Going Deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
My introduction to this concept came when I read a book about a decade and a half ago called NEW WORLD NEW MIND by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. In that book they talk about our cognitive systems – our senses and our brains – the ways we come to know things, to learn about things, to decide things, to solve problems, to respond appropriately to the challenges that we meet.
At an individual level our cognitive systems are basically the same as they were 10,000 years ago. But as societies we have created new environments, challenges and opportunities never before seen. The whole human world we live in – and even much of the natural world – is not remotely what it was back in the ancient empires and in our hunter gatherer days. So there is this big mismatch between our environment and the ways we understand and respond to our environment. That’s largely what this “Cognitive Limitations” pattern is all about.
If we want to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit – our definition of wise – then we need to be able to understand and be mindful of our own cognitive limitations, as well as those of the people around us, and of the groups who are making decisions or shaping the contexts in which we live, within which our decisions are made, within which we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on, or within which we are trying to respond individually and collectively.
The people and the cultures and the processes that we use for all those things are shaped by certain limitations. If we’re not aware of those limitations we will miss important factors. One of the resources I offer with this pattern is the book I just mentioned which is truly profound. The solution it focuses on, if I remember correctly, is education about systems thinking because systems thinking is a way to get beyond the limits of our ancient ways of seeing and thinking.
This is important because one of the biggest problems with our inherited individual cognitive capacity is that we instinctively respond to situations that are visible, immediate, urgent, and obviously tied to our survival. Unfortunately, nowadays the really important challenges we need to respond to involve systemic complexity. They are usually more subtle – even invisible – and longterm or distant.
We can’t easily see – or see through – systemic complexity. We don’t know that when we buy certain kinds of chocolate, we are participating in the enslavement of children in Africa. We don’t know necessarily that when we’re driving our cars or eating our meat we are affecting the future of our grandchildren in terms of climate change. We may have financial troubles but we don’t know that the difference between the money we have and the money that other people have – the vast inequality in wealth – is shaping what’s happening in the society through power dynamics that distort economics, politics, governance and everything else.