Is there a problem with the way we think?

25 July 2014


Is there a problem with the way we think?


In Australia we don’t deal with complex issues well. Partly it’s to do with the three -year election cycle that biases short term populist and partisan thinking over long term solutions. It’s also to do with the ‘gotcha’ sound bite style of journalism prevalent in our media that discourages nuanced, complex thinking and crucifies any politician who would dare to demonstrate self doubt, or heaven forbid, change their mind on any issue. But there are also deeper cultural issues at play.


A recent conversation with a fellow member of the Labor Party got me thinking about this again. I am a strong advocate for a more compassionate asylum seeker policy. He was arguing that Australia should not be taking more refugees because of the damage the increased population would do to the environment. He pointed to the ICC report and the damage population growth and economic development in the developing world is doing to the environment. Australia is a fragile ecology that has already reached its population limit, he argued. Rather than taking refugees we should be putting our energies into tackling the problems at source. In other words, improving the political and social circumstances within countries thereby reducing or eliminating persecution and the need for people to seek asylum.


“I can’t disagree with you on this,’ I said. ‘It would be wonderful to live in a world where there is no persecution. But the reality is that while ever there are tyrants and prejudice we are going to have refugees.’

“Get rid of the tyrants.”

“That didn’t work so well in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“We should just bomb them.”


At that point I walked away, realizing there was not much point in discussing the issue with him. This is an extreme view of course, but it highlights the tendency towards either/or thinking in our society. Things are black or white, A or B but not both. We can save the planet or refugees but we can’t do both. We can protect our borders and let no one in or adopt a humanitarian approach and let everyone in. Of course it is both a border protection and a humanitarian issue. It’s also an issue that cuts across foreign policy, international law and cooperation, foreign aid and trade, immigration and population policy as well as morality and human rights.


This style of thinking is at the heart of a culture of individualism that goes way back to the Greeks. I’m drawing on Richard Nesbitt’s wonderful book The Geography of Thought here. Western societies value uniqueness and standing out. In our schools, universities, media and public forums we are encouraged to take a position and defend it vigorously. It is our right to put our ideas into the public domain no matter how ill informed. Do you believe in climate change or economic growth, are you pro Palestine or pro Israel, a supporter of private schools or the public system. The dichotomies are endless. The squeaky wheel gets the oil – contrast this with the Japanese saying that the nail that stands out gets hammered down.


We also inherited from the Greeks their tendency to categorise and compartmentalize information. Our bureaucracies are organized as silos of knowledge and decision – making, each with its own budget and procedures. We value the expert over the generalist. Decisions get made seemingly without considering the broader context. Sydney siders have been wondering for years if the bureaucrats who run our roads, buses, trains and ferries have ever spoken to each other.


The rational, scientific approach has seen western countries lead the way in technological development, although psychologist Daniel Khaneman(Slow Thinking Fast Thinking – great read) argues we’re not as rational as we think we are and are more ruled by our intuitive minds in our decision making.


Nesbitt argues that we can also learn from Eastern thinking in dealing with the increasing complexity of the modern world. Eastern thinking tends to be more contextual and holistic, seeing the broader picture, elements in relationship to each other, and therefore copes much better with ambiguity and complexity. Truth is not A or B it is A and B and sometimes C, and often in between, or the Middle Way, as Buddhism would have it. This style of thinking evolved in collectivist, agricultural societies where cooperation and maintaining group harmony were survival imperatives.


My experience working in aid and development has been instructive. The problem of children dying from diarrhea, for example, requires interventions in a number of key areas simultaneously: clean water and sanitation, education of mothers and children, income generation, agriculture and gardening, women’s and child’s rights advocacy as well as public policy.


It requires an understanding of local value systems and behaviours. This requires consultation. Development work is not rocket science, it’s much more difficult and complex than that because people do not always behave in predictable ways.


Let me give you a good example. Working with Save the Children in Bangladesh we put latrines into villages only to discover the women weren’t using them, despite all the efforts of health workers to explain the health benefits. When we talked to the women further we discovered that privacy was an overriding concern. When we recast the issue and explained that using the latrines meant they could go to the toilet in private rather than in the fields they started using the latrines.


What this highlights is the need for integrated thinking and collaborative approaches to problem solving, a marrying of western and eastern approaches. We need the experts but we also need the generalists with an overview of the bigger picture and with the ability to foster interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration. We need to think more about how we think, more about how we integrate holistic knowledge into policy and decision- making.