Narrative Strategies and the New Approach to Irrationality

Enlightenment reason is dead. The final nails in the coffin are being provided by neuroscience, which has made clear that our thinking is embodied (Antonio Damasio) and not Cartesian, emotionally inspired and dependent (Daniel Goleman) and not objective, and based on pattern recognition rather than logic. Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) has debunked the premise of homo oeconomicus, or the rational, self-interested economic actor on which economic theory is based, by showing that if we can predict one thing about decision making, it is that thinking is shaped by the forces of emotion, subjective comparison and social norms far more than the other way around.

Yet what we know in advanced research is still a long way from being integrated into the way we act as a society or in business. In a Science and Democracy Lecture  given at the Harvard Graduate School on the role of emotions in politics, policy and life, David Brooks encourages listeners to learn to love the irrational mind. Colleagues attending, like Steven Pinker, were apparently skeptical, holding on to the notion that trusting irrationality could only lead to bad decisions (like voting for George W. Bush because we would like to have a beer with him!), and that quantifiable measures like IQ were clearly a better indicator of success.

Here we face a gap between what science knows, and how policy is made. I think one reason may lie in a confusion between two notions of irrationality—one pre- and the other post-rational. The one we (justifiably) fear is the pre-rational orientation to superstition, blind faith, unreflected emotion, and the reliance on untrained instinct which invariably expresses itself in the incompetence and corruption that give us poor decisions.

Post-rational thinking, by contrast, simply understands how our brains actually work, and takes this into account. A research colleague of mine here in Germany, Klaus Grochowiak, has come to view the biological functioning of our brains as simply flawed. In an article on the neurobiological aspects of compulsion disorders, he explains (in German), for example, that our dopamine system makes no distinction between sustainable and unsustainable behaviors, rewarding the intake of addictive substances and addictive behaviors as freely as success in achieving goals that improve our lives and our chances of survival. Irrationality is hardwired into the very biology of our brains. Rather than despair at the results of our biological evolution, however, we can celebrate the insights we are developing into the lack of its perfection.

Since it is our very nature, it would seem to be better to understand irrationality than to fight it. For if we can predict the ways in which our brain misleads us into poor decisions, we can design policy to deal wisely with our irrational nature. Just as there are two kinds of irrationality, there are (at least) two kinds of reason, and the two are not equally qualified to deal with irrational complexity. The first is atemporal and is expressed in logic and analysis, and is the objective reason which reached its end in the Enlightenment. The second kind of reason is subjective and narrative, and is expressed in our giving reasons for what we do.

Reasons can be understood. Motives, no matter how “irrational” from a given perspective, can be taken into account. Dealing intelligently with our irrationality is likely the highest expression of reason we are capable of. Narrative strategies show us how to deal rationally with our irrationality. Listening to stories in the context of lived experience gives us the chance to recognize patterns in the stories that make sense of what we perceive. What we can make sense of, we can deal with, though the actions we will need to take will seem counter-intuitive to those identified with pre-rational instinctual approaches to decisions, or planning approaches based on analysis. Narrative approaches to strategy require a new and different skill set:  the trust in the face of uncertainty typical of entrepreneurs, the ability to deal with ambiguity which is a mark of emotional and social intelligence, and good judgement in the face of a broad range of potential solutions to complex problems, to name a few. And it requires a network of relationships in which our stories can be told and understood, and actions be taken to respond to them intelligently.

All of this points in the direction of sense-making as becoming the key ability for developing the successful strategies we need to solve the challenges we face.

The Psychology of Transformation

“Alas, two souls beat within my breast!” groans Faust, as he struggles to reconcile competing interests in himself—and so Goethe describes the existential condition of us all: we are not one with ourselves! Personal identity is not monolithic, but is the negotiated result—minute for minute—of a complex relationship of often competing psychological parts within our own self. Skill in managing our internal dialogues and arriving at viable conclusions is the precondition for managing conflicts in our environment. But self-awareness training is not part of our schooling, with the consequence that we live out our unresolved issues unconsciously and mostly destructively with each other in the world.

