Archives for September 2013

Spiral Dynamics – A Way of Understanding Human Nature

spiral dynamic model, showing nested systems of levels

click on image, then click again to enlarge

Creating lasting and effective cultural and behavioural change means recognising and working with values.

But where do values come from? Values spring from worldviews.

To effectively work with values means understanding worldviews – how people think, and why people adopt the values they do.

Insight into worldviews and ways of thinking is profoundly relevant to a range of areas including:

  • leadership
  • conflict management
  • organisational change
  • communication & marketing
  • working with diverse communities
  • cultural transformation

In my quest to learn more about this, I travelled to Melbourne in August to undertake four days’ Spiral Dynamics training with Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic.

What is Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews or systems of thinking held by individuals, organisations and societies. It is concerned with:

  • how people to respond to the world around them in given circumstances and with their particular coping abilities (rather than categorising people as ‘types’)
  • how people think about things (conceptualisation), rather than what they think about (concepts) – for example, is their thinking binary and absolutist (‘if it’s not black, then it must be white’), or do they acknowledge and seem comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • complex questions about change including ‘HOW should WHO lead WHOM to do WHAT and WHEN?’

How Did Spiral Dynamics Originate?

There are many variations and references to ‘Spiral Dynamics’ (and a lot of misinformation) swirling around, as Cowan & Todorovic note:

Many people doing a web search have come to see SD as quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo rather than a useful program incorporating a theory of human behavior that can apply to many realms of life from personal growth to business and politics, including religion.

Here’s some background on where the theory and model came from.

Spiral Dynamics builds on the research undertaken in the 1950s and 60s by US psychologist Dr Clare W Graves of Union College, New York. Graves was seeking to understand human nature, and questions like:

  • why are people different?
  • why do some people change but others do not?
  • how does the mind respond to a world that becomes increasingly complex?

However he was frustrated with questions from his students who were being taught a range of theories by different professors, and quizzing him as to which was the ‘correct’ version:

In 1952 Clare W. Graves found he could not go back to the classroom and be a referee in the conflict over whose theory was correct on any given issue. He’d ‘had it’ with psychology as it was, and knew that he either had to reframe the problem or abandon the field.

Graves began looking for patterns of human development and how they related to other theories, and spent over 20 years gathering primary data from thousands of sources. He was originally seeking to validate his contemporary and friend Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but Graves’s data revealed that the hierarchy does not work universally. Cowan and Todorovic note that Graves:

…saw Maslow, as he saw most of his peers, as niche players who explored parts eloquently but were still missing the broader view and the engine that drives it.

Maslow eventually acknowledged that Graves’s model was superior to his own.

Graves’s research revealed eight kinds of responses (so far in human experience) or ‘levels’, tinted with variations as people entered and exited the eight levels.

Graves’s health declined and he died in 1986 before he could finish and publish his research, which is perhaps why his work is not as well known as Maslow’s, or as recognised as Myers-Briggs.

Graves’s work, also known as ‘Gravesian Theory’, was taken up and developed by two of his students, Christopher Cowan and Don Beck, who coined the term ‘spiral dynamics’. Beck later went on to work with Ken Wilber, the latter of whom is best known for Integral Theory. Cowan now works with Natasha Todorovic, and their Spiral Dynamics teaching remains closest to Graves’s original work, with the pair documenting Graves’s research in The Neverending Quest.

Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ Theory

After extensive data gathering, Graves’s research resulted in a theory he called the ‘Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory’ (or ECLET), that humans evolve not just physically but also socially and psychologically, which he summarised as follows:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves observed that as certain thresholds of complexity were reached, the mind’s ability to make sense of the world became overburdened, and to cope, the mind must create more complex models of reality to deal with the new problems of existence.

