Mind your language (part 2)

Here’s my cognitive science forum discussion piece this week, round two.

A great response offered had me thinking anew. Is the written word our primary concern? The discussion forum in my MSc has me wondering if this is still so.


You have my mind racing here. I have not thought quite in these terms before, but I am now – in my minds-eye or inner narrative – I am now seeing interfaces with technology as moments of great transformation in society. Having our children readied for the next becomes integral from the last. Writing was the Axial Ages catalyst of change. But, perhaps we have had others since. I think this becomes a question of time and space.

Observe these moments of change:

– pre-history is characterised by the initial cave people discovering voice to exchange information beyond signalling. This is the symbolism and abstract start of information exchange that needed the symbolism that Noam Chomski references. It may also give us links to Jungian collective subconscious. See also Vervaeke et al talking about The Meaning Crisis and the early role of Shaman to expand ideas.

– language became the means to pass more than just organisational ideas through time. One generation now able to retain the word of the last generation. Past learning becoming planned to be available to the yet born. What Hindu traditions show us, and Australian aboriginal and Polynesian tribal traditions, is that verbal history can transcend time. However, what it also does is bind people spatially together. It keeps them near. It is through repetition and shared ownership that such history retains its awareness from past generation to current. Language becomes a vessel for history and therefore a reason to think forward too. It also perhaps rewarded those best able to remember and replay events with insights when times were hardest, and give resolve in moments tribal groups were most likely to fail. The necessary communal bond meaning shared solution and safety in those numbers. I have Harari’s “Sapiens” or Jared Diamonds “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in mind and the idea of food banks where one Woolly Mammoth becomes a shared feed, and a metaphorical shared pantry with bigger communities sharing in good fortune and good technique in the hunt. Bound by language and history, benefiting from the communal group.

– the written word is the Axial Revolution point I reference here. This affords more freedom from these close communities. Communities becoming more transient and individual freedoms able to spread both word and trade to connect wider community. This also coincides with agricultural development. It enabled these communities to be bigger. To reach further in trading and sharing ideas, to begin collectively owning these beliefs. Hammurabi’s Code of Law etc. It also enables shared friendships to build and foes to be opposed. Alphabet the one example of phonetic effectiveness. The legend of the Tower of Babel perhaps a reflection of this written word becoming transient but the spoken word becoming nuanced and idea isolations being united again – written word also soon connects number and ideas and advancements begin to build in complexity and permanently transforming beyond civilisation wide threats (cf 1177 BCE)

– This has taken several millennia to unfold. It is the speed of language, in the form of written word and number, that has enabled the spatial distances to be expanded in proliferations from both war and trade. But also the spatial density. The few scribes and those they represent having much power. And such power is held most tightly bound to law and ideology. It is no coincidence that church and power are historic kin. It is the Spanish defenders of Catholic faith that attempt to proliferate much of European population with the power of the written word. In this blog about the Gunpowder Plot I wrote of this proliferation, although not having in mind its impact as outlined here. Both in terms of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic Church – but this is just a relevant in Protestant equivalent a new impact by language is about to unfold.

– This is all around 1520. In terms of the written word one more crucial ingredient connects the written word to the power of information. This is the time of the printing press. In this moment it is more than just those with one Church obedience who can read. It is what motivated the Spanish Catholics to push education into wider Europe but the power of reading was on the rise. This is how the spatial density becomes backfilled at speed. This is no longer just a Sunday service and the teachings from one mouth. This is now a freedom to read, to converse, to influence the mass of population beyond the mass of congregation. It is also the moment Latin begins to lose its dominance as the language of diplomacy, and of thought.

– Language is now more closely tied to written word. Education is tied to written word too. That and mathematics. Greek and Roman languages are still both defaults to know. Euclid’s teachings were known to all who declared themselves educated. But translations and reworked literature is soon to become commonplace. The written word, and number literacy bringing new perspectives to more.

But is this it? Is this how language is to be held in highest influence – as the written word? I think for the longest time of modern era this is true. Modern in philosophical terms, meaning from Descartes (1596 – 1650) onwards. Written word becomes ever more powerful both in the spatial distance that an idea can travel. And the speed with which it can move. The proliferation of ideas expanding as it goes. Whole populations or classes of people now advancing in dialogue. Ideas becoming connected in new ways. But also the proliferation of the story. The metaphor. The abstract connections anew. But this is where I depart from the primacy of the written words. I think there are two moments that demonstrate the power of the word has been usurped.

– Audio language. Once the radio was invented the manner of communication could change again. However, it needed to become ubiquitous to be effective. The radio may have been 1895 in invention but it was the 1920s onwards that enabled it to be available to every European ear. This became a means to close the spatial and temporal space of ideas even further. Almost immediate. The power of the masses may have been quick across Europe in the revolutionary spring of 1848, but the ability to maintain communication over the airwaves is what proliferated information so quickly from Munich and elsewhere from the embers of WW1. This was the start of the age of propaganda. That needed the speed of language in verbal phrasing not just the written word.

– Then we have the power of audio-visual. Look no further than the Kennedy vs Nixon debates to show the power of the combined mediums of language and showmanship

Is the written word therefore important? Yes, it is vital. But is it first among the forms of language we need to understand? I would say absolutely not. And in the near future I question whether it will have primacy at all.
Think on these realities of early 21st Century life:
– most learning is now accompanied by YouTube
– most communication is done by social media. And social media is becoming less interested in the written word.
– most mis-information is proliferated from a few sources and much of it is quickly becoming automated beyond human control.

My view is therefore that if we are focused upon the written word, we are too late in what we hope to teach. It is important. But let us not forget what it is not. It is not language. It is a symbolic convenience that has served us well. It has connected the whole planet. And connects us still. But we are folly to think it is a pinnacle of communication. It is already being usurped.

It is for this reason I am surprised we are being taught theories of written word. We seem to me at the cusp of information exchange in many other forms.


I am not sure I represent the generations to come. Perhaps the technology they will communicate via is close by but yet to arrive. By example, how many people can I expect to have read all the way to this final remark…? But by what other means can something be so quickly skimmed, surmised, and dismissed, yet still have been considered end to end?

…to be continued.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Mind your language

Here’s my cognitive science forum discussion piece this week

Children learn to understand speech and engage in speech themselves very easily (in most instances) simply through mere exposure.  However, visual word recognition is something that begins with the child being explicitly taught the symbols (e.g., letters…and eventually words) that will later be recognized.  Given that these statements are true, what implications might this have for children with vastly different parental, educational, and social backgrounds?

UoN MSc Psychology forum discussion November 2021

I have spent the evening with our lectures for this week on language. Principally, focused on the theories of how we bring the written word into our mind. Before answering the above, I was minded to revisit a few old sources again. I was in an audio visual frame of mind so reminded myself of the content of a classic piece by Steven Pinker. My opening discussion has therefore cited this at length. I conclude my initial observations with a detailed summary of his Big Think piece, but I recommend watching the whole thing.


Children from the axial revolution

Forgive the word play on a T-Rex song but it serves a point of sorts.  It is the first of three shameless retrievals of information from other sources.  This first recalled from song.

My second is from the written word.  In the excellent book “The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah” by Karen Armstrong 2006, the connectivity of the world is reflected upon around 500 BCE.  Her underlying point being that many of the world’s belief systems became more interchangeable at this time.  The reasons include transit freedoms as new metals were forged and animals tamed.  But also the transitory nature of information.  The mobility of the word and the interactions of ideas.  Language had stored story long before written down. Indeed the 10,000 year history of Hindu teachings attest to the longevity of word across time.  It is however time consuming to remember verbatim from one generation to the next.  Less accurate?  Perhaps not if tradition and word are both retaining context of both.

My third source is audio visual.  I quote at length Steven Pinker in what follows.  Please note the key point of the form of information exchange here. He did not use written language to convey this complexed message – only as a presentation aid.  Instead, he used a video camera and a production team, via YouTube. Much as children do not learn language from a book, nor do we as adults have to read to learn.  But good luck getting acquainted with technology without the written word.  My point (well that of Pinker et al) is, written language is a construct and a subset of a wider phenomenon.  We are less without it.  But it is language, not writing, that sets us apart as a species. Our society needs us to read and write.  At least until something better comes along.

My final point is this – all the rest is Steven Pinker – you may choose to watch the 50 mins of footage here or read the five minutes of written summary below. Such is the efficiency of written language – enabling you to pick and choose in temporal freedoms beyond the spoken word. We have choice. Much more in 2021 when it comes to choosing the format of information download. With choice comes compromise. Longevity, accessibility, interest, and influence, are all tied up within. Need and options are evolving through technological means, and these are 21st Century challenges that are already beginning to change us all.

Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain | Big Think 6th October 2012

Pinker tells us that language is distinctive, essential, mysterious, practical, and central to human life.  It is also the means by which we exert a power to exchange knowledge and intentions that no other species on earth has ever achieved.  And not by any one off fluke of one culture.  Every culture has been shown to have developed a language, and today 6,000 languages are still spoken on Earth.  He quotes Charles Darwin “man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to … write”

The complexity of grammar, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics are collectively the science of language.  The processes, acquisition, and computation all forming subsets therein.  Pinker’s key point in the context of our forum discussion is his distinction between language and a number of items which he argues are not language study per se – including written language.  He advises that writing has only been invented a small number of times (from around 5,000 years ago).  Crucially, he argues that an alphabetic language has only been invented once in the history of language – by the Canaanites – about 3,700 years ago.  He further argues that proper grammar (i.e., prescriptive) is also not language – distinctive grammar is a study of language – prescriptive grammar is a study of rules (and rules we generally make-up and break at will).  Further arguing that dialects can provide explanations beyond the standard form e.g., “he be working” denotes employment not just graft.  Pinker also argues that our thoughts are not in themselves language –  because there is plenty of cognitive ability in visual imagery that never approaches language – and that memory is more gist than detailed sentence structure.  Our meaning is derived from more abstract ability to interpret and contextualise intent of the transmitter.  Language effects thoughts, but is not itself thought (cf. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Words, rules (syntax, morphology, phonology) and interfaces; these are the three elements of language, according to Steven Pinker.

