Systems Concepts

[From Dag Forssell (940613 1110)]

Article in today's Los Angeles Times. Submitted without comment,
but inspired by Rick's thread on control of systems concepts, and
the importance of recognizing systems concepts for what they are.

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THE FIGHT TO BE RIGHT

In our hearts, we know our opinions to be the truth -- and not even
a few lousy facts can change that.

Story by MICHAEL HAEDERLE
Special to the times

Given the choice of being right or being happy, we cling to our
opinions. It's an inescapable fact of human nature. We spend our
lives wrangling and fussing going toe to toe over who's right and
who's wrong.

We pay a big price for our stubborn insistence on correctness.
Friendships fracture, marriages burst and, on a global scale,
nations go to war.

Oh, we might compromise here and there, but there always lurks in
each person's heart the secret conviction that he or she alone
knows the truth.

Why is it we must always be right?

One reason may be that it makes evolutionary sense to have all the
answers.

"In terms of survival, it's better to be right than not right,"
said Frederick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane
University in New Orleans.

"When we're brought up, 'wrong' is counterproductive and negative,"
Koenig said. "People who are right more ofter than others are
considered superior, because that's a sign of intelligence."

And as everyone knows, he added, "There's a certain amount of
gratification in being smarter than somebody."

There are really two ways to be right, Koenig contended.

One has to do with factual correctness. Right in this sense means
that a fact or statement can be checked.

This kind of rightness doesn't usually cause much human suffering
(with the possible exception of those who live with "Jeopardy"
contestants and baseball trivia nuts).

But _right_ also refers to moral or emotional rightness, arising
from personal values--and this is where things get really sticky.

"When you get to value questions, being right is very important to
your whole world view," Koenig said. Opinions about abortion, gay
rights or capital punishment spring from broad beliefs about how
things are or ought to be. Likewise, we nay have a deep
psychological need to see ourselves as good or righteous (even when
we're at fault).

When the emotional and moral stakes are high, Koenig said, "there's
not any room for equivocation."

Koenig cited the example of those who are convinced there was a
conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.

"From the beginning it seemed to me very clear it was done by
Oswald, and that's all there was to it," Koenig said. "I couldn't
see what the fuss was about, but there are people who devoted 30
years to this on the assumption the CIA and the government can't be
trusted.

"It's somehow important to people. not only because of their
distrust of the government, but a 30-year investment in this
belief."

Ultimately, when defending your world view, "you have to be
consistent," Koenig said. Seeking to eliminate the dissonance
between inconvenient facts and their beliefs, people often simply
dismiss the offending evidence.

Rigidity, experts say, can be related to self-confidence.

"People who have a strong ego-who are self-satisfied and confident
about themselves--don't have to win every argument," Koenig said.

Gender differences also arise.

Generally, "women are more willing to try to compromise," he said.
"It's not so important for women to triumph."

Writer Alfie Kohn thinks much of our need to be right comes from
our cultural upbringing, which emphasizes the gulf between winners
and losers.

Kohn, author of the influential book ' No Contest: The Case Against
Competition" (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), argues that many disputes
are really power contests.

"There's a difference between trying to be accurate and having a
prideful investment in not giving in," he said. "If you and I get
in an argument and I start defending my position because I want to
score points, it's more problematic."

A former nationally ranked high school debater, Kohn knows whereof
he speaks.

In debating, "the goal is not to reach the truth. The goal is to
marshal arguments selectively to
win," he said. "It took years after my debate training to say,
'Huh. That's a good point--I never thought of that.' " It's a short
step from debate club to law school, where students learn that no
idea is intrinsically better than another because an argument can
be made for either side. Kohn calls this aspect of legal reasoning
"a very cynical world view."

Kohn blames it all on America's "state religion" -- competition.
"People in this culture are raised to look upon others as obstacles
to our success. That pernicious world view is stamped on us with
musical chairs, spelling bees and Little League, and even parents
who say, 'All right, kids, who can get in their pajamas fastest?'"

All this, he said, leads to "either-or" thinking.

"From either-or, we start to think in terms that are
black-andwhite," he said. "That becomes 'we-they'--us against
them."

People from other cultures, especially non-Western societies, see
our preoccupation with winning and losing as baffling, Kohn said.

Like Koenig, Kohn sees gender differences in how badly people need
to be right, in particular "the famous macho need not to back down,
on which altar millions have lost their lives."

One example, he said, was Lyndon Johnson's refusal to pull American
troops out of Vietnam: LBJ is said to have declared that he
wasn't going to be the first President to lose a war.

"The ultimate false dichotomy is thinking, 'Am I going to be a
winner or a loser?'--in conversation, in business or world
affairs," Kohn said.

"There is no hope for us unless we realize those are two versions
of the same competitive world view. The real alternative to being
No. 1 is not being No. 2, but to dispense with these categories
altogether."

The obsessive need to be right ( and for everyone else to be wrong)
has poisoned our public discourse, contends Virginia author Andrew
Bard Schmooker, who explored human conflict in his book "Out of
Weakness: Healing the Wounds That Drive Us to Make War" (Bantam,
1988).

Political pundits spouting pithy televised sound bites exemplify
the trend, Schmooker said.

"There's a great temptation to take simplistic black-or-white
positions, because the market will reward them more," he said.
These same forces shape our expectation of how leaders should lead.

"People would rather have someone who speaks without a wavering of
uncertainty," Schmooker said. "One has to posture as if one is
already there. Otherwise, people are uncomfortable."
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Best, Dag