This interplay between the world and the human response to it – which is applicable to people as individuals, at societal level, or humanity as a species – is expressed in Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ system, which describes the relationship between:

Helix 1 (life conditions, reality): what’s the world like for this person or group? What are the times like, the physical place, the problems of existence, where is it necessary to put attention and energy?

and

Helix 2 (mind capacities, neurobiological response): what’s the toolkit that person or group has for dealing with that world? What is the ‘coping system’ an individual, group or society develops to cope with those life conditions?

The combinations of Helix 1 and Helix 2 represent the eight levels identified by Graves.

Levels of Psychological Existence

These levels represent a conceptual space, or systems in people – they are not a ‘Hogwarts Hat’ means of sorting people into ‘types’ and labelling them, although understanding people’s priorities and what matters to them are clues to what system/s might be in play.

Graves used a two-letter system to represent the eight levels he identified – the first letter (commencing with ‘A’) denotes the Helix 1 ‘life conditions’, the second (commencing with ‘N’), the Helix 2 ‘mind capacities’:

screen shot of double helix model for levels AN to IV

Image from Spiral Dynamics – click image then click again to enlarge

Graves identified what people seek out in life at each level of psychological existence as follows:

Level 1 BEIGE (A-N) existential: survival, biogenic needs satisfaction, reproduction, satisfy instinctive urges

Reactive, biologically driven, living in a state of nature, limited sense of cause and effect; there is very little of this level remaining, although people can regress into it (eg. Alzheimers).

Level 2 PURPLE (B-O) animistic: placate spirit realm; honour ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds

Subsumed in the group, no separate identity of ‘I’ – the focus is on co-operation, sharing, ritual; conflict will endanger the tribe, who have the forces of nature to contend with.

Level 3 RED (C-P) egocentric: power/action, asserting self to dominate others, control, sensory pleasure

Breaking away from the tribe, impulsive, seeking respect, honour and avoiding shame and establishing the self, might is right; the world is adversarial, uncaring, only raw power will let me prevail.

Level 4 BLUE (D-Q) absolutistic: stability/order, obedience to earn reward later, meaning, purpose, certainty

Emerges from the chaos of C-P – obedience to rightful authority, binary thinking, categorising, deny self for ‘the one right way’, stability and security is achieved through sacrifice and submission, doing things by the book/manual; bringing in new norms undermines control/authority.

Level 5 ORANGE (E-R) multiplistic: opportunity/success, competing to achieve results, influence, autonomy

Emerges from the rigidity of D-Q, how to manouver rather than comply, many ways and criteria rather than one right way or set of standards, goal directed, independent, self-sufficient, confident, experiment to find the best among many possible choices, future oriented and competitive; work for the good life and abundance, the winners deserve their rewards.

Level 6 GREEN (F-S) relativistic: harmony/love, joining together for mutual growth, awareness, belonging

Emerges in response to the excesses of E-R, can’t do it on my own and need to collaborate with others, group membership highly valued, tolerates ambiguity through encountering diverse perspectives, requires trust, doesn’t want to hurt others; high empathy and sensitivity to others – everybody counts.

Level 7 YELLOW (G-T) systemic: independence/self-worth, fitting a living system, knowing, good questions

Demands flexibility, autonomy, accepts paradoxes and uncertainties, self interest without harm to others, curiosity, learns from a variety of sources, contextual thinkers, can see things but not always be able to explain them, great awareness of what they do and don’t understand, punished by conventional education and corporate structures; not motivated by fear of survival, God or social approval, guilt and reward motivators don’t work – seeks to do well without compulsive drives and ambitiousness.

Level 8 TURQUOISE (H-U) still developing global community/life force; survival of life on a fragile Earth; consciousness

Existential problems this level will create still not fully known; may be: holistic focus on the well being of all entities, comfortable with many paths to knowing; self is part of a larger non-localised field.

Graves also noted an oscillating ‘locus of control’ – ie. where a person’s instructions on how to behave originate – in the levels. Commencing with the first level, and the odd numbered/warm coloured systems thereafter, the locus is ‘within me’, in service of me. This alternates with the even numbered/cool coloured systems where the focus is ‘outside me’, in service of us. 