Still quoting Pinker, 60,000 words is the average individuals vocabulary.  If this were learnt as meaning of word by word, that would require a new word learnt every two hours from the age of one.  Each word phrase is somewhat arbitrary, and per Noam Chomsky is almost unique in its combination of gramma rules – which gives insight into psychology.  Sentences are placed in hierarchical structure, and not associated word by word, but anticipated against these rules.  Rules will be different from one language to the next. This presents the open-ended creativity of language; it enables expressions of unfamiliar meanings and new combinations of the nuanced; thereby creating an infinite possible structure of sentence form.

As to learning, Pinker brings this argument to us as follows.  Children are showing this in experimentation of learning as soon as two words are able to be combined – from around 18 months old.  They are demonstrating combinatory experimentation as soon as they begin speaking.  Evidenced by the experimenting and making error in expanding irregular verbs using regular verb past tense rules.  This is all audio-verbal but can also be symbolic in other ways.  Chomsky argues this point via his “poverty of input” argument, which states a non-linear restructuring occurs even before any such rule dependency can be learnt.  Chomsky argues we are pre-programmed to structure language universally. Not that his argument is without critics – particularly the lack of evidence or nuanced demonstration that only language has this pre-built disposition – other critical perspective emerging from modern neural network concepts where language could be part of this same complex learning.

Phonology.  Formation rules offer indications that a language allows a word or not.  These can also be represented in the nuances of a language (e.g., the sounds of “ed” in walked, jogged, or patted) as is sometimes betrayed by accent or as taken by an author’s advantage in comedic word play.

Language interfaces as the process of hearing and replying.  Production from the vocal tract, via the larynx across two cartilage flaps in the voice box. These produce a vibration with harmonics.  From here it passes through the chambers of the throat, above the tongue, the cavity formed via the lips, or by blocking off the airflow and into the cavity through the nasal passage.  Each cavity shaped to enable amplification or suppression of particular harmonics. All vowels are produced with the back and forth or up and down motions of the tongue.  The temporary stopping or restricting the air flow is more typically that of a consonant.   Our brain is perceiving a qualitative difference in each of these sounds.  In receiving these sounds it is then our brain that artificially punctuates the words to break them up into understandable forms – best heard when listening to foreign language where no such breaks will be heard.

Pragmatics is the context adding.  The cooperative principle is what is used to reference the assumed two-way working relationship being attempted by both parties to a dialogue.  It requires innate understanding beyond the information being presented.

Written language does however offer more than this.  Computers are programmed.  When learning the nuances of language the written form gives clarity.  It enables understanding and record of law, politics, or literary precision.  My counter-question to frame the forum discussion, “is written word essential to learning at all?”  I would say not.  However, a second question emerges therein. In modern society, is written word essential to advancing? Unless or until we find more advanced forms of record and retrieval of information, I would say so. Any denial of this learning is therefore a denial of some basic gifts of truth.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

More in than out

I’m not discriminatory, but…

Is it even possible to be truly egalitarian and harbour no prejudice at all? This is my initial reaction having spent this evening with my MSc lecture series on prejudice and discrimination theories. This is another blog from the world of social psychology.

Take this example of stereotype content. Which Dr. Susan Fiske put forward in 2002.

Bias assessment

  • High income
  • Homeless
  • Professional athlete
  • Physically impaired
  • Science Graduate
  • Arts Graduate
  • Religious
  • Atheist
Fiske 2002 Stereotype Content Model

I have presented alternative categories to those offered by the studies in question, but ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and belief all feature in the original lists. The overriding point being that across these two metrics of warmth and competence, there are underlying generalisations that seem to recur.

Asch 1946 had theorised that categorising all traits, could be grouped into broader sets. Referenced as central or peripheral traits. This is not without critics but it offers some support to the attempted categorisations by Fiske.

Asch 1946

Central vs peripheral traits

Terms such as warm deemed to influence other trait opinions too (Asch, 1946; Kelley, 1950). Certain information key in forming an impression (cf. Asch’s (1946) “configural model”)

Fiske 2002 is therefore using relative warmth towards others, and task competence, to show how stereotypes exist to favour “in-group” assessments vs other (“out-group”) comparison. Our behaviours influenced by this subjective schema placement that we have made.

Implications on behaviour

What Fiske further demonstrated was that our in-group response tends toward itself or those it pities. Whereas a competitor group is a cold but competent other, perhaps a convenient supporter of the same system we benefit from but from whom scarce resource should be taken from. A passive indifference exists towards those of neither trait strength.

A common theme however was “in-group” only were both warm and competent and thereby encouraged.

Fiske 2002 Stereotype Content Model

Bias as automated activation

Category activation is not necessarily an applied bias. Fiske, argues however, that additional information – perhaps with application of inconsistency resolution and other person individuation being factored in – are possible to be allocated according to the perceivers motivations and capacity (ibid pp124). Fiske indicates that some bias does appear to be easily stimulated in some settings, and can be worrisome, “…automated reaction to out-group members matters in everyday behaviour” (pp124). Fiske concludes that there is perhaps more automation of bias than most people generally think, but less than psychologists traditionally thought.

The possibility of control – if so motivated

That is not to say however that we are without means to manage or change – if we are so inclined.

Whether bias is conditionally or unconditionally automatic, less prejudiced perceivers still can compensate for their automatic associations with subsequent conscious effort. If category activation is conditionally automatic, then people may be able to inhibit it in the first place. In either case, motivation matters

Susan Fiske, Princeton University, New Jersey – American Psychology Association 2002 pp124

Amongst such moderate attitude, inhibiting bias can rebound (pp124). Repressing specific bias less effective than attending to active focus upon individual appraisal of all. Not that this is easy, or perhaps even possible. Moderate bias can take the form of withholding of liking or respect, and an indirect bias can be upheld if it represents the norms of appropriate response (pp125).

Project Implicit suggests an implicit bias in many people who were tested. It was not without its detractors as a study but offered a large sample set of data and outcomes which are still hotly debated today. As quoted on the website “The mission of Project Implicit is to educate the public about bias and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet. Project Implicit scientists produce high-impact research that forms the basis of our scientific knowledge about bias and disparities.” It is worth a visit.

As an area of scientific research the subject of prejudice (thought) and discrimination (acted upon) is still being contested, particularly when at a personal level. In our lecture series today we have been directed toward work concerning culture vs personal attitude (Uhlmann, Poehlman and Nosek, 2012); Deliberate or automatic (Devine, 1989); Category activation as avoidable (Bargh, 1999); Mere exposure effect – Zajonc (1968); Social Learning (Bandura 1977, 1997); Frustration aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939) and the counter-positions (Miller, 1948; Berkowitz, 1962); Personality: Dogmatism and closed-mindedness (Rokeach, 1948); Personality: Social dominance theory (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999; Sidanius et al., 2001); Belief congruence theory (Rokeach 1960).

v | behaviour | t

It was estimated by Fiske that around 10% of a population of tolerant society would present openly intolerant views (pp123). The reflection upon this subgroup indicates a tendency towards vocations intent on maintaining a status quo (police not social work; business not education) and holding core values against out-group deviation with aggression. It is also observed that such extreme positions tend to bias within packs and are typically held against more than a single target out-group.

Whilst the extreme is important my own interest is amidst the more ambiguous, ambivalent or moderate bias which Fiske addresses throughout pp124-126. Here the “them and us” is addressed in increasing visibility, with behaviours from simply inhibited intervention, through to passive allowance and favouritisms (pp125 citing Brewer & Brown 1998) and the norms that allow this to occur; to exaggerations of difference and homogenous reaffirming negative perspectives. As ambivalence nears moderate bias so dislike of some groups becomes justification of social exclusion (pp125) whilst tolerating those equally competent but deemed cold, as parties also intent on maintenance of the system integrity to the benefit of both. Exclusion and avoidance, outward disregard, and increasing expectation of resource allocations directed with bias toward the in-group in mind, are presented as increasingly a shift toward the more extreme.

These are complex issues. I barely grasp the magnitude of this locally, let alone the globally real. However, what is clear to me is this behavioural element is visible and therefore actionable. It also seems clear from this reading that normalising behaviours are tolerated or encouraged behaviours. In that regard it seems necessary to have that in mind of ones self but not just for ones self, before then considering what that means for everyone else. Respect, seems a good place to start. And that really does start with the self as if it were other.

To be continued…



Fiske, ST. “What we know now about bias and intergroup conflict, the problem of the century” American Psychological Society, 2:4 Aug 2002.

Further reading references and wider notes credited to University of Nottingham lectures, Psychology MSc, 2021.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Motivation vs coercion

Shared goals, or carrots and sticks?

This blog continues the examination motivation. Social psychological theories on how motivation determines behaviour. Self-determination theory presents the case for suboptimal impact of motives born from persuasion.

Materials cited are sourced from: Ryan, RM., Deci, EI.  2000 “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and wellbeing” American Psychology January 2000, pp68-78

I have lost count of the number of times people have admitted to me that the latest pay rise, bonus, or dream role quickly loses its shine. That salary increase suddenly spent before it arrives just the same. The same issues with the same clients, or bosses, or staff. Many of those conversations returned to mind as I studied at some length the psychological theory on motivation I now summarise in this blog.

From a project management perspective, I think this concepts should grab everyone’s attention. It reinforces something I think we probably all intrinsically know. That carrot and stick management may get us to a point, but it is not going to get us all safely home. Could it even be an obstacle to success? This is another perspective on behaviour, and considerations to address when contemplating how we structure our control.

v | b | t

I will offer a conclusion upfront. When we choose to divide ourselves into them and us by our contracts we are reinforcing the externalised motivations reflected below. When we manage our staff with KPIs, outmoded controls, and seek to retain high performing teams simply with cash, we are reflecting the changed mindset, externalised motivations, performance and health implications that come with that lack of internalised autonomy, shared interest, and shared goal. The more we understand these implications the more visibility there can be. The more we can rethink how we collectively engender coherent behaviours. The more trust between parties we can hope to see.

