Truth and Righteousness enter a bar, part 1

Do you know those bar jokes? A rabbi and a pastor enter a bar? The result is always a form of confusion. And it is usually quite funny. In recent weeks more and more jokes have been gurgling around in my head that resemble those bar jokes. They are about Truth and Righteousness, and are usually just as full of confusion. But I can’t laugh at them. For Truth and Righteousness are for me pillars of my existence. I assume that I know what is true, and that I do the right thing. Beacons in my upbringing, roadsigns on the way to adulthood. Search for truth and act righteously. Laughing at Truth and Righteousness is therefore very difficult for me. And yet I increasingly discover that there are serious problems with these beacons from my youth. Next week I will find out what the situation is with Righteousness, today I will examine Truth.

The first crack in the mirror of Truth came at university. I studied physics. We talked about electricity and magnetism, and about mass and speed. We did experiments and calculations and felt powerful. Until one of my teachers, in a lesson about light and reflection I believe, asked us if the table we were sitting at would be there if we didn’t look at it.

And no, it was not a philosophical discussion. The discussion was about light, about reflection, about proving that molecules (and the even smaller elements of molecules) exist. We obtain the technical proof for this through collisions. In Switzerland, at CERN, we collide particles at high speeds to see what there is. Nice technique. But, said the teacher: if you can only see something by colliding it with something else, then does it also exist without that collision?

I still don’t know if the table I’m typing at is there, when I’m not in my office. I hold on to the idea that everything just stays where I put it, even when I’m having lunch. That my world is real, and formed the way I see and touch it.

But when I walk outside with my dog, we both walk in a totally different world. Mine is full of colours and shapes, his is full of smells and sounds. Who is right? Which world is true? Scientists conclude that in our first years of life we are very busy understanding the input our eyes and ears give us. We make pictures in our heads that fit as well as possible with the input we see. But at some point our brain is ‘done’ with this, and the rest of your life you have to do with the interpretations you have collected up until then. A nice anecdote to illustrate this: I grew up in the centre of Haarlem, and when I was three, our family moved to a suburb with grass and pond. When I saw a duck in the pond by our new house, I called it a pigeon. And when we went to town for shopping, and my sister saw a pigeon, she called it a duck.

Photo of Simply Superb Swans, a blog about birds

Truth, it seems, is something we build in our heads. We use the input the world gives us, but we interpret it. As Multatuli said: ‘Maybe nothing is entirely true, and not even that. Your eyes fool you, and once you have used your eyes, your brain does the rest. With all the shortcuts we have discussed earlier, such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. We don’t see what we think we see, we construct a truth. And once we have built that truth, we then only see those things that confirm our truth.

In Will Storr’s book ‘Heretics‘ the author describes many examples of our truth distortion. Renowned scientists who dismiss facts on semantic or detailist arguments because they disagree with the content of the facts. Two different people who look at the same object, but see something else. The most memorable (if horrible) example of this in the book is when the author is undercover on a journey with Holocaust deniers. They are in Auswitz at the gas chambers, and the tour guide shows that the door of this room has a handle on the inside. Prove – to him – that this room was not a real gas chamber. The author looks at the same door, and sees the locks on the outside of the door. They both look at the same door, but their eyes register different parts.

This piece from the book is horrible and chilling to read, especially because I don’t want to look into the head of a Holocaust denier. Such a person just has to be very badly informed, very stupid, or very evil (a quote form Kathryn Schulz in her TED talk about why we think other people are wrong). Storr shows me the possibility that the truth is more complex than I can accept in my heart.

Still from the TED talk of Kathryn Schulz ‘On being Wrong’.

Truth, it is an essential part of our society. And at the same time something totally elusive. As they write in this article about narrative journalism (sorry, in Dutch) at Follow The Money: the danger of telling stories that are meant to convey the truth, is that a story has to be completely true. There should be no contradictions, no white spaces. A story only runs smoothly when it takes you all the way, sucks you in. You don’t do that by constantly contradicting yourself. You do that by building up a compelling and storyline.

However counterintuitive, this is where I learn my most important lesson: beware of stories, of truths that are completely true. Beware of people who know for sure. The presence of contradictions, doubt and uncertainty in a story or in an opinion, is a good indication of his truth. Because real truth? It is always more complex than we think.

The learning curve

I was entering in a pub quiz on Saturday evening. Nice, especially because I was a popular team member. That was mainly because I was one of the few people there over 40, but we will ignore that fact for now. There were eight rounds of questions, we became second (yes, that was all right) and we had a lot of beer and a lot of fun.

Cartoon by Royston Robertson

Sometime during evening, the conversation turned to philosophy. One of my team members was following Harvard’s ‘Justice‘ course, after my enthusiastic recommendation. He enjoyed the lectures, thought the material was interesting, but one thing bothered him: it was of little practical use. I asked why he felt that way and he explained: “Philosophy is so vague. I’m a lawyer and in that profession, the rules are clear. But with all those philosophy lectures the conclusion is: you can look at it like this, but you can also look at it like that. I always wonder, how can I use that knowledge in real life?