The allocation of colours to Graves’s original letter pairs was incorporated later by Beck and Cowan to assist with understanding. It has no particular symbolism except in terms of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours, which respectively signify the primacy of the individual (‘express self’)  in the red, orange and yellow levels, and the primacy of the group (‘sacrifice self’) in the purple, blue and green levels.

The H-U (eighth) level is still not clear, and – if Graves’s theory holds – there will be another level beyond this, where the locus of control cycles back towards the external, expressive. This yet-to-emerge level would be called I-V and has been assigned a ‘warm’ colour of coral.

While the colours help in some ways, using the letter pairs keeps the emphasis on the double-helix approach, or the interaction between people and culture. When I arrived at the training, I was talking colours. By the time I had completed the training, I was referring to letter pairs.

Clarifying Aspects of Spiral Dynamics

One of the key aspects of Spiral Dynamics which is critical to understand is that it differentiates the content from the container, or thinking system(s); it recognises the difference between how people think about things, and the things people think about. Cowan and Todorovic offer the following example:

Each level represents a way of thinking about things…The absolutely certain theist and the equally certain atheist share certitude; they share the absence of ambiguity; they judge their opponents harshly; and they might share a zealous need to promote their views. Thus diametrically opposed contents in very similar containers.

So while the two positions, theist and atheist seem to be diametrically opposed, they share the same absolutist, D-Q (blue) worldview. Concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘sustainability’ can vary greatly in their expression, depending on the ‘container’ they are in. This was the biggest shift in understanding for me – that the words coming out of people’s mouths representing ideas, concepts, symbols, opinions, whatever, are one thing, but it is discerning what kinds of thinking systems are being used that gives insight into deeper worldviews, values and behaviours.

People or groups can be in a ‘closed’, ‘arrested’ or an ‘open’ state at any level.

Those who are ‘closed’ at a particular level can only think in terms of that level, see no alternatives and may simply not comprehend anything else. If someone closed in D-Q (blue) starts to have ‘E’ (orange) level problems thrown at them – such as a bureaucrat who suddenly finds him or herself in a privatised organisation or enterprise environment – their response is likely to be more rigid.

Those who are ‘open’ may be centralised in a particular level, but can accept different thinking and move between levels.

Those who are ‘arrested’ find their movement to another state is blocked by barriers.

These three states represent different kinds of characters within the same level or processing capacity.

Cowan & Todorovic advise caution in relation to people claiming to be certain levels, for example Turquoise (H-U), or D-Q (blue) or E-R (orange) which may be masquerading as F-S (green):

…we see the relationship that has confounded so many bright people – green-sounding ideas slid back into an absolute, authoritarian, dichotomous way of thinking about them, maybe even into an aggressive and rigidly dogmatic form. That’s not FS in operation, but it can certainly look Green at the surface.

Sometimes, people may have developed a broader way of conceptualising (such as R/orange), but be in a situation where they are coping with life of prior levels (such as C/red).

One of Graves’s key areas of research was to ask people what they thought was ‘the mature adult personality in operation’. He collected many of these samples of levels and their associated entering, nodal or peak and exiting stages, some examples of which can be viewed here. Notice the difference in what someone centred in C-P (red) perceives compared to someone who is exiting D-Q (blue).

In Spiral Dynamics, the ‘maturity’ of an adult is based on how they are responding to the world they find themselves in:

Graves recognized many forms of maturity at different levels. An end state, a target of completion like self-actualization, just didn’t exist for Graves. What he came to recognize was that maturity is a function of fit between neuronal systems – part of the conditions for existence – and existential problems in the milieu – part of the conditions of existence. Thus, for Graves, the search for the mature personality in operation was illusory. The quest was to understand how different people conceptualize maturity and how those conceptions are influenced and change, then how to deal with people effectively at their levels.