Self-Determination Theory

In this article Richard Ryan and Edward Deci review their body of research into the impacts of external reward vs our individual intrinsic motivations.  At the heart of this research is a reflection upon the social context in which human potential can be fostered or undermined by the manner of motivations we attempt to introduce to those we may wish to direct.  Three factors are considered (Ryan and Deci 2000, pp68):

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

Each is considered in respect to the developmental tendencies of an individual, but also the wider environmental factors that can antagonise or nurture any of these three (ibid pp68).

What is contrasted is the direction of motivational engagement.  Ryan and Deci outline their case in terms of factors that move us to act, be that the intrinsic (internal) motivational factors which are self-generated and arising from innate value and interest in an activity.  Or they can be external coercions of persuasion.  As Ryan et al advise, “the urge to act either an abiding interest or by a bribe” (ibid pp69).  Depending on this source motive, they argue the resulting experience of the actor, and the consequent actions derived, can be highly varied as a result.  Those authentic (self-motivated) having more interest, emotional attachment, and confidence in action and therein enhanced performance; and meaning two equally competent people will present different outcomes based only on this origin of motivational force (ibid pp69).  These differences are categorised in this theory. Argued to be a continuum of developmental, situational, and progressive characteristics.  They conclude that for both the health of the people we oversee, and the performance we hope to tend,

motivation is perhaps the critical variable in producing maintained change

Ryan and Deci, 2000. pp76

Intrinsic motivation is that natural inclination we may have toward “assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration“ (ibid pp70).  It requires supportive conditions and can be easily subdued.  Ryan and Deci have a sub theory called Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) which “focuses upon fundamental needs for competence and autonomy” pp70. To which they conclude even the necessary competence will only support an intrinsic motivation to act when there is retained autonomy in doing so.  Arguing such lost autonomy will transfer motives from an intrinsic to an external source.  The key claim herein, being that “extrinsic reward can undermine intrinsic motivation” (ibid pp70, citing Deci 1970).  Or as separately quote “in attributional terms by an internal perceived locus of causality (deCharms, 1968)” (ibid pp70).

The implication of this is that carrot and stick motivations can become inherently counterproductive to long-term outputs, and to mental health.  “…threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals diminish intrinsic motivation because, like tangible reward, they conduce toward an external perceived locus of causality.  In contrast, choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction were found to enhance intrinsic motivation because they allow people a greater feeling of autonomy” (ibid, pp70 citing Deci & Ryan 1985; citing further studies by Amabile 1996; Grolnick &Ryan 1987; Uttman 1997).

The third element identified is relatedness and a connected sense of security.  The examples offered being reflective of infant tendency toward exploration as proximal to parents.  However, they further argue this relatedness remains into progressive adulthood, “proximal relational supports may not be necessary for intrinsic motivation, but secure relational base does seem to be important for the expression of intrinsic motivation to be in evidence” (ibid pp71).

Self-Regulation of Extrinsic Motivation – if motivational origin is arising from outside influence, the Self-Determinism Theory (SDT) presents differing degrees of such requested behaviour, associated regulated means, and the manner of receipt of such attempted influence.  They call this second subtheory “Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)” (ibid pp72, citing Deci and Ryan 1985).  Ryan and Deci present this as the categorised continuum, with diagrammatic aid.  I present below an adaptation to connect the textual explanations they offer too.

Adapted from Ryan & Deci 2000, figure 1 and notes, pp72-74

I have highlighted the two extremes of extrinsic motivations and pose a question of what our motivational sources become in our contracts of construction, service, or employment, when driven too far towards price, KPIs, and performance bonus.  The concluding remarks of Ryan and Deci’s paper highlight cultural differences must be considered, and further that a linear progression from left to right should not be assumed as we individually mature in our many life roles.  They do however flag the related implications to mental health when perpetually existing in the left-hand more side of determinism.

employees experiences of satisfaction of the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the workplace predicted their performance and well being at work

(ibid pp75)

To which they present further evidence from studies where an individual could be examined across various life roles, they cite Sheldon et al 1997, who they advise “demonstrated that satisfaction in each of several life roles (e.g., student, employee, friend) relative to the individual’s own satisfaction, was attributable to the degree to which that role supports authenticity and autonomous functioning” (ibid pp76).

Here are two final quotes from their concluding remarks (pp76)

Excessive control, nonoptimal challenges, and lack of connectedness, on the other hand disrupt the inherent actualising and organisational tendencies endowed by nature, and thus such factors result not only in the lack of initiative and responsibility but also in distress and psychopathology

Contexts supportive of autonomy, competence, and relatedness were found to foster greater internalisation and integration than contexts that thwart satisfaction of these needs.  This latter finding, we argue, is of great significance for individuals who wish to motivate others in a way that engenders commitment, effort, and high-quality performance

Ryan and Deci, 2000. pp76

Concluding remarks

One aspect of behaviour that I identified within my 2020 MSc dissertation was the reorientation of project interests dependent upon the party with most influence at time of procurement. In PFI, I argued this was not always the senior debt lender. Risk profile of projects changed as a result. If contemporary revisits of Self-Determinism Theory can be considered from the perspective of actor motivations as entities not just individuals, perhaps these categorisations can offer some means to inform subsets of what those motivational orientations may be.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Motivated behaviour

Behaviour as directed by motivations

How much can we explain what we do by our desires to know more, reaffirm we are more, or seeking to reconcile two things that cannot both be so?

All case references herein originating or cited per David Dunning “On the motives underlying social cognition”  Chapter 16 of A. Tesser and N. Schwarz. Blackwell handbook of social psychology. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2001

Behaviour derived from need

We have begun addressing motivational factors in social psychology this week.  The basics of life to keep the body functioning; safety; then belonging, social climbing, and culminating in actualisation – being the best that we can be (cf. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs 1954) or what Carl Rogers called “autonomy” to explain what it is that makes us seek out tasks beyond such basic need (Rogers, 1960).

Behaviour derived from desire not need

But we were asked this week to examine another origin of motivation.  What in social psychology is referenced as Social Justice, to explain the motives which direct us to act.  It offers explanation for those less obvious motives we may be hiding, or reason for questions we ask, the people we seek to acquaint, and perhaps secretly berate.

  • desire for knowledge
  • desire for affirmation
  • desire for coherence

I briefly describe each.

Desire for Knowledge.

If we know a little, we will seek out more.  Trivia, or answers to things we are almost certain we know, we will spend resource to have confirmed anyway (think of the cliff hanger question before the advert break).  We will invest time and effort in dismissing or reconciling what is unexpected, just to trivialise if need be.  We invest more time in people we think we need to know, whether that be for upside, to avoid downside, or with whom we must compete.  We take more interest in causal reasoning after an event, and recall past failures to inform future event.  We are proven to be more mindful of our opinions and our actions when we are likely to have to account for them.  We will be more critical of argument, more resistant to stereotype, and be more insightful and thoughtful in integrating information when it has impact that leads back to us.  We respond more openly to information that aids our own control, but seek information to support our deeds if retrospectively sought.  By variance of preference some of us live happily with uncertainly, whilst others routinely seek to narrow fields of interest, compromise or look to shut down too many separate lines of enquiry, or hold stronger to category stereotype to get to certainty quicker – even if quick is less complete.  This motive towards closure, plus the underlying trade-off or need for more cognitive detail, combine to make some people judge situations quickly, confidently, but belligerently, and others to not know when to form a judgement at all.

Desire for affirmation

Not all is knowledge based, however.  We are also driven by our pride.  We may have attributions that explain our success, but external factors to blame for the rest.  Our decisions on whether to seek more information and our analysis of the information sought, can be determined by the control we have over the state of affairs this will inform.  This can become a deliberative vs implementation mindset – helping a decision vs justification of what was decided upon.  In analysis we may be “reality constrained” but nonetheless intent on neutralising information not presenting us in good light.  We can spend time elaborating on the merits of traits we possess, and trivialising those we do not.  Short-comings demonstrated as common flaws in us all, or seeking to present someone worse at it than ourselves.  We may do this directly.  We may also do it by implication.  Higher performing people shown to be less gracious in praise or assessment of others – unless it is in something of no consequence to themselves.  Our choices in social groups, friends, and our just causes, all directed toward our sense of self-worth and our pride.

Desire for coherence

Cognitive dissonance is explained as a felt agitation when two beliefs are inconsistent but both owned.  By example, when we are forced to act against our principles we may convince ourselves of validity of both, change one to fit to the other, or find wider reason to hold one in lower regard.  The coherence we worked hard to own, we may work equally hard to defended.  And if choice has been made between two equally valid alternatives, we will denigrate the one we did not choose.  The counterargument here is that we perhaps simply find new perspective.  However, where there is clear distance between position taken and belief held, it is demonstrated the dissonance felt will prevail.  Such dissonance only felt however if negative impact could arise. Sometimes such dissonance appeals, where such wider view is coveted and we therefore wish to become.  Or it may be reduced where wider behaviour could mitigate any negative impact the dissonant conflict may suppose.

v | behaviour | t

All of these summaries are taken from David Dunning as referenced above. He leaves us with a few areas of research to continue.  Some I hold as contemporary challenges. And connected to projects.

There is the question of which of these three motivational sources acts with greatest influence.  Or indeed if we situationally need to consider all three. He asks at what level does motivation influence social judgement.  Is it explicit with conscious control?  Or is it implicit, without awareness and therefore presenting less opportunity for individual control?  My question, when considering these influences upon our project behaviours, and against our control environments in such a complex arena, is why are we not just assuming it is both?

Dunning reports that research into motivation consistently returns to individual differences.  More often so than does cognitive behavioural change.  He ponders upon why this would be.  And whether it is actually the motives of certain classes of people, rather than human judgements as a generalisation, that give potential to better clues.  In my opinion, one possible upside to this observation is if we can extend this premise to project settings. Such as the subsets of project actors in complex construction.  Can groupings be found to begin addressing motivation types that can pull interest into or away from a project goal? This I have previously identified as a possibility, per my MSc dissertation from 2020. 

