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The Key To The Transition- Sorting Criteria

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

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The key to the transition from problem thinking to dilemma thinking is the story that is generated to explain what’s going on. Truth is the way that happens is not so different from each.

In my small county recently, a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters staged a march in hopes of raising awareness in a community they felt needed to hear the message. An even larger group of counter protesters showed up, some from different counties and some armed. They were concerned these protesters were coming from elsewhere to destroy the small town, and they wanted to back up law enforcement if things got rough. Others came just to shout them down because they believed these protesters had no business in their community, and they vociferously opposed the message.

Things got a little chippy. City police and county sheriff’s deputies provided an effective buffer and prevented things from getting out of hand.

The protesters, most of whom lived in the county, felt they had perhaps started a dialogue and planned a second march for two weeks later; most counter protesters did not feel much was accomplished. But afterwards, organizers of the counter protesters were asked what they would do next time. One of the leaders was quoted as saying they would probably not engage with the protesters. Once they saw the protesters were not there to burn the place down, they realized the protesters’ first amendment right to protest carried no risk to them. When the balance of concerns changed, their story changed, and with it, the choice of actions and behaviors.(

As we know from Free The Brain, our mind forms a narrative to explain what is going on, just enough to provide a basis for action by focusing on only the most immediate concerns and cherry picking just the circumstances that address those concerns. (, Chapter 2: The Power of Plausibility)

Because of the limited view it provides, problem thinking leads to a seductively simple and apparently easy and complete solution. But when the issue is really a dilemma with multiple valuable yet competing factors that must somehow be balanced to find the path forward, such problem thinking overlooks and dismisses too many other concerns and circumstances that are integral in delivering the success and survival desired. When there is not enough overlap between The World As I Want It To Be and The World As It Is, the result is so often a misguided choice- one that in retrospect could have been seen as not the best option available.

Truth is that problem thinking and dilemma thinking form a story in just the same way. In both cases, that story is crafted in the Hidden Brain. A person has no awareness of this going on, and only once formed do we become aware of what we think. The story starts with one’s worldview, adding the concerns around the issue at hand. These are what I call the sorting criteria that apply to the issue, the consequences of failure and the possible benefits if successful. This forms a lens through which one ‘sees’ the circumstances that fit. ((,Chapter 6: It’s All About The Sorting Criteria).

There is a continuum from problem thinking to dilemma thinking. Along the continuum, there is an increasing awareness and recognition that there are many more factors that must be part of the decision matrix in order to find the best choice at that moment in the given situation. Problem thinking is based on ‘the concerns I have’; dilemma thinking on ‘the concerns beyond what I acknowledge.'

The transition from problem thinking to dilemma thinking happens when the pool of sorting criteria is expanded or re-balanced. As this vignette demonstrates, change happened when the concerns for that particular circumstance changed. After all, the counter protesters saw things differently when the destruction of this town was no longer a concern.

So when you encounter problem thinking as an obstacle to moving forward, a good place to start is to identify the concern driving the problem thinking. In this instance, the counter protesters had identified a specific concern- safety for this small town- and based on what they were paying attention to- that towns everywhere were being destroyed by protesters- they arrived at a clearcut solution- the town must be defended and in the absence of law enforcement’s ability to do so in other cities, they must be there for support against those determined to burn it all down. It’s a nice, concise, straightforward story.

And it’s not hard to identify the telltale signs of problem thinking:

1) All or nothing thinking- ‘protesters are bad, we are the defenders of what is right’;

2) Exaggeration for affect- ‘all protests are dangerous’;

3) Overestimating impact- ‘they are going to burn the whole town down’;

4) Conspiracy theories- ‘they’re coming from elsewhere to invade our town’;

5) The solution is contained in the problem- ‘law enforcement will not be enough, therefore we need to be’.

We also know from Free the Brain that just like forming the story, changing one’s story is also a value judgment made in the Hidden Brain, taking place outside of awareness. However, what a person is aware of as they deliberate, calculate, and consider is passed back to the Hidden Brain and can influence the value judgement made there. But be clear - the decision and choice of story has already been formulated by the time you become aware of the opinion you believe you have carefully thought about. Change can take place through such a deliberative, aware process, but only if the information passed to the Hidden Brain is meaningful enough. ((,Chapter 5: How A Decision Gets Made)

Meaningful enough is in the eye of the beholder. It means the person believes it is credible enough to act on. In our vignette, what the counter protesters saw with their own eyes was credible enough- the protesters were clearly not there to destroy the town. But in other situations a person only sees what they want to see. Here, meaningful enough requires being seen as a credible and trustworthy source of information. Or to put it another way, accurate and reliable information will be dismissed outright if the information does not seem credible and/or the source is not trustworthy. (, Chapter 12: Do You Intend To Be Confusing, Deceptive, and Coercive?) So if you want to weigh in with someone about the problem thinking you detect, it is incumbent they see you as both credible and trustworthy.

Here are some ideas about how to do that:

1) Assume good intentions on all sides-

In our vignette, the first amendment right to gather and protest was never in dispute. Each side felt they had an important role to fulfill. It may be hard to assume good intentions, but might that just point out your own problem thinking?

2) Acknowledge that each side is holding on to a story that overlooks and dismisses some

aspects, while placing emphasis on others-

It’s even better if you both explicitly acknowledge that. One way to say that upfront is that each person is entitled to their own opinion, and perhaps in the end you will just agree to disagree.

3) Confirm the reliability of the sources of information underpinning the story- theirs and


What is not factual about some fact that is brought up? Maybe even agree on what reliable sources of information you each will acknowledge.

4) Point out the discrepancies-

What’s being focused on and what is being overlooked/dismissed-

In this instance, ‘Are all protesters truly dangerous?’ ‘Hey, we’re not from someplace else; we all live here.’ ‘Doesn’t everyone have a right to be treated equally?’

The point is not to make a declarative statement about what you believe or a value judgement about theirs. ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’

It’s not your job to convince someone of anything; in fact, it’s impossible to do so.

What you can do is give their Hidden Brain a chance to absorb something new that just might be meaningful enough to have an impact, or reweigh something it had previously considered and dismissed, or rebalance the concerns it has.

5) Be open to rebalancing your own equation of what matters.

Maybe you are missing something too.

As it all unfolded, the counter protesters might have changed their mind about these protesters, but they were nowhere near ready to change their mind about the protests. What they observed and what they were willing to change, in this case, was still in keeping with their worldview.… enough. It did not require them to challenge it.

The same can be said about what has evolved with people’s choices around the pandemic. Compared with a couple months ago, many more people have adapted their choices. For some, those decisions fit with their worldview enough. But for others, it is still too big a stretch- too discordant with the worldview that tells them what success and survival will require. For them, there is still not much overlap. The World As I Want It To Be still drowns out The World As It Is.

As this story shows, a person’s conclusions based in problem thinking can change, but that does not necessarily represent the full transition to dilemma thinking necessary for the R&D needed to better balance The World As I Want It To Be with The World As It Is. A meaningful enough catalyst has pointed out that the discrepancy is too uncomfortable not to resolve. For the transition to go further, the catalyst has to also result in the awareness that the prevailing worldview might not be the most successful starting point. For the full transition from problem thinking to dilemma thinking, and a chance for substantive, sustainable change, it often takes a change in worldview - more difficult, but not impossible - as we will see in the next post.

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