Continued from Part 1:
The tactic of shooting down change using the straw man that the new system being developed to improve upon the current system cannot achieve perfection is common to many situations, at many levels. When the University of Montana Western was making the decision to change the way it scheduled classes, there was intense opposition from a few community members who simply feared change, no matter the reason for the change. The new system, known as block scheduling (taking one course at a time instead of four or five over the course of the semester), has previously been established at several other small colleges, beginning with Colorado College in the late 60′s. Their data, and Montana Western’s own from a pilot program, showed that overall it is a clearly superior system for student learning and retention. And yet critics continued to make unsubstantiated proclamations such as “the system will harm athletes who have to miss class” and, “students will not be able to graduate in four years.”
It turns out that the system is better for students who have to miss classes (for sports or any other university function) because of the available flexibility in scheduling (because students are taking just one class, professors can schedule their class time a multitude of ways), and the fact that they only have to make up work for one class instead of several. And the program was required by the state university system to be designed so that students are able to graduate in four years. Under the old system, the Montana Western graduation rate was something like 35% over six years. So the idea that the campus was somehow making things harder for students was complete nonsense. But just like David Gregory and congressional opponents of health-care reform, these opponents ignored any statements pointing out the systemic dysfunctionality of the status quo, and just kept repeating their no-change mantra.
There is actually an area of sociological literature devoted to the phenomenon of irrational resistance to organizational change. Some of the cognitive errors associated with irrational resistance to change have been defined as: tunnel vision, selective abstraction, arbitrary inference, overgeneralization, polarized thinking (i.e., everything is black or white), and negative labeling (Bovey and Hede, 2001). Selective abstraction and overgeneralization were commonly used by opponents of block scheduling. For example, it is always easy to cherry pick a few individual students for whom the semester schedule is preferable, just as it is easy to find anecdotes of Canadians (cruelly and outrageously) denied procedures that they then obtain through the (beneficent and superior) American system.
Polarized thinking, though, is most applicable to the problem at hand: if you believe that everything is either black or white, or either good or evil, then you do not have the capacity to compare two imperfect solutions to a problem. The fallacy, of course, is the assumption that the perfect solution exists, when of course it does not.
Republicans (and some Democrats) in congress are disingenuously opposing change on the grounds that none of the solutions proposed will be a perfect, ideal solution (especially given the unjustified power that special interests are guaranteed to have in its outcome, thanks to those very same legislators). They are starting to realize that promotion of the status quo is unacceptable to Americans, so on Meet the Press, Senator McConnell stated that of course he is all for reform, just not the proposals on the table. And amazingly, Gregory never asked what he proposes as a rational alternative, and why it would be better.
There is no point, of course, because most of the proposals being discussed are trapped in what academics in the field call “single-loop thinking.” Single-loop thinking means that ways of doing things are based on a perceived outcome in line with our personal comfort zone and beliefs. We assume a certain outcome based on our usual way of doing things, and avoid actually checking to see if that outcome is the one we are getting. The point of the exercise thus becomes the process, usually the habitual “way things are done here,” rather than the desired outcome itself.
“Double-loop thinking” breaks this cycle by rejecting mistaken assumptions, and making the actual desired result the point of the process. For example, it is single-loop thinking that requires that health insurance in this country be controlled by for-profit, private companies. All of the health-care “reform” solutions on the table are based on that assumption, which in turn based on the faulty assumptions that private control represents “free enterprise,” and that private business is more efficient than government. Those who oppose a public option do so because it violates these assumptions. That these assumptions are faulty is completely beside the point, as outlined above.
Those who support a public option are focused not on the process of delivering health care, but on the results. They are engaging in double-loop thinking, because they know that tweaking the current system without questioning our assumptions about why we need to do it this way is very unlikely to change the current poor results. Providing the public option as a choice also adds an elegant benefit of actively testing the assumptions of those who oppose its mere availability.
The irrational strategies of those who are resistant to change tie into recent provocative studies relating brain activity with political opinion. Amodio et al (2007) used an abstracted cognitive test coupled with fMRI of the brain to obtain data supporting the idea that those who describe themselves as “liberal” are more comfortable with a world in which there are shades of gray in addition to black and white. Those describing themselves as “conservative” are more comfortable seeing the world in black and white only. It isn’t exactly a bold new hypothesis that those who use irrational strategies to avoid change are more likely to be in the former group, but the concept of “polarized thinking” dovetails interestingly with the known science. Of course, those who are resistant to change also do not easily accept the scientific method, which depends upon the willingness of the individual to change his or her world view as evidence to the contrary accumulates. The actions and statements of the previous administration, and those who still consider themselves supportive of it, are informal support for this.
But largely because of the hole that the single-loop thinking of the last eight (or even longer) years has got us into, we had better hope that the rationality of double-loop thinking prevails in the end. Because the actual data on the current state of health care show clearly that we are on a trajectory on which the “rationing” of health care will mean that only an ever-shrinking percentage of the increasingly well-to-do will get any at all.
Amodio, D.M., J.T. Jost, S.L. Master & C.M. Yee, 2007. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neuroscience 10:1246-1247.
Bovey, W.H, and A. Hede, 2001. Resistance to organizational change: the role of cognitive and affective processes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal 22(8):372-382.
Tagg, J., 2007. Double-Loop Learning in Higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(4):36-41.