Understanding and Changing Our Behaviour

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We can get quite tied up trying to find the particular trick or approach — that magic piede of knowledge — that will change us or an unpleasant situation we are in. I suggest that what transforms us is the meeting of our own needs and desires with a relevant piece of knowledge — that it is not (only) about the knowledge but (also) about ourselves.

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom. — Attributed to Clifford Stoll and Gary Schubert, in Mark R. Keeler, Nothing to Hide (2000)

Our Western education systems seem obsessed with the accumulation of knowledge. (I don’t think this is new or limited to the West. Literature from non-Western and pre-modern times contains lists of particular things — bird species or laws on a particular topic — which seem to be trying to comprehend everything in a particular domain of knowledge.). Even at the tertiary level knowledge of particular details is regarded as essential — and there can be quite intense disputes about which details should be the ones that will be regarded as essential. I have my own views on this. My ideal curriculum — at any level — would have a privileged place for physical health, emotional intelligence, knowing how to learn, practising the process of creativity and so on.

But that is not what this post is about.

This post is about what I think is a fairly widely held assumption that correct information leads to correct behaviour. Perhaps the most obvious disproof of this is the various phobias. I’m scared of heights. Do I truly believe that the Sydney Harbour Bridge will collapse while I’m walking across it? Well, the answer is yes and no. I feel scared that it will. It is also pretty obvious to me that it won’t — many people have travelled across it without it falling down yet, there are no cracks showing… Having people explain the engineering of it and the strength of it to me doesn’t make a difference. This kind of information doesn’t touch my experience.

Sometimes we learn something and we do change. We may overhear a stray remark that we can do something and a new life opens up for us. Someone may say that it is OK to get divorced or that it is possible to stay with one partner for life; we may hear that the goal of life is to be happy or that identification with the divine is the path to bliss. Or it could be something very limited and mundane like, “Let the saw do the cutting”. It seems that there are times when a single piece of information can lead to real change.

Part of the problem I think is that we don’t have precise terms for this discussion that are in common use: data, information, knowledge, and understanding all overlap pretty radically in how we understand them. (Though we also understand that they are different — as Clifford Stoll’s quote makes clear.)

The Knowledge that Brings Change

What I want to suggest is that significant change is provoked by knowledge that addresses all of who we are. The knowledge that brings change is the knowledge that is meaningful to us.

Perhaps this is poorly put. It isn’t really a particular kind of knowledge, but the relevance of that information to us, which brings change. The kind of stuff we were bored with at school offered for some people extraordinary and liberating insights. Perhaps this is most easily seen when we look at what people were prepared to die for in the past — such as ‘Salvation by grace through faith’ in Europe. The scientific formula E=mc2 still has some charge to it — though it can also be just a tedious memory exercise to pass an exam. For early modern Europeans and modern scientists these things were profoundly moving and liberating. For the rest of us these pieces of information may seem trivial.

The Magic is in the Meeting

What I’m suggesting is that the knowledge that transforms us is isn’t a particular domain of knowledge or particular details within a domain. I’m suggesting that the transformation comes in the meeting of our desires or needs with something from our environment that answers to this need.

The same sign indicating a tap will have different effects on the behaviour of a thirsty person versus one who is not. The way the sign is written and whether it uses graphics and so on can be important too. Some presentations can get in the way of conveying information — but the best presentation won’t necessarily lead to significant change. (Infomercials may hold our interest, but they also usually don’t lead us to a significant change in behaviour — unless the product addresses a presently felt need or desire.)

Significant change I think can be helped by two things — a clear sense of what we want and a good sense of what is available to us.

What has lead to significant changes that you have made? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments to this post.

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