Foreseeing the Unpossible

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Change may be the only constant and, beyond wet babies, few of us welcome it. Foresight is about looking ahead to what change(s) might be coming to help us prepare, but that doesn’t help much if we don’t know where we are right now. 

Last night I had a wonderful conversation with some foresighting peers, all fellow alumni from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program at OCADU. We were coming together to talk about what we, as ones with training in the foresight theories, methods and tools that help people consider possible futures, can do to help and heal the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the social collisions that have come with it.

Trump’s election was an example of where the foresight community — like pretty much every other scholarly field — failed. Few, if any, saw it coming. No matter your slant on the media coverage, 18 months ago no one was talking about the Trump presidency in serious terms – hardly even Donald Trump, himself.

Even after securing the Republican nomination his candidacy was seen as taking on the impossible. Now, it’s the unpossible.

Today we have someone going on a campaign-style crusade against his opponents after he’s won the election. It’s as if the presidential outcome was never decided. No one saw that coming, either.

Or Brexit.

Or…you get the picture. There are a lot of things that have been missed by very smart people with powerful tools, theories and resources and it’s happening a lot.

This is less about bad foresight as much as it is a lack of insight into the present day and the present moment and the human beings who inhabit it. It might be time to bring psychology into foresight and that begins with understanding how people live their lives day-to-day and what they think, feel, pay attention to, and gravitate to (and away from).

Putting difference in context

To see the unpossible we need to start going deeper into the heart of human life.

While many laud the accomplishments of the maverick, the inspired trailblazer, or the wonders of diversity, the truth is that we are wired more tightly to sameness than difference. (Like it or not). Difference and change are two things we humans don’t have innate attraction to at a macro level, yet it is the hallmark feature of the cosmopolitan, modern (and certainly Western) world. Complexity is about diversity, change, instability, and non-linearity — the very things we humans have trouble with and yet we keep making systems that are ever-more complex making for a paradox of epic proportions.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of difference in-the-world. Canada is taking in over 35,000 refugees and has a commitment to maintain a slightly reduced level of refugees (from all over the world) for the foreseeable future. This pales in comparison to what other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey have taken in, but shames its larger neighbour to the south.

These new citizens bring new ideas, energy, culture to a country that has more than enough space, plenty of relative wealth and a population who are willing and able to help. Syrians (like so many refugees) have experienced  horrors and more human suffering than anyone should have to endure.

While these new Canadians are contributors, they also require resources to help them settle. For many, it will be some time before they integrate into Canadian life enough that they no longer require government or charitable assistance. In the meantime, this group is hungry to work, to study and to create a life for themselves in their adopted home. The problem comes when there are others already here who also want to work, study and create a life for themselves and can’t do it to the levels they want and who might see the scarce resources being further reduced by these newcomers.

If I am a Canadian without work, how happy should I be that we are committing to providing 35,000+ people who are also looking for work with a place in my country? If I’m waiting for healthcare treatment, how is this going to affect me? How might I feel when I see that these newcomers get food, shelter, community support, job training and programs aimed at supporting them to integrate when I don’t believe I can get anything like that and I’ve been here my whole life? When has the Prime Minister ever come to welcome me to anything?  If I was a refugee from another place just a year or two earlier, why didn’t I get this treatment when I arrived?

These aren’t just Canadian questions. They are being asked in Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, England, Jordan, Sweden and anywhere there is a perception of scarcity of resources (which is pretty much everywhere).

This is but one example. The humanitarian impulse that many people feel when looking to help those in need is why Canada and so many nations around the world have stepped up and taken in these Syrian ‘strangers’ as their new friends, neighbours and family with open arms. It’s heartwarming and represents some of the better angels of our nature. Yet, this doesn’t make the concerns that someone who is already settled here any less legitimate. This is that part of the equation that is easy to miss or dismiss when we see resistance to change or opposition to these kind of initiatives.

The psychology of difference

For those who identify as a progressive or liberal, opposition to change, diversity and global integration is often labeled as ‘small-minded’ at the least, racist at the worst. Certainly there are elements of that which can reside within what might be considered ‘conservative’ movements, yet it’s unfair to use these labels to describe an entire worldview. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented on the pull between globalist and nationalist thinking, pointing to the way worldviews about change and stability help us understand the rise of Donald Trump and other radical candidates. His analysis an application of moral psychology provides what may be the most powerful explanation of why we are seeing the ‘unpossible’ become possible.

As a caricature for illustration, liberals are biased to see positives in change while conservatives are biased toward promotion of stability. When change is constant and stability is comforting, this dichotomy is not easily resolved, if at all.

Psychology can help us in other ways when looking to the present and future of our world. One is to consider the cognitive biases that we hold when we bring a worldview that sees change and stability, globalism and nationalism, unity and diversity in everyday life.

