Category: psychology

behaviour changecomplexityemergencepsychology

Complex Change and Energy

 

Simple, straightforward and predictable things are pretty boring, but they at least can be understood without much effort. And sometimes that simplicity provides comfort that we can’t find in complicated, complex or chaotic events. As we find ourselves working long hours eating badly and sleeping less hours than our body would like its no surprise that we find a lot of organizations trying to make complex change using simple processes (that won’t work). It’s tiring thinking about complexity and simplicity is, well, simple. We don’t need to consider the pushback that could come from making our morning coffee, we need not worry about the unintended consequences of ironing our shirts, or contemplate the emergent patterns that come from picking a green M&M out of the holiday party bowl over the red one. After a long day at the office or an emotional conversation with a loved one, these ‘simple pleasures’ as they are often referred to provide us comfort that can’t be found in complexity.

But change is rarely a pleasure, but always an adventure; When it comes we need to be ready and have the energy to tackle it.

It is perhaps for that reason that people try to deny it or over-simplify problems. Its the very reason why the self-help book section of a store is so big, why New Year’s resolutions are so popular (do you have yours yet?), and why late night infomercials and daytime talkshows still persist in their efforts to sell us the quick and easy change. Change your life in three, five, seven, 10 or 12 easy steps!

It is never that easy. If it was, I could teach my students health behaviour change in an evening seminar at a hotel airport instead of a semester-long graduate course that is, at best, showing the ice floating above the waterline. However, in that proverbial sea of self-help resources one of the few ideas that stands out comes from The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, authors Jim Loehr and and Tony Schwartz point out that a key to change is managing energy as much as it is our cognitions, emotions and behaviour. It is the energy we bring to situations that is the necessary precondition to becoming fully engaged and able to change. It’s why its so hard to pay attention in class or a meeting when you’re tired. Or why you tune out when the message itself is tired; the same old stuff trotted out again and again.

Change in human systems is complex.

Tired individuals and organizations tend to opt for those solutions to complex problems that are simple and, as H.L. Menken said, wrong, — see my last post. Ever seen profound change take root in an exhausted environment? Not me. It’s one of the reasons why effective leaders are those that aim to spark emotion and raise the energy level of those that follow them as much as instill new ideas. Indeed, if you look at many of the best leaders out there, they tend to create environments where new ideas come from introducing new ways to see the complex and make it exciting. A terrific example of this is Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED looking at how the complicated structure and complexity of classical music can enliven the spirit.

So perhaps our first strategy to change is to take a nap, play some Chopin and watch an inspirational movie than try and solve it otherwise we might end up with simple and wrong solutions to complex problems and be no better off for it.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningenvironmenthealth promotion

Complexity and the Information Landscape

 

This morning the newswires are buzzing with a story that alleges Britain’s Climatic Research Unit fudged some of its climate change data and suggesting that a ‘bunker mentality’ took hold in the unit, which led to this kind of skewing of the data and science. One scientist told Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail that “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this has set the climate-change debate back 20 years.” Indeed, with the Copenhagen Climate Summit about to start, there is real concern that these allegations – whether proven true or not — will impair the delegates’ ability to reach a deal.

On a different, yet related note, yesterday I went and got my H1N1 shot and was told by the official guiding people through the clinic that about 37 percent of the population of Toronto have had the vaccination. I went to the downtown clinic and waited about 2 minutes to see someone, which is in stark contrast to what we saw a few weeks ago.Why? The threat of H1N1 seems much less in the here and now than it did a few weeks ago when, in the span of one weekend, when U.S. President Obama declared swine flu a national emergency, and two young people in Ottawa died from H1N1. Towards the end of October, H1N1 seemed a lot more scary and that made the issue a lot simpler: get protected or die (or so it seemed)

So what do these two stories have in common? Both illustrate the problem of complexity in the information landscape. H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong“.

