Voice of the Community: Maria Recaman
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist turned philosopher, transformed the world with his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Among other remarkable things, he’s considered as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He popularised the concept of paradigm and coined its contemporary meaning. So, what does paradigm mean? Why has it become a buzz word especially in the Change Management world? Why is it relevant to talk about paradigms today as we see our world transforming during a pandemic?
I’ll explore all of this in a 3-part series, with this blog being part 1 to set the foundation.
In a nutshell, Kuhn defined a paradigm as a specific way of understanding reality, recognised and shared by a group of people, for a particular period of time. The easiest way to think of a paradigm is to think of a pair of glasses with coloured lenses. For example, if you look through a red lens, you will see a red-shaded world; if you look through a blue lens and you will see a blue-shaded world, and so on. Now imagine those red coloured glasses being used by a large group of people. They will see a red-coloured world and recognise it as reality. At any point, if the lenses are faulty and no longer useful, they can be discarded and replaced by new ones. In this sense, the way we look at and understand the world depends on the glasses (paradigm) we use at that point, and they may change over time. Kuhn identified these periods of change as revolutionary science in which a paradigm shift occurs.
Although Kuhn’s work was limited to the world of natural sciences, his concepts and ideas have been applied to other sciences, including cognitive science (to truly appreciate Kuhn’s impact, cognitive science is considered as revolutionary science itself, as it lead to a paradigm shift in the study of human behaviour). Cognitive science studies the mind and its processes, perception and decision-making being one of them.
So why are paradigms so relevant to us now?
Fast forward to 2016, an image posted on Instagram by Swiss photographer Tiziana Vergari, went viral. The photo had over 23k likes and more than 4k comments of people trying to guess how many girls were actually photographed. From two to 14, everyone had their own guesses with a flow of commentary (spoiler alert, there were two). The picture went viral because of the optical illusion it created, stimulating a conversation around how different everyone who commented perceives the world.
In fact, optical illusions have been a pivotal element in the study of perception, that is the process by which our brains organise and interpret the information we get from the environment. What we perceive can be substantially different from objective reality (here’s a Ted-Ed video that talks about optical illusions and perception). Mark Changizi, a theoretical cognitive scientist, argues that visual illusions happen due to the fact that our brain is a tenth of a second behind the present moment and uses shortcuts to catch up.
Actually, what may be surprising is that our brain is constantly using shortcuts to organise and interpret all the cues it gets from the outside world. And this is a good thing. Most shortcuts help us make life-or-death decisions in real time. If the brain had to process every piece of information to make a choice, it will take us a long time just to even get out of bed. In fact, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman, 95% of our decisions are made by our unconscious mind. Our unconscious is responsible for us and tells us not to touch a hot pot or to hit the brakes when we see the car in front of us suddenly slowing down. If the brain had to go through the well-known rational decision-making process every time, our hands would be constantly burnt, and we would have had quite a few car accidents.
How the brain manages to do all this is another story and I recommend Eagleman’s book, The Brain or watching the six-episode series based on the book.
The brain relies on previous experiences to anticipate to certain things happening in the near future. In the process of doing so, however, the brain may leave out important information that can lead to making inadequate choices. This happens because the brain focuses on experiences that, given the circumstances, are more likely to be correct. For example, when you trip over a step, that’s your brain relying on its information about the step’s standard height and finding out that this is not the case.
These errors in judgement are known as cognitive biases and they can get the best of our decisions. If you had to choose between riding a rollercoaster or riding a merry-go-round, which one would you say is safer? If your answer was the merry-go-round, your availability bias just played a trick on you. Less than 10% of injuries in amusement parks are due to rollercoasters, while 20% are from merry-go-around malfunctions. However, our brain relies on information readily available. News about rollercoaster accidents get more attention and, in consequence, we overestimate the likelihood of them happening. And just like that, without being aware of it, we end up choosing the ride that potentially represents a higher risk to ourselves.
So why do we keep relying on our perception to make life-or-death decisions?
The short answer would be that for the most part, it is a pretty efficient mechanism. The long answer takes us back to Thomas Kuhn.
On one side, Kuhn acknowledged that the way we observe the outside world is influenced by our prior beliefs and experiences, making it impossible to have an objective interpretation of reality. On the other side, he argued that paradigms influence the way we understand the world, by pointing our attention to a particular direction, while overlooking the rest. What this means is that we end up taking in just a very small amount of information from the outside world, to make our own interpretation of the whole. Our brain is only capable of processing some but not all the available cues out there, and on top of that, our paradigms narrow our options further. Going back to our coloured glass lens example, if we have always used red-shaded lens to see the world, and red is the only colour we have known, how are we able to recognise other colours? Do we even acknowledge the existence of other colours? How do we overcome this colour-blindness?
The silver lining is that, in times of turmoil, a window of possibilities opens in which we can expand our vision and look in new directions. Will this be the case for us? Are we now witnessing a revolutionary science that will lead us to a paradigm shift?
Coming up in Part 2: I explore how COVID-19 has changed our present, but will it be enough to change our future?