Levels are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all levels have both positive and negative expressions. The container is not the content.

There is also an ethic to Spiral Dynamics – it is not about coercion or manipulation. Graves was adamant that a person had the right to be who he or she was, and that his theory was about how to rework social or organisational goals by approaching people as they are, not as others wish or perceive them to be. As Cowan & Todorovic note:

All too often ‘change’ is a directive rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with a tacit ‘or else’ attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that ‘up’ is the right and proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people is essential to making effective use of the principles.

People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given situation.

image of human head with spiral and coloured layers of levels emerging on top of the other

People can be centred in a particular level, and they may settle in one for any range of reasons, but they can develop and flourish within that level. If someone is not coping at their present level, asking them to shift to another level isn’t likely to be successful – first, give them the coping skills they need at their present level.

If you want change in Helix 2 (individual response) to stick, its essential to ensure that you create the Helix 1 (life conditions) to enable that. Disruption needs to be congruent with where people are. Under certain circumstances (such as too much change, too fast), a person may return to a previous level where life is more familiar.

The Value of Spiral Dynamics

What sets Spiral Dynamics apart from other models which focus on personality traits and types is that it is about psychological evolution and the dynamic interaction between people and culture as represented by the double helix not ‘what a person is like’, but ‘how a person thinks, in this context, at this level’.

All around us, we see what it’s like when people at different levels of psychological existence, who hear, learn and communicate things differently, need to live or work together, yet as Graves pointed out:

The error which most people make when they think about human values is that they assume the nature of man is fixed and there is a single set of human values by which he should live. Such an assumption does not fit with my research. My data indicate that man’s nature is an open, constantly evolving system, a system which proceeds by quantum jumps from one steady state system to the next through a hierarchy of ordered systems.

In the workplace, in our government institutions, in our communities and homes, what seems like a clash of personalities or values may actually be a clash of levels.

Consider this example from Graves’s work on How People at Different Levels Form Groups:

Graves has tested some of his theories on his students at Union College in New York. In one experiment, he grouped students according to their levels of existence and then gave them various problems to solve.

Students at the D-Q level split up into a number of groups, each with its own leader. Graves likens this to the feudal craft society with elaborate hierarchies within trade guilds.

E-R students had a huge argument which ended when an overall leader emerged.

F-S students worked well with no leader at all.

G-T students would choose a leader who was well-qualified for the task at hand. Later they would drop him for another leader better-suited for the next task.

The percentage of his students in the different categories has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. In 1952 Graves found 34% of his students at the D-Q level and 10% at the G-T level. Today the figures have approximately reversed, an indication of the U.S. shift away from the D-Q level.

In the school, community or workplace, those operating in C-P (red) level may be motivated by managing immediate survival problems, D-Q (blue) will do best with rules and processes, and G-T (yellow) will buck a system that does not offer them autonomy and freedom to do things the way they see they could best be done. Most people in the (post) industrialised West are at D-Q (blue), E-R (orange) or F-S (green) levels.

As part of the Spiral Dynamics course, I completed some questionnaires to provide an insight into my current state (there is an ethic associated with how this testing is undertaken, and who receives the results):

  • my Change State Indicator, or readiness and acceptance for change (which is not related to Gravesian levels);
  • my Values Profile, to determine which levels I have an acceptance for or rejection of, and to what extent; what ‘blind spots’ do I have;
  • my Discover Profile, to highlight which levels were most and least like me

It is easy to see the results of such questionnaires and be tempted to ‘spin a story’, which is why it requires a reasonable amount of expertise to interpret what the results mean, and to treat them as indicators of something that may be occurring, not a description of ‘what is’. A respondent’s results may reflect a situation that is occurring in a different context (eg. stresses in home life rather than work life).

