Screwing up? Good for me? Really?

Yesterday’s sermon (“The F-Word: Failure”) referenced a great article, Accept Defeat: the Neuroscience of Screwing Up (Jonah Lehrer). Thanks to (Dr.) Jenny Milstein (yesterday’s Worship Associate) for sharing it with me!

Lehrer tells the story of Kevin Dunbar, a researcher who studies how scientists study, how they succeed and how they fail. Dunbar observes a way that our very brains might distort our capacity to think clearly. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that perceives errors and contradictions. We get a feeling that something is just wrong. At the same time, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is an editor that suppresses unwanted representations, eliminating those thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions.

Interesting to me is that the DLPFC develops very late in the brain, not until young adulthood. By that time, it is possible that some clear preconceptions may have been established so that the “something’s wrong here” message of the ACC may simply be erased. For some of us, it may be that the capacity to see that something is amiss gets lost as we mature.

Author Lehrer reports that “not all data is created equal in our mind’s eye.” For us to learn from experience, it helps to have some element of naivete, some areas where we don;t alread know (or presume to know) how things really are. The experiments Dunbar cite show greater agility among a diverse panel of scientists to look at a problem than a group of experts who share some preconceptions.

Lehrer invites us to take four factors into consideration when trying to learn from a (perceived) failure.

1: Check your assumptions. Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

2: Seek Out the Ignorant. Talk to people who are unfamiliar with the experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

3: Encourage Diversity. If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then evertyone has the same set of assumptions.

4: Beware of Failure-Blindness. It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

I think of many times in my life where I was absolutely certain that I had the answer to a problem, often the unique solution that would, in experience, function in a way that would guarantee success. When success didn’t follow, I knew there was something wrong in the process, some broken feature of implementation that, if only I had better (or more loudly??) explained it to my fellow implementers would have beenthe single thing that would have brought success. This may have been true, once or twice; but the larger question to me, for a group like our congregation, is to ask about the team being asked to consider action and to implement a plan. Are there assumptions built into the group that will override our best intentions? Are there people not skilled in an area of expertise who might bring clarifying questions to the whole process? Is is a diverse group? Is it a group–and, better, am I a leader–able to accept that it (I) might not be as objective and knowledgable as it (I) imagine(s)?

Great set of questions to live with as we grow as a community! Where are our perceptions accurate, and where erased because it is just too hard to see the world as it really is? Just too hard to see myself as I really am? 

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