One bias or mode of thought is attribution theory— taking one thing and ascribing qualities from it to another. In the case of a Trumpist United States that positions difference — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, other countries’ trade policies — as a threat we can find examples of how this thinking plays out. It might be easy to look at what is the most obvious — people who are new, dress differently, speak differently, believe different things, and look different — as the culprit. After all, when things were good — when “America was Great” — these people weren’t here and this situation didn’t exist. Simple cause and effect, right?

Of course, we know that the ‘good old days’ were rarely ever as good as we make them out to be. This is because of a collection of other cognitive phenomena.

Hindsight bias is a way of confirming present feelings and thoughts based on seeing the past through a distorted lens that allows us to say things like “I knew it all along”. Nostalgia is a form of hindsight and allows people to reflect back on positive feelings and experiences in life, but also to connect to simplicity, which is why we remember simple, but strong feelings (love, fear, conviviality) but lose the details of just what was said or the specifics of an encounter. It’s the feelings that matter most.

A quote attributed to Toni Morrison is particularly apt here:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Finally, confirmation bias takes these thoughts and reformulates them into the present, which is a way of saying that we fit our memories and thoughts from the past to fit our current belief system.

Understanding time and change

Change is always relative. The parable of the frog in the boiling pot is a good one to illustrate this. We might not perceive the water getting too hot until it’s too late because change is so persistent, yet gradual. The distresses we find in modern life are the ones that often promote loneliness, disconnection and separation from the natural world. These are all things – communion, connection, engagement with nature — that promote wellbeing and comfort.

Difference can be a source of inspiration, new ideas and innovation, but it can also be a source of distress because of this perceived separation from the stable. When I’ve had traditions, practices and a way of living that has provided comfort for me my whole life and, in a time when I need comfort more than ever, am having trouble seeing those things that once brought me comfort in everyday life, how am I going to feel about difference? To what might I attribute this difference, this change to? The answer sometimes comes in the form of racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, and ethnic nationalism.

Trump and others are capitalizing on the fog that comes with memory and our self-selection and editing of history in our minds. What we long for are those feelings associated from earlier times and those feelings are connected to the simplicity of the practice (as we construct it in our memory). When you recall your day to a friend or loved one you summarize: that’s how memory works for you. You don’t speak of the day in terms of how your brain actually functions moment-to-moment with the gamut of feelings, thoughts, memories you have at any one time because you’d sound like a lunatic with all the chatter, contradiction and stream-of-consciousness going on. That’s your memory at work in bringing clarity to the chaos of a waking moment.

The distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction with all of this change is reasonable and legitimate. The manifestation of those feelings into hatred is not. Add in our bias toward in-groups — however we personally define it — and the reaction that we are seeing isn’t surprising at all. We are forward-oriented beings, we see things moving ahead and when social or economic situations force us backward by having less — friends, social engagements, money, buying power, security, stability — we don’t handle it lightly.

Time plays many tricks with our mind whether we view it as being in abundance, scarcity or even relate to it at all in the moment.

Light on our shadow

Add in another feature that we often overlook: our darker, shadow side. Jung spoke about the importance of the shadow and using it to understand the light. We all have a shadow, that darker side of our nature that emerges in times of stress or when we least expect it.

The human shadow is that part of the self that revels — even momentarily — on revenge**. How often have we, in fleeting moments (or even longer), wished ill-will on someone else? That person that cuts us off on the way to work; the clueless person who stops at the top of the escalator in a busy shopping plaza; your cousin who always takes more than his share at family dinners; queue jumpers; the telemarketer who interrupts your quiet night at home to sell you something; the sports fan who cheers for your team’s rival and revels in your team’s defeat; the person that votes for the candidate who’s not yours.

Why are revenge movies so appealing to so many? The Revenant wouldn’t be much of a story (although a glorious testament to the Alberta mountain landscape, which is well worth seeing on its own) if we didn’t, at some level, relate to the characters’ desire for revenge. It feels good. And it makes many of us recoil in horror and deny it when we consider it as part of us.

I experience this all the time and I’m not proud of that. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t confessed (when pressed) that they feel the same way. It’s part of being a human being.

Seeing the unpossible is about seeing ourselves as humans, not just fellow citizens who we think ought to mirror our own personal ideals. Humans get scared of change, they are overwhelmed with information, have few tools at their disposal and even less time and energy to apply those tools, and they are willing to seek comfort in anything that holds the promise of making life simpler.

If the present and future will be shaped by humans, then we need to add our humanity, including the ugly parts of it, into the mix. Consider that when you make your predictions, generate your models and envision the world ahead and also ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a little darker in your outlook on life right now.

Only by seeing us as humans can we imagine what seems unpossible as possible.

** A fun way to soften the harshness of thoughts of revenge on others is provided by the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.

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