Spiral Dynamics invites us to ask: what if we could consciously ‘change filters’ rather than unconsciously viewing the world through our own lens(es)? What if we could identify worldview-related areas of stress, strengths, potential?

What bearing would it have on how an organisation functioned in terms of management, sales/marketing and morale if they knew their project team to be F-S/G-T, their executive centred in E-R and their clients mostly D-Q?

How much of a difference would it make to be able to work with people’s worldviews as they relate to organisational culture or purpose, or a community’s goals instead of trying to ‘motivate’ them on the basis of a worldview they may not hold or even comprehend?

The insights and applications Spiral Dynamics offers could help people to better communicate, work together, manage, be managed and resolve conflict more effectively despite their differences.

Graves, whose model inverted Maslow’s pyramid (which implies an end point), believed humanity’s quest to be an open ended journey rather than a pinnacle to be achieved, which he succinctly captured in this narrative:

At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live.

At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world.

And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find.

Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place.

The quest, he finds, is never ending.

Further Resources

Spiral Dynamics

Clare W Graves

Summary Statement – The Emergent, Cyclical, Double-Helix Model of the Adult Human Biopsychosocial Systems – Boston May 1981

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Changemaker Profile – Brett Scott

headshot of Brett Scott

This is the fifth in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.

Brett Scott is a campaigner, former derivatives broker, and general economic explorer. He has been involved in various financial campaigns, and is a Fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab. I’ve written for publications like The Guardian, The New Internationalist, The Ecologist, and openDemocracy, and I’ve been on channels like the BBC, Arte TV & the Keiser Report. He is the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money, published with Pluto Press. He is a Fellow at the WWF/ICAEW Finance Innovation Lab. He blogs at www.suitpossum.blogspot.com and tweets as @Suitpossum.

1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:

I am part of a growing global network of people who are attempting to rewire the global financial system. Part of that involves me just exploring various facets of the system, from base level questions – such as the nature of money – to anthropological questions on financial culture, to technical questions like the operations of derivative markets. I actually worked in derivatives for a couple years, which helps a bit in that process. I also help activist groups who are running campaigns targeting negative aspects of the financial system. I’m also involved in the alternative finance community, people who are building alternatives to mainstream finance. An important part of this involves me trying to use weird and interesting new platforms to test them out. I also published a book recently called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money.

cover of Heretics Guide to Global Finance book

2. What motivated you to be doing this work?

I figured that a lot of the traditional NGO work has already been pioneered, and I wanted to try something different. Part of the motivation is based in curiosity: I love to learn about how massive systems work for the sheer intellectual pleasure of doing so. The other part is rebellious or creative: to use that knowledge to try take on massive systems of power. I also try to have fun in the process. I mean, in trying to ‘alter the economic system’ we’re in an underdog position, and I don’t for a moment assume that we would succeed. I view all victories in improving systems as unlikely and unstable bonuses, not everlasting fixes.

3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

It’s cool to see people coming to me and saying that my book really helped them understand stuff. I actually don’t really like pitching myself as a ‘financial expert’, because I’m not really a financial expert. I’m more an explorer who likes to share my explorations with others so that they can explore too. That process is fun in itself, but also can be very empowering for people who have been indoctrinated into believing that finance and ‘economics’ are inaccessible. It’s also rewarding to feel a growing movement in the ‘alternative economics’ space, albeit I always hold something of an outsider ethic, and try to maintain some degree of distance from more evangelical economic change movements (ie. people who believe they have the precise answer to all the world’s economic ills).

4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?

The financial system is cloaked in a layer of mystique and seemingly impenetrable language. It’s naturally challenging to convey it to people, and also sometimes to understand what the hell is going on. Luckily, most financial professionals don’t know either, so we’re all in the same boat.

5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?