A second possible area of further research he identified as cultural differences.  Dunning highlighted geographical culture, citing research that had given explanations to individual nuance comparing Japanese and North American differing motivations when faced with self-image threats.  Japanese reaction being one of self-development flags vs. North Americans deeming these triggers to defend self-image.  That could be considered directly in cultural terms in multinational projects.  But I think we could consider industry sectors as having cultural norms too.

Perhaps these two research lenses can be combined.  Could projects be typed to give idea of internal dissonance? Differences of understanding between parties themselves?  Varying the project settings, this could be layering of the supply chain, and across commercial interfaces between parts of government hierarchy, or the interfaces between the buyer and seller in procurement.  Other categorisations of comparison could be available across horizontal sector analysis, or vertical management analysis.  Or we could consider this temporally at various stages of a project.  Categorising motivations across knowledge, affirmations, and coherence between project actors.  Relative power and influence, compared to specifics of motivational themes.  Or more closely examining the variance within a single actor and its parts.

The comparisons I am providing of the Construction Playbook, the means of managing accountability within role and responsibility allocations, or the comparison of the High Reliability Organisation to other forms of safety concern, each providing places to pitch such research.

In all cases, perhaps opportunity to research this appropriately will come knocking.  Or through my ongoing research and learning, I can formulate an academically sound case to make the enquiry come around the other way.  Either way, I continue to find new comparisons and synergies between my risk orientation into the project management world, and that of psychology.

More than this however, I am now observing need in both camps.  This social psychology is evolving science, and the project world is a complexity of human process desperately in need of new perspectives.  These seem to me two parties in need of some mutual research. One as arena to the other.

In the interim, it remains more than enough to keep me asking more, upskilling more, challenging more, and seeking better perspectives on necessary wider change.

To be continued…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Social Representation

…Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

Albert Einstein

…I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.

Mark Twain

Where do we, the general public, sit between these two truths?  In the modern age we have no time – or no will – to read lengthy explanations.  We prefer lowest common denominator, headline grabbing, click bait.

If there is honest intent to maintain truth in explaining cause and effect, psychology might call this stripped bare version “Social Representation”.

Although it must be said even the summaries of theory hardly get us closer to what this represents.  From my text book we have these two summaries to help us:

…collective elaborative explanations of complex phenomena that transform them into familiar and simple form

Hogg and Vaughn 2018 pp105.

Their second attempt was:

…simplified causal theories of complex phenomena that are socially constructed through communication contextualised by intergroup relations.  Rumour and gossip may play a key role in social representations.

(ibid pp113)

My homework tonight was to explain this in less than 200 words.  I think Social Representation is simply:

…what science looks like once filtered through Twitter

author’s own


199 words

High Reliability Organisation

Five principles about a HRO, that you need to know

This blog outlines what characterises a High Reliability Organisation, and why these five key principles relate equally to both projects of mind and of management.

I begin with a quote from two of the stalwarts of this topic and who nicely frame a reality I think most can relate to in any management or organisational setting.

is it really all that rare to have optimistic plans, insufficient staff, mis-estimates of complexity, broken promises, overlooked details, turf-battles, loss of control, unanticipated consequences? No!

Weick and Sutcliffe 2007 “managing the unexpected : resilient performance in an age of uncertainty” pp17.

This essay is focused upon the ability of a project to respond effectively to whatever circumstances become real. When the static plans, that were so good on paper, face the chaos of real world interactions. Those interfaces that were ignorant to the precision of the project script. How best to prepare for this change? How ready is the project to meet this friend or foe? How would the manner of your project preparedness, compare to the HRO?

Much of this sentiment perhaps applies equally well to people’s personal lives. The personal plans, lack of time or money, failures to anticipate, be ready, or adapt. There is opportunity to consider all scale with similar concepts of preparing for the unknown.

To plan or to train?

For me, this is fundamentally what the High Reliability Organisation is doing differently to most. Through the manner of organisational infrastructure, the attention to planning and training becomes quite differently orientated. As does the cultural implication too.

Much as we may associate emergency services, or armed forces, or special teams in some sports, there is a plan but it is the nature of the training that makes the adaptability count for more. Case studies in this area have focused upon processes upon US Navy Aircraft Carriers, emergency wards in hospitals, air traffic control, nuclear power plants. High profile failures have also been examined through this same lens. There are lessons and practice challenges that should be of interest to all.

High Reliability Organisations

Lekke (2011) writes a comprehensive review of the literature pertaining to HROs. Reflecting upon literary debate from 1990 onwards the more reliability-enhancing focused literature i.e., processes that an organisation uses to successfully manage its risk (as opposed early definitions that focused on accident statistics) present the most meaningful guidance for wider organisational application (Lekke 2011, pp5-6). This paper is available free from the HSE, and a link to the download page is offered toward the bottom of this blog.

The earlier work by Weick and Sutcliffe from 2007 is a more comprehensive examination of the five principles I address today. It is therefore their book that will draw the most comment and quotations in this blog.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe 2007 “Managing the unexpected : resilient performance in an age of uncertainty” 2nd ed. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. Karl Weick is a professor of organisational behaviour and psychology, and author. Kathleen Sutcliffe an award winning researcher (2006), author and professor of management and organisations. I quote and summarise findings from chapters two, three and four. However, the fifth chapter, not elaborated upon in this blog, is well worth a read too – Assessing capability for resilient performance – a series of audit process steps that enable an assessment of corporate mindfulness across HRO principles.

Weick and Sutcliffe’s five HRO principles

These five principles are what are deemed the most pertinent to characterise an organisation truly focused upon safety in high risk environments. They are further elaborated upon further into this blog.

  1. Principle one – Preoccupation with failure and learning (per Weick et al 2007)
  2. Principle two – Reluctance to simplify. “less simplification allows you to see more. HROs take deliberate steps to create a more complete and nuanced pictures of what they face and who they are as they face it. Knowing that the world they face is complex, unstable, unknowable, and unpredictable, HROs position themselves to see as much as possible” (Weick et al 2007 pp10)
  3. Principle three – Sensitivity to Operations. “less strategic and more situational than is true of most other organisations. When people have well-developed situational awareness, they can make the continuous adjustments that prevent errors from accumulating and enlarging” (Weick 2007 pp13, citing Endsley (1995))
  4. Principle four – commitment to resilience. “a combination of keeping errors small and of improvising workarounds that allow the system to keep functioning. Both of these pathways to resilience demand deep knowledge of the technology, the system, one’s coworkers, and most of all, oneself” (Weick et al 2007, pp14)
  5. Principle five – Deference to expertise. “decisions are made on the front-line, and authority mitigates to the people with the most expertise, regardless of their rank” (Weick et al 2007 pp16).

HRO five principles and five factors of mindfulness

Weick and Sutcliffe produced an earlier paper, entitled “Mindfulness and the quality of organisational attention” 2006, Organisation Science 2006 4:7-8 pp514-524 which per page 519 gives consideration to mindfulness as it pertains to HRO characteristics. Preoccupation with failure; reluctance to simplify; and sensitivity to operations; commitment to resilience; deference to expertise; all outlined across a stability (or instability) of attention. Concluding that where HRO failings arise these may be characterised as the weakened mindful attention which they term as “mindless” as actions become too routine and attention becomes more diffused.

Note the convergence with individual Mindfulness practice

This prompted me to revisit John Vervaeke’s five factors of mindfulness. These are examinations of ones self whilst in meditative practice. It is derived from eastern traditions upon which Mindfulness has been popularised in the west. I have blogged about John Vervaeke before. There is more than a little to compare across the five factors of both.

The five factors of mindfulness

Each of these five factors is as Vervaeke describes them. I offer the HRO principle that correlates in italics

Vigilance – as new awareness not accepting familiarity, being watchful, enquiring, exploratory. To this I equate HRO preoccupation with failure e.g., tracking all failures (Weick et al 2007 pp2)

Sensitivity – ensuring the unfolding process can be further understood, as would be comparing a movie developing over time, vs a still of a picture. This I equate to HRO deference to expertise. The expert at the scene is seeing an incident unfold, any command and control delay can only be acting upon summary or picture moments to the film.

Acuity – unpacking and observing each part. HRO Reluctance to simplify.

Flow – discern and discriminate, observing physical characteristic, emotional state, and the intentions of attention or distraction of the mind. HRO Sensitivity to operations

Reminding – in such analysis being reminded to retain the vigilance and not become distracted from why the attention has been brought to the present. HRO commitment to resilience, e.g., managerial interest in retaining capabilities to resilience (Weick 2007 pp2)

HRO Five Principles as applicable to behavioural control

Weick and Sutcliffe split these five principles into two groups. Principles of anticipation. Principles of containment. (Weick et al 2007 pp42). I now present these same principles in these two groups. And include the corresponding principle as it applies in Mindfulness. Have in mind how these relate to preparations necessarily being coordinated in respect to behavioural controls.


PRINCIPLE ONE – preoccupation with failure. [Vigilance]

Embrace failure by paying close attention to the weak signals of failure; and by amplifying the attention to what these weak signals are, so that all parties can be on the look out for them (pp46). Detection may be made easier with check-lists; vigilance to failed processes of operation, follow-up, or checking; awareness of resource stretch or communication failures; awareness of distraction by multiple task. Or by asking the better questions that are hands-on; addressing criticality; and at least as frequently as needed. As a leader, being candid about our own failures can become encouragement for others to do the same (pp48). Reporting failures; encouraging and even rewarding the reporting (pp49) which can promote greater trust.

