Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why Do We Do the Things We Do? Basic Assumptions: A Paradigm to Use and Share.

I was reminded lately of a model, a simple paradigm, which has been helpful at times in thinking through things.

What got me going was an exchange between a man and a woman, fortunately they weren’t married to each other, about typically hot topics all having to do with control: sex, choice, population, babies, birth.

They came at each other from diametrically opposed viewpoints. It wasn’t the content of their attempts to influence each other’s stance that triggered my thinking; I was only privy to a description of it by one party, but rather an image that formed in my mind of two people with their feet definitively planted trying to change each other’s posture by whipping each other’s heads around, or suggesting a different tilt of the hips.
                             ( I am resisting popping in pictures of Indian wrestling here. How about just a small picture of attitude from an Engelbeit birthday card?)

Although I have shared this framework, this paradigm with others, it was always shared in person and I could draw charts and crisscross them with arrows and ask questions to employ examples to make sure the applicability of the connectedness was getting through. It will be a good challenge for me to simply write about it but don’t be surprised if I wind up sticking pictures in here and there.

Here’s the rough framework: Basically, out of underlying assumptions we develop values, which are in turn directly tied to more specific concepts and beliefs. Beliefs shape our methods and methods, ideally, are focused on achieving particular goals which would themselves be in sync with our basic assumptions.


You can approach this paradigm from either end. In some ways it makes most sense to me to explain it from the ground up. It’s the way one builds a house and the concreteness of that image makes it memorable for many.

So that’s how I will explain it from the bottom up.

However, I’m typing at a word processor and we read top to bottom and one could as easily make the argument that before you lay the foundation to build a house you first need a vision and a plan. As soon as you ask what the structure is for, you are at the top of the chart with goal and purpose. Both goals and primal assumptions have operative and transforming power directly over each other.

How you wring any value out of the line up might depend on your own style of learning, but in as much as I have conceded that the approach is arbitrary, perhaps you’ll suspend whatever your preferences might be and look at the bottom of the list above.

Basic Assumptions:
?? Is it a created universe, is there a creator or is it just a material world? How we answer primal questions about reality, time and space and what we think of human nature, it is out of such basic or underlying assumptions, even if our assumptions are sometimes fuzzy or obscure, that values develop.

Of course we have assumptions about smaller questions in life as well. I was taught about this way of exploring things in the early eighties in a university class focused on designing effective lesson plans. Bernice Goldmark emphasized offering students alternative ways to learn. She hypothesized two teachers where one assumed that all people can learn the same way and the other who assumed that there are variations in how people learn. It is relatively easy to anticipate the different values, core concepts, and teaching methods likely to emerge from such different basic assumptions, even if both teachers’ goals were ostensibly the same.

I don’t remember if Professor Goldmark attributed the basic assumptions paradigm to anyone in particular, but as I wrote this post I found online the work of MIT professor Edgar H. Schein whose work on cultural awareness and organizational behavior explores these concepts at depth.   Not that these ideas belong to anyone in particular, they are laced throughout the lives and writings of  many.  Studying  the life of  President Lincoln  to elucidate executive strategies for current times,  Donald T. Phillips, in his book, Lincoln on Leadership,  encounters these same concepts. Phillips wrote that Lincoln's understanding of decision making was backed by solid visions, " not simply a string of individual orders.  Rather...a continuous, uninterrupted process that is similar to the beating of a heart that sends blood throughout a body."( p 97)
In the concluding chapter of his book, Phillips writes of Lincoln, "He lifted people out of their everyday selves and into higher level of performance, achievement and awareness." (p 173)

I suppose one reason I think the paradigm  I am sharing is helpful in making one more conscious in  thinking and relating in our complex world, is that of the many things over the years I have studied, I remembered it and found myself, in various settings, putting it to use.

As with many houses, the foundation of why we say and do the things we do isn’t always visible but  a foundation determines the footprint and bearing capacity of the structure built upon it.

Values often reflect what we think should happen, how we think things ought to be. Whether or not we articulate them, what we have learned and chosen to value under girds and shapes our more specific concepts and beliefs in life.