This conversation gives a nice indication of how I am currently feeling in my research. Incredibly instructive, enlightening and interesting. I enjoy, struggle and learn… But I am also disturbed by the same points as my fellow student: what can I DO with al the knowledge I’m learning?

From Think 101, the incredibly interesting lecture series from the University of Queensland, to my last book, Being Wrong by Katheryn Schulz: over and over again it is explained and described how the process works in your head and body. And again and again I’m left with a ‘yes and what now?’ feeling. As Daniel Kahneman said in Think 101 (to my great frustration), when asked how you can change how you think: “Choose one aspect that really annoys you, and work hard and consistently on it. Maybe you’ll see a small change then. Don’t expect too much, because I’ve been studying how to think better for more than 20 years, and my thinking hasn’t improved significantly.”

In the studies I did after Think 101, I kept reading the fact how incredibly complex it is to intervene in the system that forms your opinions and worldviews. Not only is it difficult to specify where you should intervene (after all, opinion-forming takes place in a complex dance between intuition, emotion and mind), it is also a largely unconscious and super-fast process. We are simply too late with our interventions, by the time we think of them.

My findings are a little more hopeful when I don’t focus only on what is happening inside me. Evolution theory teaches me how important our environment, our groups are to men. And it teaches me we excel in using this group strength to work together and to learn from each other. Group processes bind and blind, as Jonathan Haidt says. It is not automatically a positive influence, this group influence. But at least my research shows me that behavior, opinion and world view may be easier to influence outside of my head than inside it.

So, it’s time for a ‘come on Marian, don’t overcomplicate everything’ summary of my research so far. With a focus on the happy, nice, positive things. On concrete points that I can really do something about. Here are my ten concrete ‘yes, I can do something with this’ points:

  • We are Homo Puppy. We have genetically evolved specifically to be less soloistic and to rely more on each other. As a result, we can learn very well by imitating others.
  • From an evolutionary point of view, we can also conclude that man has come where he is, through division of labour (and thus interdependencies), the sharing of our food (needed by the division of labour) and through stories (we were eating together anyway).
  • Our moralities are not black and white, or excluding each other. All moralities around the globe are built up around six specific elements. The great thing about this is that we have a shared language when it comes to our values and norms. The differences between groups are mainly due to the priorities we set, which element(s) we value most.
  • Stories matter (see point 2). If we can hear, feel, tell each other’s stories, we can really be in dialogue. Stories about the morality of the other, written from within, make our worldview more complete and colourful.
  • We limit ourselves with help from the confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect: we only see facts that confirm our worldview, and we think we know more than we actually know. This results in an inability to look at ourselves. This inability is almost impossible to overcome. But: we can look at another person! Working together seems to offer opportunities to escape the built in pathways in our brain.
  • We think that we think, but secretly we mostly feel. Emotion and intuition have a much greater influence on our opinion than we realise. Just think back to that research that showed that people judged moral dilemmas much more strictly when they smell fartspray. Emotion and intuition is lightning fast and inevitable. But, it is also fleeting. Giving yourself time, letting the emotion go before you form an opinion, is a very effective way to let yourself be influenced less by your unconsciousness.
  • We do not reason to seek the truth, but to convince the world we are right. This is a hard truth, but an instructive one. So every argument I think of has the ‘secret’ purpose of overturning an argument of ‘the other’. It is instructive, useful and incredibly headache-causing to look at your own arguments in this way. With every argument of your own, can you find the argument from the other perspective?
  • Openness helps the process. Making mistakes, changing opinions, being wrong: the shame that comes with it in our society is the biggest reason for the festering effect. Making mistakes and being wrong can also be light-hearted and easy. Transparency and a culture in which making mistakes is not directly linked to being inferior helps to make your head and heart more flexible.
  • Laughter and fun help enormously. The main reason why doubt, making mistakes and being wrong feel so negative is because we take it so seriously. Just look at your favorite comedy shows: making mistakes and being wrong is often an important part of the humor. Or look at children, who fearlessly look for new ways to make mistakes.
  • It is impossible to take the previous nine lessons into my daily life in their entirety. But I can play with it, practice it. Reading an article from two different moral viewpoints. Recognising the elephant (your emotional and intuitive reaction) in yourself and others. Constructing the other person’s story: if I work on it, take time for it, then I (sometimes) succeed. And when I succeed, it enriches my life.

This list is probably not complete, and certainly not completely scientifically proven. But still, it works for me: Ten lessons to get started. Ten viewpoints that help to make my world more beautiful. Ten ways to change my mind in the 21st century.

Post Scriptum

An anecdote to end the tale. Yesterday my son had to do some homework. He had to come up with arguments for or against the following statement: All teachers have to take an IQ test. He could choose whether he was for or against this statement.

Choosing was difficult, but after a lot of doubt he chose to come up with arguments against the proposition. Five minutes and three beautiful arguments later, I challenged him to come up with two or three arguments in favour of the proposition.