I like to listen to their points. Luckily I have a very anarchic intellectual stance on things where I don’t strictly believe in singular truths, so I don’t really mind that much if someone contradicts something I say – there may be elements of truth in both perspectives. Also, to a large extent I’m a chancer who throws out statements about the world and then attempts to revise them in light of responses – criticism is great for refining what you really think. There’s this weird expectation in society that things you say somehow must exactly reflect what you believe, and who you are, but I often say things that I’m not entirely sure I believe, just to test them out. That said, when I first started writing pieces I’d get defensive when people attacked them, but now I try to understand where they’re coming from. For example, a lot of rich white men get uppity about stuff I say, and then it dawns on me that ‘oh, they’re rich white men, clinging onto outmoded models underpinned by gigantic systems of power. I shouldn’t hold it against them’.

6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?

You should always seek to discover why you personally want to be involved in the causes you take on.  Too many activists don’t really have a coherent narrative as to why they care about something. It’s easy to say stuff like ‘oh that’s a terrible injustice in Indonesia’, but then you look into their eyes and want to shake them and say, ‘but why do you in particular feel moved by that?’. I feel moved and angry when I walk past homeless people on the street and see a clawing aspirational elite viewing them like pieces of trash that have failed at life. I get very warlike in those situations, and I realise it’s probably because I’ve always sympathised with underdogs who get marginalised in society. It’s not because I’m ‘good’ in some abstract sense, it’s because I empathise with certain types of people.

I’d also say it’s worth having a healthy degree of skepticism about the individual’s ability to affect change in the world. In middle-class university-educated society there is a massive bias towards believing in the power of the individual to shape the world, but much historical change is related to technology and mass movements (this, for example, is the basis of much of Karl Marx’s work). In that formulation people like Steve Jobs mean very little – they’re individuals who happen to strike it lucky and are carried along in the wave of mass acceptance for what they happen to create (Mark Zuckerberg is a good recent example – to me, he is not Facebook, he just happened to be the person who created a platform that would have been created anyway). These figures are manifestations of broader trends in society. Likewise, if you start a social enterprise, and you assume that somehow you’re going to forge a new route for society through your sheer charisma and talent, you should probably try to put yourself more in historical and cultural context. I love trying to do cool stuff, but I always attempt to put myself in context and say, yeah what I’m doing is cool, but it’s not really just about me.

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Want To Get Your Message To Stick? Stop Boring Your Audience

chimp with fingers in ears, caption 'La la la la la I'm not listening!'

It is a gratifying experience for change agents to be able to effectively engage with an audience.

But have you ever battled to keep a group involved as you felt their interest slip through your fingers like quicksilver? Had that sinking feeling as you notice straying eyes (or worse, closed eyes), more attention on smart phones than your message?

How can you make what you have to say more interesting than peoples’ social media feeds and the mental checklists they are creating in their heads that they will be able to action – just as soon as they can escape your presence?

High school science teacher Tyler DeWitt was dismayed to discover his students just didn’t share the same enthusiasm as he did for his lesson on bacteria:

DeWitt was stumped when even his favourite student told him that she didn’t understand the reading he had set, and that it was boring. The looks on the other students’ faces told him that although they may have taken notes or memorised phrases, they had not grasped the meaning.

Thinking on his feet, DeWitt decided to get his message across in a more compelling way, casting the bacteria and viruses as characters in a story about ‘secret agent viruses’ – here is an excerpt (you can watch the clip above for the entire version):

DNA is like a blueprint that tells living things what to make. So this is kind of like going into a car factory and replacing the blueprints with blueprints for killer robots. The workers still come the next day, they do their job, but they’re following different instructions. So replacing the bacteria DNA with virus DNA turns the bacteria into a factory for making viruses – that is, until it’s so filled with viruses that it bursts. But that’s not the only way that viruses infect bacteria. Some are much more crafty…

When a secret agent virus infects a bacterium, they do a little espionage. Here, this cloaked, secret agent virus is slipping his DNA into the bacterial cell, but here’s the kicker: It doesn’t do anything harmful – not at first. Instead, it silently slips into the bacteria’s own DNA, and it just stays there like a terrorist sleeper cell, waiting for instructions.