PRINCIPLE TWO – reluctance to simplify [acuity]

HROs simplify slowly, reluctantly (pp54). By example of the need for caution, here are some listed hazards of when too quickly assigning labels:

  • minor works by value can be equated to less importance (pp55)
  • shared labels but diverse meaning (pp 56)
  • labelling too early denies further acquaintance (pp 57) and draws us away from more detail and hidden early warning signs (pp 58)

PRINCIPLE THREE – sensitivity to operations [flow]

This is about the work itself, what is actually happening (pp 60). Interdisciplinary and interdepartmental interactions both increase credibility and trust, but also deepens peoples understanding of the interdependency of the complex system itself. This includes leader and manager availability at key moments of transition, communication, or change (pp59). Quantitative and qualitative knowledge are equally valued, face-to-face dialogue equal to reports (pp60). Beware the mindless routine (pp61). Beware the complacency of all is okay (pp61)


PRINCIPLE FOUR – Commitment to resilience [reminding]

Resilience is a form of control (pp70). It reflects three abilities: absorb strain; stretch and recover not collapse; learn and grow (pp71)

“human fallibility is like gravity, weather, and terrain, just another foreseeable hazard”

Weick et al 2007 pp68

the mode of resilience is based on the assumption that unexpected trouble is ubiquitous and unpredictable; and thus accurate advanced information on how to get out of it is in short supply.

Aaron Wildavsky (cited via Weick et al 2007 pp 69)

PRINCIPLE FIVE – deference to expertise [sensitivity]

The Karlene Roberts term is “migrating decisions, both up and down” (pp74). There is no place for delegation to an expert and leaving them to it. Citing the NASA Columbia enquiry “mission management welcomed this opinion and sought no others” in respect to one manufacturer opinion of tile efficacy going unchallenged (pp76).

HROs make an effort to see what people with greasy hands knows

Weick and Sutcliffe 2007 pp77

Expertise not experts – meaning an assemblage of knowledge not a person or institution. The example offered reflects ad hoc and self-organising networks that collectively provide expertise to solve a problem – without formal status and that dissolve as crisis is averted. This is characterised by pooling of expertise, flexibility, empowerment, based on increased skills and insight (pp 78). It also requires credibility (pp79), i.e., trust.

The comparison of personal awareness through careful and open meditative or contemplative practice, and the necessary attention necessary of management if a HRO environment is to be nurtured present opportunity for further examination of behavioural control theory in both project and psychological settings. The comparison made here is to demonstrate how connected these examinations may be possible to draw insight.

people in HROs work hard to counteract the tendency to seek confirmation by designing practices that incorporate the five principles. They understand their expectations are incomplete and that they can come closer to getting it right if they doubt those expectations that seem to confirmed most often

Weick and Sutcliffle, 2007 pp27

Additional factor comparisons

Saleh et al (2010), offered these same principles but the differently nuanced explanations offer some additional context to organisational commitment if following a HRO type ideal:

Production and safety as concomitant organisational goals. What Saleh et al (2010) summarise as organisational consensus i.e., as shared by all levels from senior management to front line operators;

Decentralised vs centralised operations with deference to expertise. An ability to shift from central authority during routine operation to the deferring to expertise at the location of situation in moments of need. Particularly where safety critical and time constrained. (per Weick et al 2007) “authority migrates to the people with expertise, regardless of their ranks” but also noting HROs operate centrally in normal times to engender culture, ensure training and readiness for crisis situations.

Organisational slack and redundancy. Enabling available mobility of task aware resource “if primary units fail or falter” (LaPorte TR., Consolini, PM. 1991)

Projects | within projects

mindful people have the “big picture” but it is a big picture of the moment…

…mindfulness is different from situational awareness in the sense that it involves the combination of ongoing scrutiny of existing expectations, continuous refinement and differentiation of expectations based on newer experiences, willingness and capability to invent new expectations that make sense of unprecedented events, a more nuanced appreciation of context and ways to deal with it, and identification of new dimensions of context that improve foresight and current functioning.

Weick and Sutcliffe 2007 pp32

A key factor of my current theorising and research motivation is my ongoing belief that the modelling of psychology and the modelling of project management and organisation theory have common ground. In the HRO I believe this to be particularly the case. The greater level of self awareness we can achieve as individuals, the equivalent increased awareness within a project or a firm. It seems to me more than coincidence that Weick and Sutcliffe write in the language of mindfulness and that my own comparisons with John Vervaeke’s psychological work in this area connect so completely.

v | behaviour | t

people in HROs try to weaken the grip of this invisible hand of expectations so that they can see more, make better sense of what they see, and remain more attuned to their current situation. They do this by attending to at least the five principles…

Weick and Sutcliffe 2007 pp32

There will be more to say on visibility and trust as cross references to both HROs and engagement with practices of mental training as outlined in mindfulness in non-escapism forms. Much of the five principles of both reflected upon here connect principally to behaviours and will therefore be revisited as challenges of accounted for same are researched and blogged upon further here.

Applicable to projects of any kind?

All materials I have reviewed to date on HROs consider the organisational readiness for crisis. The first major challenge is to connect this better to projects, and all parties therein not just the organisations that oversee them.

HRO principles steer people toward mindful practices that encourage imagination…it takes mindful practice that encourage imagination, foster enriched expectations, raise doubts about all expectations, increase the ability to make novel sense of small interruptions in expectations, and facilitate learning that intensifies and deepens alertness

Weick and Sutcliffe 2007 pp29-30

Creativity – rather than industry obediently completing without questioning a task – is a factor of personal assessments in the Big Five psychological tests. It always intrigues me that such industry is deemed a preferable factor in business application – I score low on industry (i.e. preferring creativity) which never did my job prospects any harm. This is reflected upon via several, more qualitatively focused, literature references I have blogged upon of late. Such principles may overlap between mind and management – as mindfulness or similar – but a sound and academically credible connection beyond mere comparison is yet to be adequately made, at least by me.

This is very much a work in progress. But the HRO was overdue some attention on this site.


Additional credits

It was Professor David Stupples, from the School of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Engineering at City University who first introduced me to High Reliability Organisations. It was about this time two years ago. Deep into the introductory module of my Project Management MSc. Project Lifecycle with focus upon Systems Engineering – Systems Theory, Systems Management, Engineering Economics – then onto theorising about safety management. There we were told to read around the concept of the HRO.

I am also grateful to Professor Stupples keeping the HRO concept as a regularly feature in past exams. Alas, for me, January 2020 was not one of those times – for I had prepared a lengthy essay response – but the notes from that preparation aided my writing of this blog.

Some useful resources and links

Not all academic papers are accessible to all. The attached links are therefore offered as useful and worthwhile reading.

HSE link – The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reviewed the HRO literature in 2011. The research was conducted by Dr. Chrysanthi Lekka.

HighReliability.org – this link is useful to compare the focus of different leading authors. I particularly like the directional attention toward the disaster response as either proactive or reactive, and how some key academic writers have addressed HRO inputs.

McKinsey & Company – this article considered the HRO from a more operational perspective. The focus on communication, problem solving and leadership all reflective of wider HRO traits. I particularly like their 2×2 explanation of locational accountability and strength (cf. Principle 5).

Deloitte 2017 – 35 page document that captures much of the language and concepts reflected above.

LaPorte TR., Consolini, PM. 1991 “High Reliability Organisations” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 1991 1:1 pp19-48

Pate-Cornell ME 1996 “Uncertainities in risk analysis : six levels of treatment” Reliability Engineering and System Safety 1996 54:2-3 pp95-111

Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM 2006 “Mindfulness and the quality of organisational attention” 2006, Organisation Science 2006 4:7-8 pp514-524

Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM 2007 “Managing the unexpected : resilient performance in an age of uncertainty” 2nd ed. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Saleh et al (2010) list the following as key works of wider reading:

  • Turner, BA., Pidgeon, NF. 1997 “Man Made Disasters” 2nd Edition, Oxford Butterworth Heinemann
  • Perrow, C. 1984 “Normal accidents : living with high-risk technologies” New York Basic Books.
  • Karlehn Roberts works from 1987-1990
    • Rochlin, GI., La Porte, TR., Roberts, KH 1987 “The self-designing high reliability organisation”. Reprinted in Naval War COllege Review 1998, 51:3 pp17
    • Roberts, KH 1990 “Some characteristics of one type of high reliability organisation” Organisational Science 1990 1:2 pp160-176;
    • Roberts, KH 1990 “Managing high-reliability organisations” California Management Review 1990, 32:4 pp101-113
  • WASH-1400 and Probabilistic Risk Assessment (per Kaplin and Garrick).
    • Kaplin, S., Garrick, BJ 1981 “On the quantitative definition of risk” Risk Analysis 1981, 1:1 pp11-27


About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Troll patrol

Who let the trolls in?

A blog asking the psychological question of what explanations we have to address the phenomena of the internet troll.

A couple of uncompromising – or just plain rude and spiteful – comments on social media and my mind is immediately wondering again about cause and effect.  What prompts someone to be the internet troll?

Out of character behaviour 

It is easy to become complacent to the troll. Lurking in the shadows or projected on a screen. A few months ago, I would have offered explanation from Carl Jung, and his archetypes. I would have been satisfied with that. The shadow parts within us that lash out because we ignore them, causing them to lurk as subconscious parts within. Parts we have repressed. Rejected persona. Carl Jung and the neo-Jungians (who develop their models still to this day) will explain how these parts occasionally break their silence and act out.

linear cause and effect

Modern day behaviourists like Stephen Ledoux, author of “What causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingencies” would call such Jungian theorising mystic or scientifically baseless.  And just discredit the entire discipline now standing beyond these philosophical starts.  He would look to the behaviour itself, reflect upon the knowable factors leading up to the event as cause.  The radical behaviourism which permits physiological conditions to be considered beyond the external environmental that the first in the field would have considered.  He might offer a detailed linear cause and associated effect chain of events.

Subconscious emotional response

Joseph Ledoux by contrast, a neuroscientist and author of “The emotional brain” might be a little more sympathetic to the theorising of early 20th Century psychologists. “Emotional responses are for the most part generated unconsciously. Freud was right on the mark when he described consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg”, states Joseph Ledoux, as quoted by Rita Carter in her detailed 1998 illustrative book “Mapping the Mind” – which Joseph Ledoux offers a full page to the influences of the Limbic System over the Frontal Cortex, (ibid pp98).

