If you have been living in a cave, you may have missed the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, or not be aware of all those choosing to follow conspiracy theories. Perhaps, you haven’t thawed out yet if you got caught in the Texas Freeze. And maybe, you haven’t yet made the connection between all these events. Looking back over the past 30 years, or even 150 years, there are revealing patterns that explain how we got here, but to really understand, it takes going back to the 1700’s and the Industrial Revolution. And if you don’t think this all impacts your daily life and the organizations you work in, well, think again.
As we know, change requires an understanding of the issue or challenge, a catalyst that makes it visible and immediate, and the work to discover and craft a different, and hopefully, better way. It takes all three. Often the issue is recognized, but without a catalyst that propels enough people to deal with it now, there is little chance for a new, different way to emerge. That catalyst is often an event, a threat, or an experience that grabs attention. And it is only in looking back at what follows that it can be determined if such an occurrence led to change and turned out, in fact, to be a catalyst. Was it impactful enough for people to pause and reconsider their worldview and their previous choices? Was it enough for a person to acknowledge that those no longer provide the best means to achieve success? Did their worldview and choices actually change? Do you think the elections last fall and the protests last summer were catalysts? Yes? No? Too early still to tell?
It is one’s notion of success that is critical. For some on January 6, success meant doing what a patriot does- storm the capitol and force the desired change. But where did that notion come from? Some believe deregulating vital infrastructure is the path to more efficiency and greater profits. But why do they have that worldview?
Although it appears that a person carefully thinks through what success means and the actions that move them closer to achieving it, the reality is that story comes from processing in the Hidden Brain, well outside of deliberation and awareness. And once we become aware of the ‘choice,’ the brain’s preferred function is to deploy its inner press secretary, using deliberation and thoughtfulness to justify, rationalize and defend that choice, all in the hope to provide some certainty on which to act. But the impact of a catalyst is to say: not so fast. This leads to ambivalence, uncertainty, and discomfort at the thought that what you stand for and believe may no longer serve so well. That can propel a person on a journey to find a new equilibrium, a new measure of success leading to a change in the ‘right’ choices and actions. A catalyst has to be pretty impactful for a person to go there.
So will January 6 at the Capitol turn out to have been a catalyst for change? Will Texas even realize that what got them into trouble started way before this winter? We do not yet know what changes, if any, are to come. Some people have made changes though. For the 25% of registered Republicans who have changed their party affiliation, January 6 was a catalyst. Others sounded as if they might rethink their position, only to revert to their previous notions. Some never budged.
In Master and his Emissary, Ian McGilchrist explains this processing as a balance between two perspectives. He describes what I’ll call a right minded view of the world, where the brain views its surroundings like a movie- a free flowing continuous stream that takes in everything around it on the lookout for issues that need attention, The World As It Is. The left minded view parses the movie into individual frames, seeking greater understanding. It then reconstructs those individual frames into a new movie, a new story, so as to intervene and drive toward success as it believes it to be- The World As I Want It To Be.
Think of it this way: driving down the road, approaching an intersection, gazing down the street, taking in an approaching crossroads. But then you notice a pothole. Where does your vision and attention go in that moment? Right to the pothole, because you don’t want to run over it. But if you only focus there, or focus too long, you may well risk missing the car crossing the intersection right in your path. The right minded view has scoped the scene, discovered something worthy of your focus- the World As It Is. The left minded view jumps in, analyzes the situation, crafts a plan for you to avert the pothole- The World As I Want It To Be. And all the while the right minded view remains at work screening the landscape for issues worthy of more attention. Ideally, these two perspectives work together to manipulate the world to the your benefit.
McGilchrist makes the case that for eons different societies have favored a differing balance between these two views; sometimes society has a tendency toward one or the other. Starting with the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, people gained more and more ability to control the world around them and make things the way they wanted them, something we have all benefitted from immensely- like clean water, abundant food, longer life spans, the printing press, the combustion engine, the computer. But over time, we can also discern an ever widening divergence.
The ultimate extension of this gradual divergence is a confusion of belief and truth, people substituting one for the other, and seeing the world only as something to be manipulated into ‘what I want’ - The World As I Want It To Be supplanting and displacing The World As It Is.
So we see the emergence of ‘relative truth’- each person with their own ‘truth’ based on their own ‘story.’ If the World As It Is doesn’t fit what you want, no problem, just dismiss it. See the dilemma here: climate change and the arguments about its cause, an election that doesn’t go one’s way, a failing electrical grid because that’s the way it was designed, conspiracy theories that must not be abandoned. The ultimate extension is an inability to acknowledge The World As It Is because it represents a pothole that upsets the equilibrium of The World As I Want It To Be. And so we see the emergence of fake news and alternative ‘facts.’ ‘My story’ is ‘the story.’ Problem thinking abounds.
When the reality can no longer be ignored, we discredit the messenger. And when that doesn’t work, we try to bully and intimidate, and failing that, we play the victim. All this because ‘my story’ is the truth, and that truth must be correct. The more immediate this threat is felt to be, the more it commands attention. The more inevitable the feared outcome is believed to be, the more it requires action, and taking action requires one to be all in. Ambivalence just won’t cut it. Everything else takes a back seat. All that matters is The World As I Want It To Be. So in the confusion between belief and truth, something that is not really time sensitive escalates into an emergency that must be acted upon now. It’s just how the brain is wired.
In the 1990’s, Dunning and Kruger observed that people are more confident in their capabilities than they should be; that is, we believe we are better than we really are. We believe we know more than we actually do, preferring to bank on our own view as correct, even over those with more experience and knowledge and even in the face of clearly contradictory facts. We don’t know enough to know what we don’t know.
But at some point a person has to face the music. What leads a person to reach this inflection point, where it’s no longer possible to live with the confusion of belief and truth? What makes a person open to the impact of a catalyst? This revelation can propel one to develop their skills and knowledge so that increasing confidence matches the increasing capability. Or not.
Don’t underestimate the brain’s ability to deploy its press secretary function to cling to The World As I Want It To Be. Don’t underestimate the preference to connect dots in a way that is plausible, even if not real. Don’t underestimate the ability to defend that story, even in the face of clearly conflicting data. The brain knows for you to act in a time sensitive circumstance, you must be all in, even if there is not enough time to be certain. It prefers to stick with what it believes it knows and the story that is crafted to achieve success as it is believed because at least it provides ‘certainty.’ It takes less energy to hang with The World As I Want It To Be because to do otherwise means challenging worldview- one’s self image, self worth, and identity. The brain sees its worldview as too big to fail, until it becomes clear it has no choice.
That is what a catalyst does, but it takes a catalyst meaningful and impactful enough to affect a judgement that takes place in the Hidden Brain, well outside of any awareness or deliberation, especially a judgement that challenges who you are. And this is why we will only know if a catalyst has occurred by looking back well after the fact and seeing if change actually happened.