To the extent that we remain unconscious of the self-divided nature of our human condition, we project internal conflicts onto others and the world, to fight them there as if they had nothing to do with ourselves. That is why so many “wars” are doomed from the start to failure, for the problem to be solved lies not “out there,” but rather in the lack of awareness of its causes in ourselves, so that the war is an expression of the problem, not part of the solution. The war on drugs, for example, blinds us to the problems of a society so devoid of meaning that large parts of its population would seek criminal profit or hallucinatory escape from it (witness the destruction of young lives through imprisonment for drug offenses which would be non-issues in other countries). The war on crime lets us act as the just avengers, as if we had no part in creating the criminal environment we feel we need to protect ourselves against (as, for example, the walled-in white enclaves in apartheid South Africa, or gated communities in the US). The war on fundamentalism reverses cause and effect in dealing with the blowback (e.g. Blowback, Chalmers Johnson) we reap from earlier Realpolitik policies of supporting “useful bastards” in the interests of power, about which many people in the world are understandably hostile. The potential list is as endless as the issues facing humanity. We are ourselves the hell we face. Salvation lies not in “winning” whatever war one is in, or in escape to a literal heaven, but in transforming the thoughts and feelings through which we create the world we live in.

The origin of humankind’s self-division lies in brain evolution, in which, according to Antonio Damasio, “self” has come to “mind” through the development of consciousness of our body processes. For Damasio, consciousness is a physical event, which would be both inconceivable and meaningless without the body as its basis. Mind strives, like all of unconscious life, to maintain a viable balance in the body in the face of a changing environment–a process which biologists call homeostasis. Our body, for example, maintains an internal temperature of 36.8 °C regardless of external temperatures, adjusting as needed up to temperature limits it can no longer cope with. The “self” Damasio describes takes this life process as a blueprint to the next level of complexity in creating society and culture. Likely, self came to mind as an evolutionary advantage, allowing human beings to engage in farther reaching social relationships which improved our collective chances of survival. As mind strives to maintain physical homeostasis, so the “self” is focussed on maintaining what Damasio calls sociocultural homeostasis.

Where physical homeostasis happens automatically, sociocultural homeostasis requires active intervention. To maintain our collective balance, we must bring what we think, feel, and do, both individually and as a society, into consciousness. Consciousness expresses itself through syntactical language, in which a subject describes its awareness of an objective world separate from itself, and a complex orientation in time, through which we orient our present in a context of our awareness of a past and future. Both syntactical thinking and awareness of time show the ability of consciousness to reflect upon itself as something added on to immediate experience. Even more significantly, consciousness brings with it the ability to intervene in its experience, and so to become an active force in its own evolutionary development.
The moment we become conscious of space and time, we can change what takes place in them. For example, human beings are the only animals that live in two worlds: the world of facts, and the world of meaning. Meaning is generated by the “frame” in which we view facts. As George Lakoff describes, by “reframing” the debate about facts, we change the way we experience them. What happens in time, also, is subject to conscious influence. Not only can we imagine the “future” in a way which will influence the way it becomes, but we can view past experience through “frames” which change our memory of what took place (“it is never too late to have a good childhood”).

The world our “self” has created is full of wonders. However, the limits of our practical imagination are also becoming brutally apparent. The world of meaning can become a war zone itself, as conflicting cultural values fight it out over which meanings guide consciousness. Conscious influence over our experience of space and time requires that we take responsibility for creating the sociocultural homeostasis that enables our collective survival and development. Looking at the results we generate, we are but infants in our playing with the frames that determine the way we live (the influence of political action committees, talk radio and television, paid scientific research results, and the marketing of brand illusions are just a few of our failures).

The problems we are now experiencing globally are a wake-up call to an unconscious society and culture. A path to greater competence lies in learning techniques to constructively change the way in which “self” maintains its balance, and to make them central to our educational programs, leadership training, political processes and social dialogues.