DeWitt notes that there are a couple of reasons the original text didn’t ‘stick’ with his audience.

Firstly, the scientific language has been stripped of emotion and meaning to preserve its ‘serious’ image:

…in the communication of science there is this obsession with seriousness. I used to work for an educational publisher, and as a writer, I was always told never to use stories or fun, engaging language, because then my work might not be viewed as ‘serious’ and ‘scientific’…God forbid somebody have fun when they’re learning science. So we have this field of science that’s all about slime, and color changes. And then we have, of course, as any good scientist has to have, explosions! But if a textbook seems too much fun, it’s somehow unscientific.

The second reason is that the language is often incomprehensible, especially to young learners – instead of using a phrase like ‘These viruses make copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium’, science textbooks use phrases like ‘Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral nucleic acid into a bacterium’.

Thirdly, there is the ‘tyranny of precision’ – the obsession with making sure every detail is accurate, to the point that the non-expert loses the meaning, and which works against storytelling. DeWitt humorously notes:

It’s like science has become that horrible storyteller that we all know, who gives us all the details nobody cares about, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I met my friend for lunch the other day, and she was wearing these ugly jeans. I mean, they weren’t really jeans, they were more kind of, like, leggings, but, like, I guess they’re actually kind of more like jeggings, like, but I think…’ and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God. What is the point?’

Or even worse, science education is becoming like that guy who always says, ‘Actually.’ Right? You want to be like, ‘Oh, dude, we had to get up in the middle of the night and drive a hundred miles in total darkness.’ And that guy’s like, ‘Actually, it was 87.3 miles.’ And you’re like, ‘Actually, shut up! I’m just trying to tell a story.’

The takeaways from DeWitt’s talk are – if you want your messages to ‘stick’ to your audience:

  • ditch the jargon
  • focus on the meaning rather than preserving 100% accuracy
  • make it fun!

I have a colleague, Simone, who used to be a high school science teacher. Her teaching peers could never understand why the students were not only keen to get to her lessons, but determined not to miss them.

What was her secret formula? Was she bribing them? Threatening them?

My colleague had turned her science lectures into a mock crime scene investigation. She tapped into what was ‘cool’ with TV shows like Mythbusters and crime forensics dramas where she saw a myriad of maths and science tasks that could be modelled on pop culture.

Rather than lecturing at them, the students were actively involved as participants in a story. It was a challenge for them to resolve, and in a much more visceral way than they otherwise might by watching CSI episodes on TV. Similarly, DeWitt advises:

Pick up a camera, start to write a blog, whatever, but leave out the seriousness, leave out the jargon. Make me laugh. Make me care. Leave out those annoying details that nobody cares about and just get to the point. How should you start? Why don’t you say, ‘Listen, let me tell you a story’?

So take a leaf out of Tyler and Simone’s book – don’t be boring, make what you’re trying to teach full of meaning and fun for your audience.

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Behaviour Change Lessons from Kitchen Cops

office kitchen with dishes all over the benchtop obscuring a sign that says 'please put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher'

I had to laugh when I saw this recent piece on news.com.au about the efforts to shape behaviour in workplace kitchens, which have many parallels with the efforts of sustainability change agents:

LARGE capital letters, bold fonts, underlined words and endless exclamation marks. These are just some of the tactics employed by our kitchen clean freaks to try to make us wash up.

But do they work? Take a look for yourself. No less than six posters line news.com.au’s kitchen wall.

And with good reason. Dirty dishes are piled up. There’s spilt milk in the microwave. Those used coffee mugs were there before I went on holidays. And someone forgot to turn the dishwasher on. Again.

The poor control freak on our floor who typed up those posters must be having a minor meltdown. Actually, they’re probably working on a new sign.

Yeah, that’ll solve it.