The problem that public health and scientific research faces is that it is in the business of complexity, yet the business of the media is too often in simplicity.  This caused that. That person is bad, this person is a hero and so on. The archetypes and stereotypes come in spades and that is the problem. On the issue of climate change, most scientists worth their salt looking at the data are concerned about what is happening to our climate, not because they know for sure, but because they don’t. In a complex system like the environment, the overlaying causes, consequences and potential confounders of data make it impossible to say for sure that something causes something else in a specific dose. What can be done is that we can observe large scale patterns of behaviour and anticipate changes based on models developed using past, current and possible future (estimated) data and scenario planning.

In public discourse however, this makes for a less compelling story. Many like to think that buying a hybrid car, recycling, and carrying a reusable shopping bag will help solve the problem of climate change, when the truth is an entire system of small changes needs to take place if we really want to make a difference. This speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity.

With the H1N1 example, complexity is less about the cause and effect relationship of the disease and host and more about the vaccine developed to help prevent it. There are an entire littany of websites, pundits and voices who have turned something that is complicated like a vaccine, with potential complex outcomes in rare events such as allergic reactions, into overly complex issues around patient safety, conspiracy theories and the like. I commented on some of these issues in a previous post. At issue here is a fundamental lack of understanding of statistics and probability.

The problem is that the two are related. For those of us in public health, this is an issue that can lead to sleepless nights. How to both make complex information accessible and interpretable to those without the interest, time or ability to sift through it and make reasoned, informed decisions AND how to enhance people’s understanding of probability? Just yesterday in my course on health behaviour change a student in epidemiology remarked that even something as fundamental as an odds ratio to her field gets debated and misunderstood among her peers. John Sterman at MIT has studied his students — ones that learn about system dynamics — and found that many of them have difficulty grasping the fundamentals of the ‘bathtub problem’ and accumulation, which I discussed in a previous post.

I would argue that this is one of our most fundamental challenges as educators, scientists and members of society.

Think you know about stats and complexity? You might be surprised (and entertained) by how randomness creeps into our lives by listening to the recent podcast on recent episode on stochasticity, or randomness, from WNYC’s Radio Lab.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningpsychologypublic health

Standing Still

One of my favourite quotes is from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s posthumously published novel: The Leopard. The story is about a artistocratic family and their fall from the ranks in society. In the book there is a marvellous quote that reflects the most fundamental challenges of system dynamics:”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

I'm Forever Standing Still

I'm Forever Standing Still..Or Am I?

At its core, the message is that we cannot avoid change by standing still, rather only through change can we hope to achieve consistency. And that, is unlikely. We lose our position unless we move along with everyone else, even if in the process of moving it appears as if we are standing still. (Just think of cars on a highway. Two cars driving side-by-side at the same relative speed will look to each other as if they are not moving much at all, when in reality they may be cruising at a very high rate of speed).

We are rarely aware of the speed at which we are traveling, that is the rate of change that is taking place around us and within us. The human body renews itself many times over throughout the lifespan. Our cells are brand new, yet our looks appear at first to be quite similar from day to day. That is, until someone uncovers a picture of us as a child, a youth, a twenty-, thirty-, any-something that is far enough removed from our current state that we realize the profound change that has taken place.

Systems are enormously difficult to change for that very reason. There is not only constant movement, but lots of it and the impact of each component on everything else is different, dynamic and inconsistent. I am currently helping graduate students in public health learn about systems and, while the teaching is fun and the students are interested, the challenge to communicate the language of systems in a manner that is easy to understand is difficult. Indeed, there is little reason why teaching complexity science should be simple given that one of the principles of systems science is that complex problems require complex solutions.

But thankfully one of the other features of complex systems is the presence of paradox. And one of the tools I’ve found works wonderfully is mindfulness-based reflection. Mindfulness is the process of ‘standing still’ by calming the mind and attending the signals around us without trying to influence them. Remarkably, by keeping still and just paying attention to what is around you without ascribing feelings, thoughts, or attitudes towards something we can learn a great deal about what is going on around us. This is a strategy that has been highly effective as a technique in addressing complex health conditions like chronic pain and addictions and training those who work in areas like this.

