two authors I have been reading summarize research showing that we typically are not very good at knowing what we know now or recalling what we think we knew before.

In his 1976 classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Columbia University professor Robert Jervis summarizes research that shows, “People often not only have a limited understanding of the workings of others’ arguments, they also do not know the structure of their own belief systems—what values are most important, how some beliefs are derived from others, and what evidence would contradict their views.  Particularly dangerous is the tendency to take the most important questions for granted…This often involves..failing to scrutinize basic assumptions” (410-411).

Highlighting a vast amount of recent research into the neuroscience of memory in his 2015 book The Brain, Stanford University professor David Eagleman writes, “Although we don’t always realize it, the memory is not as rich as you might have expected…The enemy..isn’t time; it’s other memories.  Each new event needs to establish new relationships among a finite number of neurons.  The surprise is that a faded memory doesn’s seem faded to you…Our past is not a faithful record.  Instead it’s a reconstruction” (23-26).  “Our picture of the external world isn’t necessarily an accurate representation.  Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain” (38).

If we are not good at knowing what we know or remembering accurately, then what can we do?  These same lines of research highlight two human strengths: (1) our partial perspectives and (2) our error-correcting ability to calibrate.

Our partial perspectives.  We each perceive a rich world of sensations, inputs that we each are uniquely able to perceive and process.  Combining a set of rich perspectives different individuals have about an experience can lead to a more nuanced, multi-dimensional understanding of a given phenomenon.  This integrated set can then be tested against evidence: how the system actually behaves.  Systemic, multi-stakeholder processes, like the ones we have tested and developed, at the Institute for Strategic Clarity, are one method for capturing, integrating, and validating this kind of richness.

Our error-correcting ability to calibrate.  Our brains seem to focus on correcting errors in the mental representation it already has of the world.  The brain is calibrating.  “Instead of using your senses to constantly rebuild your reality from scratch every moment, you’re compaing sensory information with a model the brain has already constructed: updating it, refining it, correcting it” (53 The Brain).  ”The brain generates its own reality, even before it receives information coming in from the eyes and the other senses…(For example, the) thalamus simply reports on differences between what the eyes are reporting, and what the brain’s internal model has predicted…what gets sent back to the visual cortex is what fell short in the expectation” (51-52 The Brain).  This act of calibration is a strength.  Using evidence-based mapping, we can see what actually exists more rigorously and use that mapping to calibrate our individual mental representations, the mental models we use all day long to make decisions.

To apply these concepts of partial perspectives, weak memory accuracy, and calibration to complex social issues like human agreements, we need rigorous frameworks for integrating and validating what we know.  Especially since we also know that human agreements can be very hard to see, tools like Agreements Evidence Mapping are ever more critical for (1) capturing and validating partial perspectives, (2) integrating them into one whole, strategic representation that can be validated, around (3) often hidden agreements we have unconsciously accepted, that (4) we agree to shift.  Maybe I do not know what I know, most of the time, but I can.


What Is Your Preferred Flavor of Freedom? — Recommended Readings

Anderson, Charles W. Statecraft: An Introduction to Political Choice and Judgment1977, New York: John Wiley & Sons.  Click here for snippets from the text.

Anderson, Charles W. Pragmatic Liberalism. 1990, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Charles W.  A Deeper Freedom: Liberal Democracy as an Everyday Morality, 2002, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Click here for his free podcast-course on Political, Economic and Social Thought.

Freedom is a concept that is easy to understand.  Right?  Since we throw this important word around a lot, we must all be clear that we mean the same thing when we say it, right?  Not according to the late Professor Charles W. Anderson.  Referencing the classical use of the word “liberalism,” which comes from the same word as liberty or freedom, Professor Anderson distinguishes four schools of liberalism, each based on very different foundational assumptions about what freedom is, how it shows practically in the world, and how to support it.  The four schools he suggests are: classical, utilitarian, egalitarian, and pragmatic.  According to Professor Anderson, classical liberalism focuses on individuals living their own life as they see fit, with minimal interference.  In utilitarian liberalism, the individual maximizes freedom by maximizing the utility–the calculated net benefit of benefits minus costs–of the consequences of every decision.  In egalitarian liberalism, the emphasis is on the equal opportunity to experience freedom, based on equalizing starting points, rights, and access to opportunities.  In pragmatic liberalism, the individual engages in a world that is too complex to understand fully, so the task is to consider the practical impacts of an action, and to take that action to see what happens. In his podcast-course, which I highly recommend, Professor Anderson provides a very engaging, 54-lecture tour through the development and use of schools of political, economic, and social thought, highlighting the ebb and flow of definitions of what it means to be free, and how the different schools of liberalism have come and gone, multiple times.

This series of books shows how the application of these different understandings of liberalism lead to different politics, different institutions and roles.  “Political decision making takes place in a context of institutions, roles, and relationships” (Statecraft p25).  “To act politically is to attempt to impose direction and form on the course of human affairs…Everyone makes political decisions.  But often we do not recognize that this is what we are doing, even while we are doing it.  Political activity is not confined to the affairs of government.  It is present in every human association.  In essence, we act politically whenever we make decisions on behalf of other people and not for ourselves alone.  Politics means planning and organizing common projects, setting rules and standards that define the relationships of people to one another.” (Statecraft pvii).  Here he references the ecosynomic question of “who decides and enforces?” and power over the five primary relationships.  A further nuance in Professor Anderson’s book looks at the “tension between the values of liberty and equality.  All liberals endorse both, but classical liberals tend to emphasize the former and [egalitarian] liberals the latter” (Statecraft p20).

Within this framing of schools of liberalism, this book series lays out practical suggestions for statecraft: how to look at public policy, making choice on behalf of other people; political strategy, coping with power and influence; and political structure, the design of institutions.  I highly recommend these books and Professor Anderson’s podcast-course.