Tag Archives: Descriptive Psychology

Belief in Science

Neil de Grasse Tyson is the new public face of science. He is smart, charming, has a great back-story of achievement in the face of societal obstacles along with, let’s be honest here, one of the coolest names of all time. His popular television series Cosmos has introduced millions of viewers to the wonders of the scientific world, from the smallest to the unfathomably large and spanning billions of years. When he speaks about science, people listen.

So people are listening to a recent Facebook post that quotes him saying: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

There’s something very comforting about that statement, isn’t there? It feels a bit like someone telling you: “I promise you everything will turn out fine.” In fact it is exactly like that. Tyson’s quote is not a statement of scientific fact (nor could it be – what experiment could you do to determine whether or not it is true?). It is a promise, a statement of belief about science and truth that he shares with the community of scientists.

Public discourse about truth and belief has been largely centered on the dispute between science and religion – science knows, religion believes – which has led us to a muddled view that does justice to neither concept. Science has no room for belief, only evidence – or so they say. Descriptive Psychology has the conceptual power to sort this out, and has. Here’s how: Continue reading Belief in Science


Russell’s World

This is the second in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists. This series requires a more careful reading than most prior posts on this blog; I believe the work you put into it will be well-rewarded.

The world makes sense, and so do people. They make sense now.

— Peter G. Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, p. 2

The child Bertrand Russell lived in a world that did not make sense to him. His was not a mild puzzlement or a small discontent; he was in the grip of a profound, terrifying existential dilemma. His world made no sense, and he had no real place in it.

Russell’s early life was nightmarish. His parents died when he was young, but their deaths and the scandalous circumstances surrounding them were kept from him. He was sent to live with his Grandparents. He began to bond with his Grandfather, who also died unexpectedly, leaving Bertie in the care of his angry, hyper-religious Grandmother with her myriad rigid rules based on the view that man is inherently evil and must be constrained. Her world made no sense to him but it was all he knew.

All this changed when a tutor introduced Bertie to geometry. Working through one of Euclid’s theorems, he saw in a flash of insight that it was true of logical necessity – and in that moment his world changed. He saw that one could know reality with total certainty, through logical proof. This world made sense and it had a place for him, which he proceeded to act from with increasing brilliance and fervor. The “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly” was the ultimate satisfaction that held Russell’s world together until the fatal day he encountered the Paradox that blew his world apart. Continue reading Russell’s World

In a World of Logicians and Their Ways: Russell’s Paradox Redux

This is the first in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists. This series requires a more careful reading than most prior posts on this blog; I believe the work you put into it will be well-rewarded.

Worlds are subtle, pervasive, powerful. We are to our worlds as fish are to water: We take our world as given, existing outside of and independent of us. We live in the world; all our actions take place in and are shaped by our world; without the world we could not exist.

But fishy metaphors can only take us so far. Persons, whether we realize it or not, shape our worlds fully as much as the world shapes us. We almost certainly don’t consciously create or choose our world. But sometimes events occur that blow our worlds apart, and we are faced with the task of putting it back together, or reconstructing it in a new form. In either case we engage in active, conscious choice and creation. We recognize once and for all that we are not fish. Continue reading In a World of Logicians and Their Ways: Russell’s Paradox Redux

Mastering Relationships

Relationships are the most powerful and least utilized factor in achieving extraordinary results – in organizations, and in your life.

Why do relationships matter? A participant in my “Building Ally Relationships” workshop (let’s call him Larry) once asked me that. Here’s what I said to him:

“Let me give you an example. You are sitting at your desk and the phone rings. A cheerful voice on the other end of the line says: ‘Hi, Larry. I need that report on my desk by close of business Friday’ and hangs up. How do you feel?”

Larry shrugged. “I guess it depends on the situation.”

“OK. Three different situations. One: the person on the end of the line is a prospective client you have been selling, and the report is the first step in a six-month work project.”

“I feel like the king of the world.”

