Challenging the norm

Often, I find myself baffled by gaps in common understanding. The result has been a divisive congress, general discontent and a bit of general stagnation.  Why do my visceral reactions to events, and the news as it unfolds, differ so dramatically

On the instinctive level  we are very similar.  For example, flight is the adrenaline fueled response to the sense of fear.  But then we don’t all have the same fears do we?  Anyone out there enjoy the smell of fresh skunk?  My guess is that most find the scent unpleasant and I suspect that our degree of discomfort correlates   with the strength of the smell and the strength of  sensitivity to scent  which in turn varies the reaction.  Did your nose wrinkle a little at the sight of these cuties?

Word choices too have a way of triggering mental images or associations.  Speakers and listeners can easily find themselves connecting to very different ideas, as these varying images of ice in water illustrate.

Intuitive leaps, or the manner in which we understand or attach meaning to our observations in the world can quickly diverge. It is easy to understand how one missed connection can lead to dramatically different conclusions. Few people follow the same process when problem solving.  In fact, in business there are hundreds of possible strategic  frameworks.  The  approach chosen, merely extends from our own unique chain of prior experience and  perception of fit within the associated context.  The likelihood that my choice match your solution set depends on the degree of overlap in our experience set. Variation in our choices is healthy all the way around, as long as we are each willing to learn, or accept the possibility of more than one right answer, method or  result.

Communicating and orienting everyone to the same mental model or construct is a particularly telling and ongoing leadership and political challenge.  How do you help your organization or constituents adapt when the situation or circumstances change? How do you help construct and leverage the mental model of how things work, whether they could be made better or differently? Or even how do you help establish a common accepted set of norms?

Last week, graduate students in the communication workshop I co-lead, shared some key findings from their small participant sample research into electricity practice and awareness.  No matter what the age, many people referenced lessons learned from the continuous message or directives received from their parents.  The almost universally assimilated message was that flipping the light switch cost money.  Many of the research participants were able to recall the message, some even pass it on to their children;  but few managed to question the basic premise or get any further research to support the supposition.  In fact, this idea could be found as the basis for many of their other conclusions about electricity conservation and costs.  Little dissonance exists around the relationship between turning on lights and added electricity costs. The shared experience, or valued experience of frugality appear  almost universal.

In contrast, yesterday’s NY Times, page one headline asked “Taking Loaded Gun into Bar? In 4 States, It’s Already Legal. ” The profiled Gun rights advocate, Mr. Ringenberg, expressed that carrying loaded guns protected him from other people’s guns.  Whereas an individual patron in one of the bars felt differently: “It opens the door to trouble.  Its’ giving you the right to be Wyatt Earp.”

Guns in bars?


The absence of a universal or shared consciousness about guns baffles me. Similarly baffling are the public opinion poll results attesting that a significant proportion of Americans  believe that our president is a Muslim, or that he is not an American citizen, the latter of which is an impossibility under the constitution.  Perhaps, the answer lies in the nature of our construction of mental models, or the means by which we construct reality.  Wikipedia explains mental models as thought processes that help us interpret the world around us as well as shape our behavior.  Our mental models or the manner in which we conceptualize the task play a large role in how we view ourselves and the world.  Our decision-making chain and the construction of norms, which evolve according to personal psychological dispositions, often impair social efficiency. We don’t realize the full benefits of a fully congenial society, because our individual construction or acceptance of distinctive norms about people and their behaviors  lead to diverse expectations that  need neither objective logic or facts as their basis.  If you are paranoid or easily threatened, I imagine your mental models may foster a resolve to take control and lead you to connect self-preservation with gun advocacy. Or you may simply be a strong believer in individual liberties and thus you connect freedom with gun advocacy. In contrast, a belief that though freedom is a right, there are some boundaries in which society takes on the larger requirements of preservation.  Just as I can’t do everything alone, so too my participation in greater community assures that my basic needs, including protection, are met more broadly.  In the same way that I don’t have to grow my food or hide my money under the mattress. In exchange for my own labors, I can interact and benefit from the services provided by the police, the grocer and  the banker.  My mental model connects freedom to a more complex set of benefits and dissociates the person from the weapon of harm, e.g. a gun.  This doesn’t make us passive, though in the presence of someone with a weapon,  my not having one  may prove a less effective life-preserving strategy. But critical to my life-preserving strategy is the belief that everyone accepts and honors the basic concept ” thou shall not kill,” and it is the collective belief that will keep me safe.  I’d certainly like to learn how to further the formation of common norms in our thinking and allow us to move from conflict to a more cooperative if not coördinated  system of interaction.

Resolving what are increasing complex problems requires close examination of the components or constructs that we hold but may have never questioned. Our challenge is not to let our own knowledge, or mental models, however acquired when left unchallenged can sink us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s