What do kitchen cops have in common with many sustainability efforts?

– the begging and pleading – ‘PLEASE turn the lights off’; ‘IMPORTANT: put the right things in the right recycling bin’

– the repeated hammering home of more-of-the-same messages, with an escalating tone of threat, to no avail (the equivalent of shouting louder at someone who doesn’t speak your language)

– the complete incredulity and incomprehension of why people can’t or won’t do simple things that don’t seem an unreasonable request

One commenter on the article had what I consider to be the best insight to this behaviour:

My current workplace is the best I’ve ever worked with as far as cleaning the kitchen goes. We have no signs or cleaning roster whatsoever. People hate bitchy signs with capitals and exclamation marks, and human instinct is to defy them out of principle. And the cleaning roster culture makes people bitter about cleaning up after everyone else so they make a mess and don’t clean up when it’s not their turn. Get rid of those two things and your kitchen will stay cleaner.

Telling people what to do often reinforces the very behaviour you’re trying to shift. It’s ‘Teenage Bedroom Syndrome’ – they’ve got you over a barrel, because you care if they keep it nicely, but they do not.

In another interesting parallel, the work of late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, which influenced seven European cities to cut their traffic signs, suggests that the less signs there are telling people what to do, the more they will have to think for themselves.

The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.

The inner cities are crowded with a colorful thicket of metal signs. Don’t park over here, watch out for passing deer over there, make sure you don’t skid. The forest of signs is growing ever denser. Some 20 million traffic signs have already been set up all over the country.

Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment.

So no signs – then what? Didn’t the signs emerge because people weren’t treating the commons – be it the streets, the kitchen or the Earth – with a sense of responsibility to others?

Potential approaches to dealing with kitchen slobs suggested by commenters on the article included the absolutist:

Easy solution. Have a volunteer throw all dishes standing around at 5pm (or nominated time) in the bin. No exceptions. It won’t take long before people stop using the kitchen as a dumping ground.

…which doesn’t always work fairly:

I’ve used the chuck it in the bin method, but that can backfire when some schmuck decides to use your own personal mug and leaves it half full of coffee on the sink.

…to the more creative and beneficial:

I take anything left on the bench (without cleaning it) and put it in a box. If anyone wants their stuff back it will be a gold coin donation to our Christmas party fund. Anything left at the end of the week is washed and donated to charity.

…to the (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek comical:

In our office we secretly got together and decided to try a social experiment. We found out the most anal retentive person in the office excluded them from the meeting and decided to never ever wash dishes and see how long before they went postal.

Funny, right? But there are people who will deliberately sabotage your efforts, just to get a rise out of you.

I worked with someone once who was known as the office ‘eco-nazi’. One of our colleagues would deliberately put recyclable items in his bin specifically so she would find it and fly off the handle. Don’t be that person! Once the antagonist is not getting the payoff of a reaction, the behaviour will change – and even if it doesn’t, so what? Remember, the recalcitrants can chew up an disproportionate amount of your time and energy which could be better spent on helping shift a larger majority who are receptive to change, but just need better information, convenient systems, or a prompt.

Taking the approach of the article commenter who holds colleagues’ stuff to ransom – which is a game – why not introduce game dynamics to help create a shift?

screen shot of Chore Wars home page, with fantasy characters off on a quest (one holding a bag of recycling)

Chore Wars is an innovative ‘gamification’ approach for use in either a home or professional environment, where participants can use a free online account to earn points and rewards for doing tasks and chores. You can use it to see who is pulling their weight, to offer incentives/rewards.

Does it work? Here’s one testimonial on the site:

I sat down with the kids, showed them their characters and the adventures and they literally jumped up and ran off to complete their chosen tasks. I’ve never seen my 8 year old son make his bed!

There are microcosms of change that can serve as living laboratories for change agents operating in a range of contexts and scales. Kitchen politics is just one of them.

Observe, experiment and learn!

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