The question I have is this: How do we get our social institutions and communities to do the equivalent of paying attention to its breath and relaxing its mind to see the systems that they are a part of in order to initiate healthy change?

That is the challenge I am putting to my students and myself and to you too, dear reader.

education & learningpsychologysocial systemssystems sciencesystems thinking

Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

education & learningfood systemshealth promotionpsychology

The Food Bank Model of Education and the Tyranny of Resiliency

Teaching the basics

Did this teacher pay for her chalk through bake sales?

This morning’s Globe and Mail introduced me to a new term “The food bank model of education” . Just reading the headline spurred a deep sense of empathy in me and a good idea (proved correct as I read the article) about what that term meant. As you might guess, the analogy of the food bank is one centred on the concept of donations to support those in need. As Wendy Stueck writes, an approach that was once used around fundraising for special events and activities — those ‘extras’ — is now being used to support the foundation of the educational system. It’s no longer about paying for students to go to special exhibit at the major art gallery and more about paying for pencils, pens and paints — the basics.

Big bucks raised by parent groups are becoming more prominent on the Canadian education scene and resulting in gaps between schools backed by well-off, well-educated parents and those in less-affluent communities, says Annie Kidder, president of the Toronto-based advocacy group People for Education.

“Fundraising has always been a feature [of the school system] and it’s not inherently wrong,” Ms. Kidder says, adding that festivals and silent auctions can be fun and boost morale. “The issue now is that parents are becoming the food banks of the education system.”

It’s easy to forget that food banks were temporary measures meant to serve as a stop-gap to serve communities when times were tough and there wasn’t the necessary resources in place to ensure that everyone had access to food when they needed it. Second Harvest in Santa Cruz area, was the United States’ second food bank (first in California), opening in 1972. That’s not long ago. It shouldn’t be around today, but it is. That’s not because they don’t do good work, but rather because unlike other banks, these weren’t meant to last.

However a funny thing happened while people were patching away at food security, these banks started evolving into social education resources that not only provide food, but also learning about food systems and training centres for policy advocates working to address food security issues. The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto is another great example of this type of transformation in action.

What these groups represent is resiliency in action. Resiliency is the ability of a system to adapt to adversity and capitalize on opportunities to make positive transformation in spite of challenges or catastrophe. It is held up as a positive trait in humans and social systems. One reason is that the world is a dynamic place and change (as much as we resist it) is inevitable. As the memorable quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”..

But that is the problem here with education and food security. We’ve become really good at adapting. Our educators, our communities are exceptionally resilient, creative and adaptive. As the Globe piece points out, a lot of creative stuff is happening to keep the system moving:

But while the routine may be the same, Ms. Whiteaker and others worry that parent groups face increasing pressure to raise money – a kind of fundraising creep – as school boards across the country tighten their belts in the face of government cutbacks.

“Because of the funding cuts, you are going to see an increased demand for fundraising,” she says. “Because parents want to provide the best for their students – right now. Not by the time the government gets around to increasing the funding for certain areas.”

But this isn’t just belt-tightening. It’s unlikely we’ll see these funds restored anytime soon. Think about it: in North America we just experienced the longest run of economic success and wealth creation than at any time in human history. Yet, food banks and educational erosion has continued and remained ‘reslient’ through all of this. Is this a good thing?

Resiliency is almost always used as a positive trait, because adaptation in systems and psychological terms is healthy. But such demands for adaptation can be excessive and actually weaken the system over time. Resiliency is like an elastic band. It has a lot of give and stretch at the beginning, but as anyone with a well-worn pair of yoga pants can attest, the elasticity starts to dissipate after much use. Systems are the same way. Our educational system or food security systems are highly plastic and those working within them are creative. But at some point that elasticity will fade to the point where, like an elastic band, it will eventually crumble into pieces.