External influence – chemical

In this same book, Rita Carter also highlights the impacts of neurotransmitter levels if impaired or kept artificially high. Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and noradrenaline. Recreational drug use also impacting receptor effectiveness – both at the time of use and through longer term abuse. That includes alcohol. Similar cause can be outlined from diseases and associated medications that can cause chemical or physiological alterations.

External factor – prompting hormone response

Regulation of other hormones are relevant too. Robert Sapolsky presents at some length in his lectures how the complexity of these interactions can cause short-term change to likelihood of response. He also presents the changing structures in the brain through prolonged stress or how combined factors can directly attribute to action potentials that are enacted or overridden within the Limbic System, the Cortex, or beyond. Or perhaps we are tired, and the frontal cortex becomes slower in enacting a more diplomatic response. Still acting to intervene but weaker or slower and too late because we have already pressed send on that reply.

External factor – language

In written exchanges this can be easily misinterpreted. We are all capable of ambiguity in our writing, but misunderstanding could arise from more fundamental starts. In his book “Language and Social Relationships”, Asif Agha (2007) writes extensively about the nuances of language and the implications in various forms of dialogue. “Register” for example may offer a multitude of inference but anyone of us is only capable of sounding out a few, but more adept in recognition of many more (pp147). All are lost in written form, but our tone is still sounded as we write. It may be heard quite differently by the reader.

He reflects upon cultural influence, but also dialect, sociolect, and denotational footings, all of which create differences

such differences are sometimes exploited strategically to create social partitions or boundaries within an interaction, but social boundaries can result willy-nilly too.  In multi-party encounters where multilinguals and codemixing mark off monolingual interlocutors as out-group (or non-participants) with respect to certain utterances, whether intentionally or not; social boundaries enacted in such cases may coincide with differences of propositional uptake and thus involve cognitive boundaries too.

Asif Agha 2007, pp133

External Factors – socio-cultural

Or maybe our societal psychological interactions have played a part. The compartmentalised elevated hierarchy we have earned in another social group. This group has rewarded our selfish acts, and we therefore take these lessons into groups anew. Perhaps this is behavioural Operant conditioning? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the amygdala and the hippocampus now working slightly differently because of a newly connected neural network response. Sitting above this however is our socialised understanding within the frontal cortex. Maybe this directs us to a safer experiment in this new group. It is safer to pull down a minnow, than attack the silverback we know we will never be.

So many possible explanations.  So many factors we could blame.  It could be as simple as seeking a few minutes of safe combat, or a moment of anonymous fame.  Perhaps all are offering cause.  Or perhaps it is illusory to think we have any input to offer at all. 

Know your troll

One thing I can conclude is giving more time to the response would offer a modicum of control. This I know, because this was my control tonight. For these troll-like comments – that prompted this thought – the troll comments were my own. The troll was me.

Except, I wrote them in my journal instead. Researched some of these alternative explanations. By the time I had finished those comments no longer belonged. My attitude had changed. My mindset. The responses offered all became less interesting, less funny, less necessary to make. And now they are gone. As has whatever temporary state of mind, or chemistry, or environmental impact which willed the troll along.

The ultimate control.  Time.  And my immediate behavioural response was gone.

v | b | t in action?

More visibility of my own mindset by giving it longer to be seen. More understanding from the extra learning in-between the moment and the next. Understanding increased by perspectival change. Available with more time.

My behaviour better defined.  Constraints changed by the removed deadline of time.  Still no nearer to understanding how to better control the root-cause, but proof that a control can be implemented anyway.  Even if that is just finding more time.

Trust in myself. I consider myself a diplomat at the best of times. Even so, a little more trust afforded with this time frame in a moment the diplomat, I nearly was not.

Concluding remarks

This is not my first time of stepping back to gain time. It will certainly not be my last. My journal holds many pithy remarks of similar tone. I conclude with a few below.

Calm your jets and write your thoughts.  Hedge your bets, in measured pause.  Quiet reflection not defended pride.  Will you troll beneath, or bridge both sides?

Adapted from my journal, 10th February 2020

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Making sense

Behaviour through a third lens

This blog takes on a third example of how to examine and thereby prepare to make better decisions toward behaviours. Bringing qualitative technique back alongside the quantitative techniques we are told are our future norm.


Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

by Christian Madsbjerg 2017

when we commit to losing a part of ourselves, we gain something profoundly new in exchange. We gain insight. I call the practice of cultivating these types of insights sensemaking.

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp5

In my opinion some of the sentiment of Madsbjerg has a sense of flow about it. He references “phronesis” to mean an Aristocratic synthesis of knowledge and experience (ibid pp6), and the type of leaders that become as one with the systems, societies, and organisations, they are stewarding “as an extension of their body” (ibid pp7).


From a social psychology we have theories that help explain the contextual nuance behind our social interactions. Social Representations by processes of objectification and anchoring which group or categorise based upon shared (communicated) experiences; or anchoring from pre-existing systems of thought. Madjsberg introduces similar influence pertaining to why people in that culture act the way they do (pp6).

He then (pp8) also identifies with the philosophical addresses objective reality becoming subjective understanding. Referencing Heidegger to reflect upon these unspoken assumptions “that on the basis of which beings are understood”.

we stop seeing a room as a space filled with individual items and we start seeing the structures form a cultural reality…nothing exists in an individual vacuum

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp11-12

He addresses these meanings as philosophical terms reflecting our spoken exchanges. Highlighting contemporary philosophers and their terms: “Habitus” Pierre Bourdieu; “The discourse” Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault “The conversation”

In cognitive psychology there is reason to challenge all ideas of comparison between mind and computer, and the linear processing of information this represents. Madjsberg presents this same challenge with more philosophical underpinning. He rejects Cartesian understanding, arguing this “is meaningless without without studying the world” (pp39). Arguing a little later that sensemaking is the missing connective tissue (pp43), and that we must understand the holistic vs the atomised (pp49), and recommend us to read “no exit” by Sartre (pp51) and highlighting Google’s Ray Kurzweil 2012 book “how to create a mind” and the associated Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM) to which he observes “but it’s not how the brain works…” (pp52).

Heidegger helps conclude this philosophical analysis Hubert Dreyfus “Mind over Machine” as the pre-eminent interpreter of Heidegger (pp55-56). Madjsberg argues that these philosophical interpreters both argue against the mind as a rational calculator. Madjsberg instead presenting a framework of how experts achieve mastery through an engagement with culture and social context (cf. pp57-60 for his 5 stages from novice to expert).

Here are additional categorised concepts. Most pithy phrases, and all explanations are Madsbjerg’s.


thin data is facts. Thick data is how we relate to the many different worlds we inhabit e.g., sensing the stress in a room (pp15)

pp70-75 four types of knowing: Objective; subjective; shared; sensory. These wide types enabling greater understanding e.g. pp76 pattern recognition or synthesis; pp79-81 literary economics. Reason, emotions, judgement, and analysis.

lack of thick data ability in boardrooms, “imagination and intuitions of top leaders are starving” pp16


time and space – reframe to a problem of a phenomenon pp99-100


pp15 Savannah not the zoo. Phenomenology of human behaviour in social context; pp18 see its ghosts

the thing in itself

pp93-96 . Avoid getting caught up in what is “real”. Example, pp96 the same champagne in a plastic cup or a fine glass from a white gloved waiter leave you with very different experience

always return to the thing itself

Edmund Husserl

Heidegger (Husserl’s best student) reversed the philosophy to focus upon social structures of worlds as opposed to Husserl’s reflecting on the thinking of the individual. cf. Sartre and existentialism


pp192 “without care, everything is correct and nothing is true

pp154-155 William James “the principles of psychology” references to attention as focalisation, concentration, of consciousness vs other thoughts. “My experience is what I agree to attend to”

Madsbjerg presents this in a number of forms. pp183 become a connoisseur; pp187 alchemy of sensemaking by being in it. He also reflects upon what is not technical understood (pp191), concluding that “care cannot be replaced with Moneyball type atomised analytics” (pp194).


as opposed to manufacturing. pp123 problem solving human behaviour with no hypothesis or clarity of what is known needs sensemaking creativity that comes through us not from us

Related to THICK DATA is need for wider perspective because, he argues pp22, our complexity is artificial and our data is inappropriately contextualised. pp21 Abductive logic affords creative insight, but that requires us to accept dead ends and serendipity. It is messy and needs a confidence to remain doubt for indeterminate amounts of time.

pp130 “grace” as creative insight travelling through us via our social sphere not from us. [the later examples on pp146 akin to flow].

pp131 psychologist Wolfgang Kohler “three Bs” bus, bath, bed as three places where environment engenders creativity. Heidegger referred to “the middle voice” or old Greek word “phainesthai” which erases the distinction between subject and object – rather how they are revealed through us not by us.

pp158 “with a click, the left and the right are equally satisfied” pp159 “the metaphor” pp160 “the derring-do is actually in the service of site constraints” rather than the signature of the artist.


pp107-108 “mood mentality” neither comes from outside or inside but from our very existence in the world.

pp116 theory of reciprocity (cf Marshall Sahlins three models of giving) give to get more vs get the same vs no expectation of return;

pp 114-116 Heidegger three levels of empathy:

  • below awareness threshold which we adjust to. It may be cultural clothing norms, or particular nuance of language. Sociologists and anthropologists have debated for 100 years whether this has a socio-animalistic or formal structural undertone.
  • awareness when it’s wrong. Often triggered from first level empathy moving to this second
  • Analytical empathy which is systematic, framework and theory supported. “This is sensemaking. Theory unlimatelg reveals the insight” pp116

pp168 “assessing and responding to the core emotional interests in the room” Sheila Heen Difficult Conversation (Harvard business school) pp169 in a room full of executives who is respected? Who is carries weight of insight? Who is seen as difficult? Who is trusted? Who is beloved?

pp170 reading the leader’s relationships, including the relationship with themselves. Self-conscious, cynical, invested, self-deprecating or at least self transforming?

pp171 reading the culture of the company: competitive; egalitarian; creative; hard-nosed; underdog or alpha. Changing points and tensions.

pp173 “reading between the rules”

pp175 be with the people to read them. If you cannot be with them, then read their fiction. The descriptions of the human experience.

pp176 “the gulf of veneer” vs walking in their shoes

pp177 understanding the antagonistic world. pp178 know who you talking to, and who they are really talking to pp179 which means you must know the culture.

pp182 the key is navigating the other persons emotions. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you do not know you are in.


pp101 discourse analysis – words and concepts meaning and significance.

pp116 symbols and nuance of meaning; discourse theory showing words in context (cf Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe); binary codes of social systems (cf Niklas Luhmann); stage-managed impressions (cf Erving Goffman’s “the presentation of Self in Everyday life” 1956); Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories of language – “don’t think, but look” as most language of cooperation is not verbalised.


