Webinar Rewind – “Denver Encore: Beginning with the Brain in Mind”

A growing challenge for a P2 practitioner is the deepening ideological divide that has developed over the past few decades. As people become more and more entrenched in their view and less and less likely to consider those of others, engaging the broadest cross-section of the public becomes more and more difficult.

Dr Martin Carcasson with the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University says finding a solution begins with understanding the root of the problem – the “brain science” behind polarization – and the December webinar was an encore of his presentation at the 2017 IAP2 North American Conference, “Beginning With The Brain In Mind”.

carcasson - books
Lots of books have been written on the subject

Our human nature makes things problematic, Carcasson says. We crave certainty and consistency, and if we’re making a decision in a controversial or even polarized environment, we tend to protect that decision as much as possible, even in the face of contrary facts.

What’s more, people are suckers for the good-versus-evil narrative – through all cultures and all times, we love the hero-and-villain scenario, and Carcasson says that we’re teaching our children wrong by teaching them that there is an evil force behind bad things, when really, it’s more complicated than that.

We are “groupish” or tribal, preferring to associate with like-minded people. Some of the worst things – and some of the best things – that humans have done in history have stemmed from that mind-set.

People tend to be selective in the facts they choose to believe, and will cherry-pick evidence that supports our beliefs. That, in turn, leads to motivated reasoning, which is not driven by accuracy or problem-solving, but by the desire to protect the decisions we’re already made and the groups we support.

carcasson - interpret new evidence

Carcasson says there are five elements of motivated reasoning:

  1. What we expose ourselves to — selective exposure/echo chambers/media bubbles or filters
  2. How we interpret the information – confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, the “back-fire effect”,
  3. The back-fire effect is that knowledge, evidence and facts can’t save us. Research indicates that as the quality of evidence increases, one’s brain is often working even harder to overcome those facts. When quality evidence is injected into a polarized debate, it may polarize the debate even more. We need to figure out how to change the culture and the process so that facts matter.
  4. Cognitive dissonance: as new facts come in, people tend to receive them based on how they fit with their preferred narrative. In the words of former President George W. Bush, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
  5. Memory bias: we tend to forget – or not even notice — things that don’t fit with our way of thinking.

Martin believes the notion of polarization is exaggerated – the division in society is nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be. But what there is, Carcasson describes as a vicious cycle, which begins with one developing one’s point of view based on subconscious biases, continues through interaction with others who might not agree, and includes “The Russell Effect”.

carcasson - vicious cycleThe Russell Effect is based on an observation by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Carcasson translates that to the P2 reality, that the loudest, most confident and most active voices are often the ones most affected by problematic cognitive biases.

That, in turn, leads to “the usual suspects” dominating P2 processes, and people with other points of view being scared off or believing that their voices won’t count. They won’t stand up at public meetings, or even go to them at all. One of the challenges is to undo the Russell Effect and let people know their opinions and questions are both valid and will be considered, even if they’re not the loudest voices in the room.

The entire political system (certainly in the USA, where Carcasson does most of his work, but also in other countries) plays on this negative side of human nature, rewarding “bad” arguments and punishing “good” ones. The zero-sum process creates an incentive for “bad” communication and strategic research and chases away people whose voices should be heard.

What Carcasson considers are “typical” public processes tend to engage people too late, are framed as yes-or-no questions – which don’t allow for consideration of all facts – and offer little or no opportunity for interaction or refinement of opinion.

On top of this, the news media prefers to focus on the conflict rather than content, and the upshot is, legitimate concerns and problems don’t get proper consideration.

But it’s not all bad stuff. Carcasson notes there are good sides to the traits he laid out. For example, the very “groupishness” he discusses that leads to tribalism also means that people are inherently social and seek purpose and community. He points to the response to a disaster and how people flock to help out in any way they can. The desire for autonomy, purpose and mastery are good traits that a P2 practitioner can tap into in the local community. Encouraging people who are co-creators and collaborative problem-solvers can make them “super-citizens”.

Carcasson also notes that people are inherently empathetic; and the defining feature of the human species, he says, is that we are inherently pragmatic and creative. That, he says, is a trait that is rarely tapped-into. Many approaches today don’t encourage people to come up with creative solutions, because they’re focused on the good-versus-evil narrative.

Lastly, Carcasson says people are able to overcome bad habits and re-train our brains to think differently.

The key to changing people’s minds, overcoming biases and tackling “wicked” problems is a genuine conversation with people who think differently but whom they respect.

What is a “wicked problem”? Wicked problems inherently involve competing underlying values, paradoxes, and tradeoffs that cannot be resolved by science. They call for ongoing high-quality communication, creativity, and broad collaborative action to manage well.

Start the discussion “upstream”, i.e. before proponents, opponents and the undecided have a chance to get polarized. Make sure there is adequate background information that people can react to, which is framed for deliberation, not polarization. Have small, diverse, representative groups with deliberative facilitators, and (very important!) …

TAKE TIME! Time both to talk, and for the results to matter.

You can take a look at Martin Carcasson’s Wicked Problems Mindset page on Facebook and visit the Center for Public Deliberation’s website here.

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