• Evan Warfel

All We Have Are Hammers, and Everything Looks Like Our Thumbs


"When we talk, we communicate with our whole bodies."

Virgina Satir wrote that in The New Peoplemaking, her book on family systems and childrearing. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but it is often not explicitly transparent to people. (In fact, this can be said for most of The New Peoplemaking.)

What makes something obvious? As I see it, the closer you are to realizing an insight, the less new information you'll need to come to the realization, and thus the more obvious it will be in hindsight.

But more importantly, Satir's pearl of wisdom can be generalized to something that also sounds obvious but is easy to overlook: whatever we do, we do it with our entire being. Our entire being reflects itself in how write, how we sing, how we think creatively, how we walk, how we dance and how do the dishes or mow the lawn.

In other words, when we solve problems, when we work, whatever we do as part of a job, we do so with the entirety of who we are. Yet the society in which we lives focuses on people with strongly developed "parts." By and large, our approaches to the job interview process, to selecting individuals for admission into schools, or for grants, or to filtering startups into accelerators rely on assessing how certain aspects of a person, (or company,) have been developed.

Admittedly, this tendency was stronger in the past when people took aptitude tests that were scored by IBM machines. But still to this day there is much hubbub about how students fare on standardized tests like the SAT (which itself is a rough proxy for IQ.) And IQ is one "part" of who we are; measuring it doesn't come close to measuring the whole person.

We ignore the other aspects of who we are at our peril, in at least two ways. First, an over-emphasis on filtering for IQ has led to plenty of trouble and a whole lot of wasted effort based on imprecise concepts. Second, there is an opportunity cost -- by ignoring the other aspects of existing as a human being, we have a society where people can be rewarded for developing parts of themselves at the cost of the whole. So situations where people wind up using advanced degrees in chemistry to make fast-food more profitable are not uncommon.

There are, however, some alternatives.

Many a psychological theorist has posited different stage-based models of human development (like Maslow and his pyramid of needs, Loevinger and her nine stages of ego development, Kegan and his stages, etc.) On one hand, it's interesting that no two models of "universal human development" are identical (more on this another day). But across different models, the higher stages tend to involve a person becoming more creative, "free from internal contradictions", being more independent in their thinking, and "functioning effortlessly and easily without strain or struggle." In fact, most models suggest that in the later stages it becomes easier to detect the "whole person" via any particular thing an individual does, suggesting that such individuals are able to integrate more of themselves into what they focus their attention on.*

What if, instead of GRE scores, graduate schools used structured interviews to determine which stage of development a person was likely to be in? Such a service could be provided in the same way that standardized tests are currently administered. What if admission to college or graduate school ignored grades and test-scores in favor of to what extent the person was close to being self-actualized (or whatever our "highest stage of development" is)? It seems likely that universities would likely see better correlations between their selection criteria and their measures of success.

Yes, there are details that would need to be hammered out. One of which is that there are competing theories, and it isn't clear whether being Self-Actualized is "the peak" or whether Secondary Integration is. (Also, if schools were to do this, it would raises questions about the purpose of school, which I will address in a future post on meritocracy). But most every description of the "higher stages" seems to match what people want to know out of a reference or a letter of recommendation. To pick one example, the following is quote from the information available on the University of Washington's Graduate Psychology Admissions website: The letters of recommendation should discuss the your research interests, academic ability, written communication skills, professional identification, emotional stability, and interpersonal skills. Sounds like this could describe a person on the way to a late stage of personal development, focused on the domain of psychological research. Also, you could substitute some of these terms and translate this into what people want to find out of a reference on a resume. And while there is no substitute for personal experience, interpersonal recommendations could be supplemented by assessing a person's "stage" of development. Thus assessing a person's stage of development as part of a personnel selection process may very well may be a better approach than we have now.

*Like everyone, people at "earlier" stages of development can't help but solve a problem with their whole being. However, per the stage-based theories, said being is underdeveloped, meaning that it is harder to detect the person used all of the different aspects of themselves to solve a problem.

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One reason we don't "focus on the whole person" is because of two interdicts of human reasoning and decision-making. (Here, I use "interdict" to mean "a general principle that there is no way of short-cutting or otherwise getting around.")

First. All we have are hammers, and everything looks like our thumbs. The only way you can solve problems is with the tools you know how to use. Your tool of choice may involve how you've learned to solve problems in the past, coding (which allows you to make your own tools), or maybe it's a certain approach to designing an experiment, or perhaps it's a way of finding novel combinations of notes that sound pleasing on a piano. The only way to become more flexible is a) through experience, and b) utilizing "tools" that, like learning or coding, are themselves frameworks for picking up and creating new tools.

Second. The limit to how much we can help others grow is in how much we've grown ourselves. Carl Rogers likely said something similar. The reason is actually related to the first interdict -- to help others understand a situation and grow from it, you likely have to have a combination of a) growing from experience, and b) a framework (or set of frameworks) that can allow you to map your experience to the other person's. It is likely that the only way to achieve these things is via exploring oneself and the available information at hand.

Combine both of these principles, and one conclusion is that we broadly "focus on parts" when hiring or interviewing because we, as a population, don't know how to avoid it. (It currently takes expert psychologists or journalists good at writing profiles years of training to figure out how to do so.) Or, to borrow a phrase from William Gibson, such wisdom is available, it just isn't evenly distributed. And I think we would benefit if it were.

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Lastly, speaking of stages of development... The "higher" stages of development involve different ways in which people understand themselves to be acting morally. And on this point, we also don't live in a society that recognizes that people's internal moral compasses may be more or less developed, and thus the choices that seem obviously moral to one may be obscure to another. (The same might be said for various stages of human development, regardless of whether they touch on morality or not.)

To borrow an example from literature, in China Mieville's (excellent!) Perdido Street Station, there's a really fantastic character species known as Weavers. (In general, Perdido Street Station is one of those books so deeply fantastical that it winds up speaking much more about reality than other fiction books.) Weavers are gigantic spiders who exists "across dimensions"; their main imperative is to improve the "weave" of the fabric of space-time as they see it. Weavers' specific motivations and behaviors are often completely opaque to the rest of the characters, who don't perceive the universe in the same way.

The suggestion from the stage-based modelers is that what people do at one stage might be completely opaque to another. And so I'll leave it up to you to ponder the following: how many people are Weavers to one another?

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You've just read this blog's inaugural post. Hello and welcome. While I can't promise any set subject for this blog, it will contain various musings and meditations and occasionally snarky rants. Psychology will certainly be a recurring theme, and I plan to review some books. Also, weather permitting, there will be moderately clever jokes, bad puns, rhymes, and slightly absurdist aphorisms. Like Rome wasn't broiled in a day and Possibilities are nice / But concrete is better / Can't beat good advice / Never follow it to the letter.

#psychology #satir #mieville