Abductive – nonlinear – educated guesswork of most likely.

cf Peirce 1877 “the fixation of belief”; 1899 “first rule of logic”; 1903 “pragmatism and abduction”. Observing that Pierce was critical of deductive or inductive logic the former asserts correctness, and the second asserts unknowns are knowable with more technical ability.


not GPS. pp23 sensemaking shows the breadth of textural context needed. Following the North Star not head stuck upon the gps.

pp173 teaching is a negotiation. You’re negotiating for engagement and credibility. Once content is known you can speak from inside the content and thereby respond in the moment to the context.

pp195 Heidegger “meaningful difference”. The opposite in nihilism which corporate hierarchy is filled with. cf Heidegger 1954 “the question concerning technology” which he argues has not only replaced our gods but also replaced us. Optimisation of the material rather than flexing with it to find its best repurpose. pp197 we do this with people as interchangeable widgets vs “the source of meaning in our lives is not in us…it is in being in the world…we can all bring out what is best in ourselves” Hubert Dreyfus.


v | behaviour | t

As a foil to the biological and behaviourist sentiments of Robert Sapolsky, Christian Madsbjerg’s equally contemporary writing presents the more nuanced reflection of what the mind offers in problem solving, rather than the explanations of behaviour as bio-chemistry and the brain.

The significance of sensemaking as presented in this wonderfully engaging book is its engagement with philosophical discussion in a practical way. Principally reflecting upon the necessary skill sets we all need when managing the very human reality in decision-making. This is the third blog from me this week addressing perspectives on behaviour. All of which I treat as equally valid in potential for understanding behavioural challenge, and therein the means by which controls and directions to decision-making can be outlined.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Living without free will

Biology, behaviourism, control

v | b | t

This is a completely different argument of how behaviour can be addressed. It sits in conflict to the ordering of cause and effect I have reflected upon elsewhere. Visibility of this difference an important part of future assessment needs. As an address of behaviour however, it has the same central premise of control at its core.

Whether we trust in free will, society, the individual or the collective, we will have more trust in each other if we share visibility and control regimes of our behaviour that are intended to protect us all.

I have visited two purveyors of alternative perspective on this over the last few days. One I will now be visiting regularly. The other, not so much. Here are my working notes on both. I conclude with some additional observations, which set up additional research intentions and connect these ideas to wider sentiments I have introduced in other blogs.


Professor Robert M Sapolsky

Professor of Biology, Neurology & Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In reporting upon Robert Sapolsky’s award for Distinguished Scientific contribution, American Psychologist wrote:

For connecting behavior with the neurobiology of stress through pioneering studies on baboons in Kenya and rats in the laboratory, which has opened the way for understanding how the cumulative burden of stress over the life course can accelerate brain aging and predispose an organism to systemic disease. Robert M. Sapolsky’s work has also revealed the synergy among glucocorticoid hormones, excitatory amino acids in the brain, and glucose availability in causing neuronal damage after stroke and seizures. A remarkably lucid and entertaining writer and speaker, in his essays and lectures Sapolsky reminds us of human foibles and illuminates how the social environment and individual personality influence physiology and brain function

America Psychologist November 2013, pp613

This same piece concludes with an outline of his commitment to communicating about neuroscience and its social implications to the lay public (ibid pp615). A quick check on YouTube will confirm his following is significant and his viewership consistently over 500,000 views.

A compelling argument towards the complexity of behaviour is presented in “The biology of humans at our best and worst“. The example scenario used in several lectures, TEDtalks, and podcast interviews is that of a male firing a weapon at a perpetrator who was possibly wielding a firearm but which turns out to be a ‘phone. He asks why did that behaviour occur? And presents the following multi-modal reasoning of contributing factors. The point being all of these modal perspective offer biologically relatable cause in time frames that become evolutionarily long.

1. one second before : what went on in his brain. Amydala activity indicates negative response or action potential is emergent.

2. minutes before : what environmental stimuli influenced his brain. Factors such as smell are considered influencing upon action.

3. hours before : what hormone sensitised him to those stimuli? Testosterone levels can increase the challenge defence response.

4. weeks before : what experiences (e.g. sustained stress) had reshaped his brain to determine how the more immediate forces would be received? Trauma will encourage the physical expansion of the amygdala months prior.

5. from adolescence : how did life experiences (pre-25 year old) impact the immature frontal cortex and shape the adult he became? Numerous external factors contribute to relative maturity and development of the frontal cortex (which is what determines our socialisation abilities)

6. from fetal life and childhood : how did early life experiences cause lifelong change in brain function and influence dormant gene expression? Prenatal stress hormone level have a determining factor from mother to fetal development.

7. from moment of conception : what genes were coded to determine hormone and neurotransmitter response? What variant MAO-alpha gene was inherited.

8. decades to millennia before : how did cultural and social environment come to define life norms, and by what ecological factors did this become the case? Is the cultural norm one of honour and revenge?

9. Millenia : Through gene selections and wider specie development, how did these behaviours evolve? Highly sexually dimorphic behaviours.

Robert Sapolsky “the biology of humans at our best and worst

At best therefore, Sapolsky argues the causation of behaviour is complex. Across these multi-facetted and time relative perspectives it is this collective of contributions that become the causal factors.

No free will

In a 2020 interview he again refers to these layers of influence toward a behavioural response. They all become one factor. We can be changed by circumstance. We cannot change ourselves. There is no free will. There is no first neurone firing that begins an action, there is always preceding event.

But that does not deny the potential for change

In a very recent interview on the Huberman Lab podcast, 30th August 2021, Sapolsky talks at length about stress, dispels some myths about hormone interactions, and then addresses free will. We can know to know, he says deep into the interview (01:21:08). Change is possible of our mechanical systems, and finding means to build on this framework change, so responses are different. We remain our biology but striving to be better by knowing more means to mechanical change and it’s possibility. Learning that learning changes the brain, that in itself is the knowledge of knowledge becomes the tool of change. Just as protocols or pills are.

No free will, but still reason to seek exposures to externalities that effective change. What I conclude from this is that even if it is only the manner of natural environment that regulates such response – this is still reason enough to be focused upon the betterment of controls.

Before I evaluate this further, I digested one other book this week in search of how behaviour can be measured or controlled. The idea of contingency as cause, sits in this same agentless view of our interactions with the world.

Professor Stephen L Ledoux

“What causes human behavior – stars, self, or contingency” 2018

This recent book is an uncompromising argument as to why behaviourism, or more correctly behaviorology, should be preferred to psychology. The premise being that star sign and psychological addressing of behaviour by any form of agency of self are both little more than mysticism.

By example:-

mysticism – as in untestable or unmeasurable – behaviour – directing agents

Stephen L Ledoux “what causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingency?” 2018 pp xvii

In seeking the most contemporary examples of behaviouristic method, this book offers some assistance in this regard and helps contextualise behaviourism more broadly.

Historical context of behaviourism :-

John Watson 1913 denying any private experience is real. BF Skinner from 1930s to 1980s and bringing along “radical” behaviourism and his 1963 paper – celebrating 50 years of behaviourism. To which Professor Ledoux sought fit to compliment with a 100 year version in 2013. It is Skinner inspired Operant Behaviorism (i.e. stimulus evoked response) which is the basis of method presented at some leisure in this book.

There is also some comment on preceding “inadequate” behaviourism dealt with from pp15. Noting early behaviourist denying private (meaning inner) experience completely. To which it is argued Skinner solved in 1963 by arguing we need not preside over the skin as an interface to the evaluative process. Page 16 has physiology claimed as an ally of behaviourism. Emotions nothing more than chemical changes in the body to which in turn result in a feeling in response. Psychology by comparison is not afforded any such ally, I was a little disappointed therefore that the significant interface it now shares with neuroscience was not offered, even passing observation. My own MSc course is closely aligned with both.

The key notes I have taken from this book, I summarise below. There is reason to return to it, and these notes will prompt any such return.

  • pp30 and pp50 Parsimony – the simplest explanation is generally the most likely true
  • Pp37 in essence the argument is simply A to B to C. Antecedent to behaviour to consequence.
  • Pp38 antecedents as IV and most often one of multiple stimuli of which one or several may have contingent cause as the antecedent(s)
  • Pp39 behaviour is termed response in specific circumstances
  • Pp40 consequence being the varied operant effect becoming chapter addresses of the later book.
  • Pp41 C can also be reinforcing stimuli (SR)
  • Pp43 1987 TAEB The experimental analysis of behaviour
  • Pp63 what is NOT behaviour. Growth or decay; traits;
  • Pp76 bodily functions as stimuli; Pp77 emotional arousal as physiological stimuli
  • Pp85 controls as part of the environment. Behaviour control environment
  • Pp85 law of cumulative complexity
  • Pp86 responses are put in to classes (response class) where the regulatory of a response class may be measured her time e.g. dishwashing x times in 7 days.
  • Pp87. Behaviour classes are : motor behaviour (movements)
  • Pp88 emotional behaviour as glands stimuli for example
  • Pp89 functional classification – respondent behaviour (Pavlov); operant behaviour (Skinner)
  • Pp92 natural law controls ALL behaviour
  • Pp120 diagram of multiple contingent for reflexive; Pp121 non-reflexive; Pp123 generalisation – in conditioning; pp124 stimulus generalising; Pp126 evocation – evocation training – SR feeds energy back to nervous system and evokes us to respond differently
  • Pp129 function altering stimuli; Pp133 covert neural behaviour cf Fraley 2008; Pp141 positive or negative same as reinforcing or punishing postcedents; Pp151 types of reinforcer; Pp153 extinction of respondent when no longer able to elicits response; Pp169 shaping; Pp179 chaining; Pp191 fading procedure; Pp199 schedules of reinforcement; Pp217 assertive controls and 8 coercion traps; Pp273 overt and covert; Pp279 passivity

I now want to briefly reflect upon a confrontational tone of argument in this book. One hard to reconcile as coming from the academic class.