“Fine. Situation two: that was your boss, reminding you to get your expense report in on time this week.”

“Ho-hum. It’s not like that doesn’t happen most weeks.”

“Last: it was an IRS auditor asking for documentation of your deductions for the past five years.”

“Argggggghhh! How about suicidal?”

“I think you get the point: exactly the same words. Three different relationships. Three very different reactions.”

In short: what you say and do is important, but what the other persons sees you as saying and doing, as well as the results you get, are shaped by, constrained and  enabled by the relationship between the two of you. If you want to be effective, you must pay attention to the relationship.

That’s easier said than done, of course, because like the air we breathe, relationships are largely invisible to us most of the time. But that’s just habit – it needn’t be that way. You can learn to see those invisible relationships and be conscious in what you do about them.

Descriptive Psychologists over the decades have developed powerful methods for being specific and precise about relationships, and for dealing with them in practical ways. This is the first post in a series devoted to advancing competence with relationships. First we look at organizational relationships; in subsequent posts we will take up personal and social relationships.

Relationships form the core infrastructure through which any organization creates value. Relationships in organizations are like the air we breathe: an all-pervading, crucial aspect of life that is essentially invisible to us. Everything accomplished in an organization is done in the context of work relationships, and ordinarily we give this no more thought than we give to breathing.  Under most circumstances we don’t need to give it much thought; functioning adults are essentially relationship supercomputers, who usually get relationships reasonably right without much effort.

But consider:

  • People who master martial arts, singing, acting, dance or any form of athletics cannot afford to just take breathing for granted. They must attain conscious control of their breath, to focus it and use it to achieve exceptional performance. Similarly, organizations who set out to achieve extraordinary results cannot just take work relationships for granted; they must attain conscious control of work relationships and build them with purpose and clarity.
  • Without much effort, most people do a reasonable job of organizing their work. But no organization today could afford to settle for that; instead, we use very precise process and statistical methods to design and constantly improve our work methods. No organization today can afford to settle for “reasonably right” work relationships; to achieve extraordinary results, we must use specific and very precise methods to build and utilize work relationships.

But if relationships are so important, why have our organizations done so very little with them? That’s a complex question with a long answer; for now, let’s just note that our ordinary language helps us very little in being specific and precise about relationships, and our usual academic methods for studying such things shine the light in the wrong places.

Let’s start with five simple but essential truths about  relationships and how they are built.

  1. Relationships are not wired into the fabric of the universe. Relationships are built through the everyday process of interaction: what they say and do, and what you say and do in response.
  2. Relationships turn out pretty much the way you expect them to, unless you do something specific to change that.

For example, in the ordinary course of engaging in a service business, a client starts with: “We need this service.” If things go as expected, your initial response is: “Absolutely, we do that.” You give them a proposal to provide the service, they hire you to provide the service, you successfully provide the service and they pay you for providing the service. Along the way, your conversation and  interaction are about the service, so that by the end you have built a solid business relationship, called Service Source – which is the lowest level of the relationship food chain. And you did it by simply doing what was expected.

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way.  You are not required to stay stuck at Service Source. Here are two other, perhaps less well-known truths about relationships:

  1. Relationships become what you treat them as being.
  2. Relationships are not determined by the initial move. In fact, it is your response to the first move – Descriptive Psychologists call this “Move 2” – that defines the relationship.

Same situation: your client starts with: “We need this service.” As before, your initial response is: “Absolutely, we do that.”  Only this time you continue: “Now let me catch up with you. I take it that you need this service because you have seen a problem that you need to solve – help me understand the problem we are solving.” They tell you. Then you respond: “Usually problems get  priority because of something you see in your strategic situation right now. What strategic issues are you looking at that give this problem such urgency?” Again they tell you. Then you reply:

“OK. So your strategic situation is such that, in order to grow and succeed right now, you need to solve this problem, and you need this service to solve the problem. We can do all that for you.” You propose to make a specific contribution to their growth and success by helping them to solve this problem by providing this service. They hire you to do all that, and you do it. They pay you for the contribution you make to their growth and success. Along the way you are careful to keep the conversation anchored in their strategic situation, so that by the end you have built a solid business relationship, called Ally.

Two situations. Exactly the same beginning. Two very different outcomes. And the only  difference between the two was: what you did in response to their initial move.

Since it’s so important, let’s do an “instant replay” of that Move 2. Your client made an initial move that usually initiates a Service Source relationship. You accepted the move and made a Move 2 that successfully treated their Move 1 as the initial move in an Ally Relationship. Specifically you did this by immediately linking their request to their actual bigger picture: the problem they are trying to solve, and the strategic situation that gives that problem priority now. Having elevated the conversation to the strategic situation, you keep it there, dipping down into problems and specific services strictly as a means to contributing to the strategic conversation.

(In the 1970’s I designed and conducted “Move 2” workshops called “Relationship Judo” for my consulting and HR clients. Like Judo, the moves are a lot easier to see and do than to describe, and practice really helps.)

OK: A new client, a blank sheet of paper: it’s easy to see how you can create an Ally Relationship if you really want to and know how to make the right moves.

But what about all those business relationships you already have? After all, as I am frequently reminded in my workshops, “everybody knows that it’s really hard to change an existing relationship, and it takes forever, right?”

Wrong. (I really love this part because it’s so obvious once you see it.)

You can change an existing relationship quicker and more easily than you can establish a new one if you keep in mind another essential truth about relationships:

  1. People will immediately and willingly change their relationship with you if they see the new relationship as giving them more of what they want than the old relationship did.

In other words, people will happily accept a free upgrade in their relationship with you. You’re not likely to get far, however, by offering someone an upgrade. They probably won’t know what you’re talking about and it may sound weird – “What’s the catch?”

In matters of relationship, doing beats talking about hands down. Start treating the relationship you already have as the relationship you need it to be, and if they respond positively (almost everybody does – more on that later) the relationship has changed.

NEXT: Relationship Change?


Aftermath Part II: Living in a Radically Changed World

Remember when radical change was a rare phenomenon? When you could go for years, even decades, without something happening to make you realize the world you are living in is radically different than you thought it was? Whatever else has happened, the pace of finding ourselves required to reexamine our worlds has radically accelerated – and there’s no reason to believe it will slow down anytime soon.

The Boston bombings are fresh on all our minds – too fresh to be useful as examples. I do not intend to offer suggestions for what help looks like for the Boston victims (my friend and fellow Descriptive Psychologist Wynn Schwartz was on the scene and has offered considerable insight into what people have gone through in his blog); nor will I try here to understand why the bombings occurred (I posted an extensive paper on such matters last year called “When Worlds Collide”.) Instead I want to return to where the previous post left off: granted that our world has radically changed, what can we do in the aftermath? Continue reading Aftermath Part II: Living in a Radically Changed World

Aftermath: Living in a Radically Changed World

Peter Ossorio put it succinctly and exactly: “A person takes the world to be as he has found it to be.”

But sometimes, suddenly and without warning, we find the world to be radically different than we had previously found it. Something happens that had been  unthinkable to us – the events in Newtown, an economic collapse that wipes out our hard-earned wealth, the events of 9/11 – and we find ourselves living in an unknown world. What now? What do we do when the unthinkable becomes possible, or even real? Continue reading Aftermath: Living in a Radically Changed World

What Actually Happened in Newtown

The events in Newtown are well established by now: 20 young children shot to death, seven adults murdered, the shooter dead by his own hand. A young man struggling and failing to find his place in life; rapid fire weapons at hand in his home; he shot his mother and then went to the school to find and kill children. These are the bare facts.

But the bare facts explain nothing. We ask, Why? What are we to make of this inexplicable horror: Was it a manifestation of pure evil, as some say, or the tragic result of untreated mental illness? How could this happen? Who is to blame, and how can we prevent it from happening again? These are important questions with many answers, few of them essentially satisfying.

But one thing we can be certain of: what actually happened in Newtown is, our  world changed. And it will not soon be changing back. Continue reading What Actually Happened in Newtown

Panic, Contagion and Mass Market Movements

Sixteen years ago I wrote down the above title on my “Work in Process” list, thought about it for a few minutes, and put it at the bottom priority. Granted, it was a complex and poorly understood topic for which I intended to offer a new  formulation – but it was hardly a burning issue. To find familiar examples I would have had to reach back to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, or the post-war hyper-inflationary periods in Germany and Hungary – historical curiosities that had no perceivable relevance to our world in 1996. Common wisdom and expert opinion agreed: We were beyond all that.

But here we are in 2012 and all that has changed. We have seen the unthinkable occur, again and again: a major investment bank going bankrupt, housing prices plunging across the board and staying down, a global near financial meltdown, people actually paying serious attention to Nassim Taleb – and now we face the  imminent possibility of default on sovereign debt by major European nations, and perhaps even the collapse of the Euro.

The topic now seems, if anything, too timely. Every second article in the financial press seems to be about when the next break in the global economy will come, how far it will spread and how rapidly. Rest assured, this is not yet another Chicken Little post. The economic sky may in fact fall, but that’s for others to predict.

What I’m interested in here is: What actually happens with individual investors that results in panic, contagion and mass market movements, and how can we spot it before it comes crashing down around us? Continue reading Panic, Contagion and Mass Market Movements

What’s Really Going on With “Sunk Cost”

“Sunk cost” is tricky stuff.

It is a standard accounting term, referring to the investment already made in an asset or project. When deciding how to value the asset currently, or whether to invest further in the project, we are firmly admonished to ignore “sunk cost”, and to make our evaluations based on its current market value (or expected future value). This is sound advice, rational to the core, and is perfectly in accord with classic economic theory.

So what’s the rub? To the consternation of accountants, economists and financial advisors everywhere, when we look at actual investment decisions, people routinely do NOT ignore sunk costs. What they have already invested is typically a factor – sometimes a determining factor – in what they decide to invest now. Talk about “irrational”! And since behavioral economists do talk about “irrational” they account for this and many other common deviations from rational practice by invoking the “Endowment Effect.”

In the first post of this series, “Take the Cash and Let the Credit Go”, we saw how “loss aversion” is an ad-hoc account of research data that merely labels the phenomenon but in no way explains it, and gave an alternative formulation that actually predicts the research findings. In this post we will subject the “Endowment Effect” to the same treatment, with an interesting twist: exactly the same conceptual structure that predicts loss aversion also predicts the Endowment Effect! This is our first solid clue that we are on to something really different and powerful here. (And there’s a good deal more where these come from, as we shall see as this series unfolds.) Continue reading What’s Really Going on With “Sunk Cost”

What people really do instead of maximizing utility

A recent research study turned up some delightful results that are both not intuitively obvious to a five-year-old, and absolutely at odds with the predicted rational utility-maximizing behavior of homo economicus.

As reported in the January 14, 2010 edition of The Economist, Tanjim Hossain of the University of Toronto and John List of the University of Chicago “… worked with the managers of a Chinese electronics factory, who were interested in exploring ways to make their employee-bonus scheme more effective … At the beginning of the week, some groups of workers were told that they would receive a bonus of 80 yuan ($12) at the end of the week if they met a given production target. Other groups were told that they had “provisionally” been awarded the same bonus, also due at the end of the week, but that they would “lose” it if their productivity fell short of the same threshold.

“Objectively these are two ways of describing the same scheme.” But as it turned out, “The fear of loss was a better motivator than the prospect of gain (which worked too, but less well). And the difference persisted over time: the results were not simply a consequence of workers’ misunderstanding of the system.” Continue reading What people really do instead of maximizing utility