I know I'm not always fully tuned into what  I actually value.  For example, I can say I value fitness, and that I believe that it would be good for me to walk as much as possible everyday, but I didn’t walk today. In reality, in my free time, I valued the other things I wanted to do more and now it is way too dark and cold and … well you get the point. While my espoused value was fitness, my behavior valued comfort or productivity in another realm. I didn’t value fitness in a way that was expressed in a solid actionable concept such as “I will walk whether I am inclined to or not.” Maybe I really believe that I can get away without taking care of myself? That belief could certainly shape my daily choices, my daily method. Actual values and specific concepts and beliefs can become visible in scrutinizing one’s methods or way of life.

I ask myself, why am I writing this essay?  I am sitting down to do it, I could be out taking a walk with my cat.

Generally speaking I find myself thinking in terms of this paradigm, and as with all tools, it has proper uses and limits, to help myself read carefully. When people argue and I am trying to make heads or tails of what is going on, it helps me to pull back and try to find a path into what either person’s priorities might be, and ask myself if I can begin to understand how life looks for them and out of what assumptions  they might be operating.

Well…it’s all up to you in the comment section now…

What say you? Let me know if this gestates any new ideas…or awareness about your wiring or helps you decode an encounter, a book or even if you got to the finish line here!


John said...

A very good example to use, your process is well thought out and logical in its flow. In looking at the whiteboard example you provide the only thing I would add is there needs to be a feedback path. If we start with basic assumptions and have no path to feed back to them as we work towards our goals than we may not see alternatives when we encounter a problem or unexpected roadblock.

Thank you for sharing. JgT

Jeannette said...

Good point, John, thank you.

GretchenJoanna said...

What does John mean?

Jeannette said...

Maybe we can get John back over here to explain himself...what I understood him to be pointing out was that I could have pathed in feedloops...relatioal arrows going the other dirction so that when you hit a road block, when you don't achieve your desired results, or create results that aren't in keeping with your hopes or intentions or your values and assumptions, how do check back through and reassess and revamp and come up with better fitting alternatives? His response says something about his life experience...I suspect he has group dynamic experience, management and has had to employ trouble shooting logistics from the hip.

By the way...I am not sure you get off that easy as far as making a comment yourself...

GretchenJoanna said...

The heart of man [i.e. this woman] is deceitfully wicked; who can know it?

John said...

Jeannette, It is probably a left brain - right brain thing, but you captured my intent perfectly. As we create, whether in the arts or just to solve a problem, we need always to assess the path and determine if we are staying true to the intent. JgT

Mark said...

"The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create."

An interesting article by Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner here:
affirms the 'basic assumptions' :) of your blog post.

Rachel Federman said...

Feel like I'm not smart enough to comment in a helpful way, but one thing I always wonder about is how much our fantasies around time (day-to-day: I'll have time later to exercise [even though we've proven ourselves wrong in that assumption a million times] and decade-by-decade: I'll eventually get to writing my novel, but for now I'll just check email for fifteenth time this hour). In your example of not going for a walk--the tendency is to maintain the values/goals and maintain the behavior, even if the two are inconsistent.

Rachel Federman said...

Okay - wow - this is truly a trippy experience. So I remember NOW after reading the comments - including my own, from over 6 years ago, that you said in the post from Bread on the Water that you were REPOSTING and yet somehow, clicking through to read this post on Write Purpose, I TOTALLY forgot that if that was a repost, then this post to which I was clicking through was also from the past. I had a vague sense as I read it of having read it before but assumed I'd just read something similar before, and I also had a curiousity - sort of a side-bar convo - about whether or not what you'd just written on my blog about writing, the how/why, had informed THIS post at all- which of course it hadn't because you'd written this in December 2010. And I'd commented on it then! Guess this will be an endless loop. Which I will enjoy!

GretchenJoanna said...

Rachel's recent comment made me come back here... and take note of what she said years ago about our inconsistency. We are not completely rational creatures, are we? And that in the realm of things we can control. Even when we might have behaved most rationally and logically according to our values (this is very theoretical!), other people's decisions and the seemingly random events around us often spoil our plans -- all those things we can't control.