How many bake sales are we away from that happening in our schools?

health promotionpsychologysystems thinking

Specialized and Generalized Systems Thinking and Action

This weekend my wife and I had the pleasure to host one of my best friends in the world and his fiancee for a weekend visit to Toronto. It’s perhaps no surprise that we spent a lot of time talking and laughing over a meal. Last night we talked about the impact of our work and the focus we’ve chosen to take and it got me thinking about the challenge of finding balance between specialization and generalization in health promotion work relative to impact. My wife is a social worker who specializes in domestic violence issues. Although she is a trained psychoanalyst, she came to find her greatest opportunity to contribute to the world lay in tackling problems from a systems perspective. She builds multi-sector partnerships, collaborations and works to address the problem of domestic violence at its root and its consequences from multiple perspectives including treatment & prevention and policy & practice. It is a systems approach from the beginning to the end.

Readers of this blog will know that this is a similar approach I take to the problems that interest me like food systems change, tobacco control and gambling. These are often ‘wicked’ problems — those with no clear source or obvious solution requiring collaboration and broad stakeholder engagement to solve. I work and study in the field of health promotion, which is (I argue) a systems science and practice even if it doesn’t identify itself as such. It looks at the bigger picture and tries to use that lens as a means of understanding the world and solving social problems.

My friends are both quite attune to this and I would argue also apply systems thinking to their work, yet they do in a very different way. They are counseling psychologists and, for the most part, they work one-to-one or in small groups. What our conversation revealed was the myriad ways in which systems thinking can be applied to the big and small picture. Family systems therapy for example, is one way in which these ideas are applied to small groups or individuals. But there are many more.

This got me to thinking about the opportunities and challenges associated with promoting systems transformations at the macro and micro levels. The way my friends approach their work is fundamentally different even if it shares much of the same interests in systems change as the approach that I take. Yet, that difference has a huge impact on a few people (hundreds) rather than an almost imperceptible impact on thousands.  In applying systems thinking outside of the clinical encounter, the problem they face is that they are not paid (that is, they are not reimbursed for clinical time) when they go beyond the one-to-one and small-group approach; so even if they wanted to do that work, they couldn’t unless it was on their own time. Health promotion is almost the opposite: we have become so good at working with large groups that we’ve stopped developing strategies that can help individuals that fit with the health promotion values. It’s true, that there is a season for each of these approaches. Health promotion has worked hard to escape the individual-focus that other fields like health education still use and psychology is pretty good at doing the individual thing. It just seems that there is room for both specialized and generalized systems thinking and action working together. I just haven’t figured out how. Any suggestions?

food systemshealth promotionpsychology

Asking the Right Question / Adding to the Organics Debate

Another interesting note of argument to the growing chorus of voices on the organics and health issue coming from New Scientist magazine writer Jim Giles. In his article the quote I like most is this one: “It’s not about whether organic food is good or a sham,” says Jules Pretty, an agricultural scientist at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. “That’s the wrong question. We should be asking how we can make all of agriculture more sustainable.”

Asking the right question is an important thing to stop and consider. So often the debates in science go off into different directions without stopping to ask whether the science is answering the right (or the most important) question. This makes me think back to the presidential address by Pat O’Neill at the Canadian Psychological Association’s annual meeting a few years ago. Pat is a community psychologist and someone who’s work I’ve long admired. For those not familiar with the field, community psychology was formed largely out of the frustration of psychologists working in clinical settings who were trying to ‘treat’ psychological problems at an individual level when the problems were less about the individual, but much more about the environment that they live in. This is what we often refer to as the social determinants of health (and wellbeing). For community psychologists, asking whether or not a person had the resources to cope with the problems was the wrong (or less productive) question to ask. Why were these problems there in the first place? What was their causes? And how could psychological knowledge contribute to alleviating those problems and changing the systems that sustain them?

Anyway, what Pat argued in his presidential address is for some re-consideration of the questions that psychologists ask. He argued (quite well) that much of the knowledge we have is constrained by the questions we’ve asked. One of the reasons we don’t have the data to address the big problems is that we haven’t asked the questions (in research terms) that address these problems.

Asking whether organics is equivalent to conventional food is a worthy question from a scientific standpoint and from a nutritional science perspective. But whether that is the question that we ought to base our food choices and food policy on is quite another.