These next notes are prepared to support discussion within my MSc tutorials. We are mid-debate regarding the place of disciplinary dialogue and range of arguments that must be understood if the various arms of psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, biology, neuroscience, and wider behavioural sciences are to be understood. The sustained attack by this author is thereby captured below for representation with my fellow students. Here are some quotes reflecting the uncompromising dismissive attitude directed at psychology.

we consider Skinner’s radical behaviorism, the philosophy that extends naturalism to inform the natural science of behavior that today we call behaviorology, after its separation from the non-natural, fundamentally mystical discipline that defines itself as studying “behavior and the mind”, (pp7)

the relation between behaviorology and psychology approximates the relation between biology and creationism (pp9)

but if natural scientists instead compromise by allowing claims that behavior in general … results from the spontaneous, willful act of some putative inner agent, then they lose the whole subject matter of human behavior – a subject matter whose application is likely vital for human survival – to purveyors of non-science (pp10)

with these processes, or sub parts, like id, ego, motive, choice, or trait, we cannot trace the behaviorological, physiological, chemical, or physical links of a natural functional history chain; we can only trace the causal chain back to the supposed spontaneous wilful act of the self agent. This breaks the chain of events in the natural functional history and so further excludes psychological analysis from natural science (pp11)

no capricious inner agent makes responses occur (pp17)

with much scientific activity involving methods, anyone using scientific procedures, even mystical people, can objectively collect data on any real phenomenon (pp19)

the general result of this development [1987 split of behaviorolgy as a separate discipline] is a foundation natural science related to all other natural sciences, not at the discredited level of body-directing self-agents, but at the level of a body’s physics based interactions with the external and internal environments (pp19)

some disciplines studying behaviour fall for overly complex accounts (e.g. minds, psyche, selves, souls, or many other types of putative behavior-initiating self-agents), (pp32)

[of agentialism] as a result psychology began as a non-natural discipline, and remains so today, (pp43)

it [psychology] even defined itself as “the study of behavior and the mind”, as it stuck to its secular (i.e., non-theological) version of mysticism. (pp43)

…”the demon-haunted world” Carl Sagan (1995) referred to science as “a candle in the dark”. We must turn that candle into a floodlight exposing the whole variety of unhelpful accounts for behavior while illuminating the helpful accounts for natural behavior science, and thereby support the tole of this science in helping solve local and global problems.. (pp50)

as science expanded, the fictional accounts for most phenomena have retreated. Today, fictional accounts generally still thrive only with respect to human nature and human behavior (pp51)

many scientific and other authors would welcome linguistic changes that allow them to write without automatically implying inner agents (pp52)

Stephen L Ledoux “what causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingency?” 2018

The most telling lesson in behaviour I take from this book is to retain a level of respect and dignity in academic writing, and at least have the good grace to keep current with arguments opposed to ones own. My reading of the likes of Robert Sapolsky suggest this more constructive dialogue approach to advancing subject matter still sits alive and well.


Additional observations to build upon in due course

Two quite separate sets of thought are racing since Robert Sapolsky reframed the more biological-neuroscientist perspective on human decision-making.

Firstly that we have little if anything to do with the immediate decision-making process beyond having ownership of the biology we contain;

Second, that what do have is ability, and perhaps therein a responsibility, to be putting ourselves into the path of passing circumstance that offers better versions of those parts in us that effect wider event.

By Robert Sapolsky’s own admissions it is hard to reconcile with the second part. The second part being how we live without free will. How are we to remain morally governed or even inclined if we have no directive part in the play? How can we remain accountable for our actions and inactions. Why bother to give thought to anything at all? That is, however, to assume there is also pre-destiny. And of that I remain unconvinced. Nor is it, in my opinion, where Sapolsky’s account is directed.

How is this related to projects | within projects?

Modelling of complexity

Robert Sapolsky is presenting the challenges of addressing numerous levels of systems. Biological systems with huge complexity. Therein the realities of influence that relate to distance. The more layers one must pass through, the less influence we can expect to have. In the Limbic System he argues (lecture 14 of his 2010-2011 Human Behavioural Biology series), that this is measured in the number of synapse a message must cross through. In the world of construction projects I equate this to the commercial contracts across a supply chain. The more layers there are, the less influence the employer has over the lowest sitting links. The solution in both cases is creating extra pathways to override, intercept, or simply have visibility of interventions from elsewhere.

Sapolsky also reflects upon prior history as effecting current action potential. This is much the same as the history of our supply routes, cultural ties, beliefs, laws, customs, and propensity to revisit old wars. Much the same as within one organisation it is only in understanding the history of takeovers, mergers, successful relationships with clients and suppliers, shared relationships or long-standing feuds, that one can begin to better understand why the infrastructure of that business works in suboptimal or counter-intuitive ways. Furthermore, just as evolution is quick to punish outdated modes of being, so too does economics and cash-flow quickly reward those frameworks of processes finding work arounds to past solutions that are now in the way.

v | Behaviour | t

Firstly, returning to the challenge to free will. For purposes of my projects research free will or not seems less of a concern than to acknowledge behaviour is still a subject of potential control. It matters only that we know there is potential for change. This is Robert Sapolsky’s key point in arguing there is still reason to seek better ways.

Second, the point at which Robert Sapolsky seems less sure of how we then set ourselves up to live. My work around is taking the position that the resulting actions are not predetermined even if we are not directly acting with agency or otherwise. We can get to know the appropriateness of the controls. Influence the manner of the control. As Sapolsky says repeatedly, “we can know to know”. I would add that we can know why to know. We can seek to know what better control is and why, and let the process of converting action potentials within neurones worry about themselves. Our project controls at all levels need to account for such unpredictability regardless how the actions come to pass.

Modal confusion

There is also modal confusion addressed here. Robert Sapolsky makes a fabulous case for the multi-layered influences of our behaviour. That all of these factors can have impact, and that to look upon one mode alone is to miss the complexity that unfolds.

By example of this modal flexing, Robert Sapolsky talks of the amplification of actions where elevated testosterone plays a part. That it is society that rewards action and therein the challenge defence that testosterone helps reinforce. But this is not aggression. It is society that rewards the selfish, assertive, dominating types. Testosterone is defending challenge to status. But it is society determining what factors status is derived. Sapolsky’s observations are that it is therefore at a societal level we can hope to have some control. If we reward more kindness with more status, challenges to status will have testosterone fuelled kindness as the follow on. These become nudges toward a direction of travel. My question here is simply do we collectively think our direction of travel could be better, and if so what control of our meta-systems better reflects that goal?

My point here is that this is precisely the observation of our interactions themselves. That our own conflicting intentions become nuanced by our interactions with others, and [the illusion of] ourselves. But that in all cases there is potential for change. Not needing to be born of free will, but nor relevant if not. Change, born out of influence of the control environments we create. The modal level of risk we are addressing becomes critical to this assessment.

Accountability and responsibility

Victims one and all?

Next is the issue of whether free will is the only means by which we can give justification to holding an individual accountable, or least responsible for their actions. Robert Sapolsky argues that our justice systems are a leading edge of reform need. Not arguing that we let danger to society loose upon the streets, more that we have a little more empathy to the reason they the criminal actors are so broken at all. Controversial, emotive, and itself a position to polarise the lay persons he is reaching toward. A worthwhile debate but for my part, I sit opposed.

Responsibility without blame

Whether we become radical behaviourists like Skinner, hold out for the idealism of mind over matter, or allow a dualism of mind and body in any order of influence or prioritised proof of anything at all, there is a level of amalgamations of systems of interaction that we identify with as a whole.

Here again I see projects and organisational thinking troubled by the same modal confusion. I have previously written about how accountability can be retained whilst responsibility shifts between layers of engagement. I think this same principle can be applied in downward layers of attention without necessitating a reductionism towards subatomic physics. Not that Robert Sapolsky would disagree with that, at least as a pro or con towards free will. He argues that the necessary “bubbling up” from quantum mechanics to synaptic levels of biology are not feasible; they offer nothing positive toward a less random decision ability if free will is argued for; or offer a uniform influence across the trillions of synaptic messages that would therein have to all conform.

My point is that regardless of whether we think an individual wills an action or not, society functions at this higher level of control. We are all individuals by that metric. Regardless of whether that is an amalgamation of systems. Or whether consciousness or self determined agency are illusory. Both still reflect a contained system and with it one scale of control. Accordingly, we legally and in personal judgements hold these levels of a whole as stand alone. We are each that collection of systems, that illusion of self. And the human version of collaboration which our frontal cortex helps us navigate better than other animal systems, becomes the beginnings of wider human derived societal controls.

We can address accountability and responsibility in these same terms. The key point is to be clear in the modal level of engagement we are working from. It is these social laws that we deem consent to be age related. Or what constitutes acceptable exchange of chattel. Or what organisational complexity and what hierarchical order we attach and seek reward. This is the what. The containment of a social system we should know to know.

Concluding remarks

Free will or otherwise, we are all responsible for the societal, organisational, or moral controls past down to us. We are personally responsible to ensure we agree they are right, or make peace with how we reconcile that they are wrong. We also each retain responsibility for what we have been handed down, and accountability for what we pass on further therein. This is the burden of management of others. And the stewardship and duty in leadership that most attempt to evade.

I am therefore encouraged by the congruent conclusions all theory and science across these disciplines seems to land upon – at least from what I have found so far. To my mind (or the illusion therein), this still becomes a question of behaviour, and the manner of control.

This remains immensely complex, but perhaps able yet to be bettered by the nature of control.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: