Getting Out of Our Heads

Too much change psychology focuses on the way we think. Sometimes creating change requires we get out of our heads.

Norman Vincent Peale is believed to have once stated:

Change your thoughts and you change your world.”

Norman Vincent Peale

It’s hard to deny that a change of mind can quite literally change the way you perceive the world around you. All one has to do is reflect on a time when you saw something completely new or something familiar in a new way that shifted your perception of the world. An overwhelming amount of the literature on change psychology is focused on the ways in which we seek to shift our mental perceptions in order to change behaviour.

There is a simple logic to it: new information contributes to new knowledge, which leads to new behaviours based on that knowledge. Thus, if we want to see something different we need to provide new information to prompt change.

Yet like H.L. Mencken’s famous quote below, this model is neat, simple and also wrong.

Not wrong in concept, but in completeness. People purchase products, use services, engage in health-related behaviours (e.g., cigarette smoking), or make life-shaping choices like careers, places to live, and friends based on a constellation of factors that go well-beyond rational choice. Indeed, rational choice theory has been shown to have many limitations in shaping our expertise on something.

Nice, Simple, and Wrong.

The words of H.L. Mencken come to mind when thinking about change theories:

“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

H.L. Mencken

In a previous post we looked at the issue of investment in the ideas, products, and reputations created in the process of generating a popular theory and its related products. Change theories such as the Theory of Reasoned Action (and Planned Behaviour) and the Transtheoretical Model have been widely used to inform health promotion planning, education, and management practices worldwide. These are cognitive-rational theories meaning that they are organized around the principle of the human as the rational actor.

Cognitive rational theories suggest that humans use the information available to them and make reasoned decisions based on that to guide their behaviour. You perceive a threat or opportunity, weigh the consequences of action or inaction, and make some decision to change based on what you know, what skills you have, and the resources available.

The idea is that the reasonable person will come to a similar conclusion given the same set of facts. Yet, as George Bernard Shaw once wrote:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

Mencken was speaking of the tendency toward deriving simple explanations that often miss or avoid the underlying complexity behind them. Our cognition is filled with perceptual biases, blindspots, and mis-attributions about the world, meaning our reliance solely on rational thought is likely to lead us down the wrong path. We need something to catalyze our analysis and that is a social and emotional issue.

Catalyzing change

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa might be the most famous painting in the world. Every year tens of thousands of visitors to The Louvre in Paris come to see it like those pictured above. While there is debate over the technical, artistic, and aesthetic merits of da Vinci’s famous work what makes it so famous is largely the emotional appeal it has to people.

Some of this is due to the painting’s prestige, its complicated and movie-worthy history, or the mystery surrounding the subject of the work and her smile. These are social and emotional reasons, not just logical ones. Great works of art might have many things going for them, but one of them might also be luck.

Change is due in large part to mobilizing these other qualities to generate the kind of energy that can overcome the inertia created in stability. An emotional spark — like outrage, fear, desire, or joy — is something that bring static facts to life. It’s also the foundation for why people make change happen. Emotion is a catalyst for thinking and its something we feel not only in our heads, but our entire body.

Methods for exploring complex issues like sociodrama and bodystorming are among those that can get people out of their head, into their body, and exploring issues socially, rather than individually. These are the kinds of methods that can help organizations explore change and have been used by folks like John Wenger in the UK tackling not only organizational change but social change.

Another approach to changing organizations is focusing on organizational aesthetics — the appreciation of beauty in the work we do. Far from something superfluous, appreciation of beauty in our institutions can have profound effects on how we organize our work, perform, and the choices we make on what work to do. Aesthetics, while involving our minds, is also involving our eyes, ears, hearts and bodies. The interaction of all of this is what catalyzes change and what shows us how changes in our thoughts are necessary, but often not sufficient to make change happen.

Seeing the future

An argument has been made that we can’t just look at facts, figures, plans, and evidence dispassionately and rationally with the expectation that it will produce change. We need to bring in other forms of information from and through our bodies in the form of movement, interaction, memory, and aesthetic appreciation. And, as covered in a previous post, we need to consider our organizations’ collective history, too.

The final piece of this complex puzzle is about seeing the future. Foresight represents a collection of methods and tools that brings all of these elements together to look ahead to where we might be going and what might greet us when we get where we want.

Foresight anticipates how patterns in the present might influence the future by combining research, emotional design, and imagination. It can mean seeing the possible or the ‘unpossible’. It is a systematic and creative means of bringing all of these elements of change together to envision possible futures to shape our strategy for how to get there. Through visualizing a journey to a destination we can better take the small and big steps now that can prepare us for change and make that change happen.

Some of the ‘metrics of success’ of foresight is achievement of shared visioning (i.e. can we all see something?), which might literally be the case when combined with visual communication and storytelling. By creating that sense of what is to come it is easier to motivate, guide, and inspire means of taking an organization forward to making the change needed to get ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is).

A holistic route forward

Change is about thinking, feeling, and seeing in multiple dimensions in the past, present, and future. By privileging our thoughts about the present over all else we risk generating change strategies that keep us where we are, by design. Inertia is baked into our work because we’ve not given ourselves the chance to go elsewhere.

By looking at what change holistically we can shift this story and that changes everything…including change itself.

Photos by Evan Lee on Unsplash and Alicia Steels on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: