By Melinda Burrell
“Your bloodwork shows your Vitamin D levels are low,” my doctor admonished me. “Start taking supplements.”
Not even sure what vitamin D was for, I followed her advice. Within a week, the pain in my knees had gone away. Amazing! I thought. How often can you solve a problem by simply swallowing a pill?
I loved the simplicity of the solution… and the reality check it provided.
Few things in life are that easy to fix. Inflation, floods and fires, mistrust in elections – all of these are significant national issues which require work from many angles. They require complex thinking.
But both our neurobiology and our culture drive us towards simplified thinking.
We are wired to tune out information that contradicts what we already believe (confirmation bias). It also takes effort to process information rationally, so we fall back on the familiar and the clear, such as statements that have been repeated until they seem commonplace, or even words printed in a bold font (cognitive ease).
Our culture also drives us towards simplicity. We often absorb news in soundbites or headlines. We usually reduce issues to binaries (pro- or anti-) and eliminate potential middle ground. It feels safer when “answers” are simple.
But most answers no longer are simple, as a recent report warned. Environmental and security emergencies are merging and magnifying, around the globe and in our own country. For example, we see extreme temperatures grounding planes for commercial and personal travel, and even adversely affecting military operations and exercises.
To meet this moment, we need to build our capacity as a nation to “think fast, think ahead, and act now.” We need to “expect the unexpected – and be prepared to adapt.”
We can start with ourselves, and then demand it of our leaders.
One way is to deepen, widen, and lengthen our thinking, as one CEO puts it.
We can challenge ourselves to deepen our understanding of an issue by overcoming our blind spots: “how might someone on another side of this issue see this situation?” or “what assumptions about the world am I relying on?” We can widen our thinking by actively asking for others’ opinions. And we can lengthen our thinking with the question – to ourselves and our leaders — “what are the effects now, and what might they be a year, or 10 years from now?”
Since we filter information through our emotions, we should take our emotions into account – but also complexify how we understand those emotions. If we simply say a situation made us mad, we lose information about what made us angry. Peel back the layers of emotions. Does an angry outburst actually mask fear? The term “hangry” is a great example of how a more complex understanding of our emotions brings power to control them. When we realize we’re angry because we’re hungry, we know that food is part of the solution.
In our dynamic world, we need to get comfortable with complexity. Good solutions to our myriad problems require it. Is that the 21st century version of patriotism? If we love our country and want to help it succeed, is our best tool our choice to be inquisitive about people and issues?
Melinda Burrell, PhD, @MelindaCBurrell, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources for community approaches to difficult issues.