And although it was only five minutes before that he could hardly choose whether he was for or against the proposition, it was no longer possible for him to come up with good (not cynical or ridiculous) arguments in favor of the statement. He even yelled at me irritatedly: I can’t do that mum, because I’m too much against this!

That is how fast our mind works…… And yes, there is something we can do about it! Brain gymnastics every morning, but not to remember better or to become smarter, but to stay flexible in your mind. As the Queen of the Heart in Alice in Wonderland spoke:


Sometimes things coincide in an almost magical way. Serendipity is the word: happy coincidence. Last week I wrote one of my most serious and self-critical blogs ever. I described how I systematically marginalize groups in my own society. How I don’t hear what they have to say and don’t take their viewpoint seriously.

A bleak discovery, also because I did not have an easy solution for the problem I saw. There doesn’t seem to be a magical wand that would suddenly let me look passed my confirmation bias. Was I doomed to keep my blinkers on, not ever getting beyond a hard won peak beyond the edge of the blinkers? Are we really trapped by our own prejudices?

Fortunately, I then read an article by the Correspondent (sorry, in Dutch) about silver foxes. And I read a book about Darwin and psychology. And together they managed to get me back on track. I would like to take you with me on my way back to a positive and hopeful future.

Silver (Red) Fox standing on a small hill – CA

First the silver foxes. The article of the Correspondent actually starts quite negative. They wonder why it is that man has become the boss on earth. The Neanderthalers are stronger. Yet the Neanderthaler is now extinct in the museum, while we inhabit the world. How is that possible?

Theories about this soon take on a dark tinge. From the homo economicus to Locke’s philosophies: men are often portrayed as a race that is individualistic and in search of maximizing their own happiness. Nice when they have to be, mean when they can get away with it.

And then came those foxes. A scientist had done an experiment deep in Siberia: from generation to generation he had only bred with the least aggressive fox (it is a very aggressive breed). Nothing else was selected but friendliness.

The effect of the breeding program was far-reaching: the foxes that were bred for friendliness also changed in other areas. The foxes became more childlike, more playful. Their fur got spots. Their brains shrunk, their jaws became smaller. In short, they started to look more like puppies. It looked like the domestication of the wolf to the dog. And perhaps also, the scientists said, on the evolution of man?

Picture from the Correspondent article

The theory is that people have also been breeding for friendliness for a long time. And that we have become ‘homo puppy’ in this way. When you see the pictures, you immediately believe it: our faces are much less pronounced (jaw line smaller, eyebrows smaller) and our brain pan has shrunk. To quote the Correspondent: “People became weaker, more vulnerable and more childish. We got a smaller brain, while our world became more and more complicated. Why? And how can this be an advantage?

The advantage lies in our ability to learn socially. To learn from others. Social intelligence is what distinguishes toddlers in today’s experiments from chimpanzees. Our ability to share, to receive and to work in a group makes us more effective and, evolutionarily speaking, has probably caused our dominance on this earth. Friendliness is probably man’s greatest strength.

Graph from the article. You see that Chimps, Orangetans and People score just as high in Spacial Insight, Math and Causality. The difference is in Social Learning, people score much higher than the other great apes.

This realization made me happy. The book ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt helped me even further out of my winter dip. Not that this book is so very positive. The book tells about three important discoveries in the field of morality:

  1. Intuition comes first, rationality comes after that.
  2. Morality is more than honesty and care.
  3. We are 90 percent Chimpanzee and 10 percent Bij.

His first point boils down to the fact that according to Haidt, human reason cannot be pictured as a driver of a carriage (where the carriage is our emotion and intuition), but better a rider on an elephant. The elephant (our intuition) is so big, that it can only be adjusted marginally by the rider. The rider can try to steer, but will usually have to make due with a plausible reason why he wanted to go to where the elephant was walking anyway. In other words: in 95% of the time we do not reason to find truth, but to justify our actions.

Not very positive of course, but insightful. It became a positive thing for me when Haidt told me how to deal with my elephant. The intuitive reaction to things around you cannot be switched off. But this reaction is not only superfast (and therefore always earlier than reason), it is also fleeting. Subjects who had to wait 2 minutes to answer moral questions, answer more clearly and rationally (not triggered by the elephant) than subjects who had to answer immediately. Tranquility, time, attention: it can help to guide your elephant. It feels a bit like anger or sadness: pushing the elephant away can lead to enormous problems and is usually not as efficient, but letting it rage for a while, can give room for a more balanced conversation.

His second point is why we disagree about what is morally good. There are, says Haidt, several parts of morality. And although these parts are limited (he comes to six ‘tastes’: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sacredness), the combinations that can be made with them are infinite. As a result, groups may start from the same base set of norms and values, but because they consider different parts to be the most important, they may arrive at a different moral assessment. Understanding this consideration, says Haidt, cannot be done without immersing oneself in all six parts of morality. A plea for more insight and curiosity about the other person’s truth.

Finally, Haidt discusses the eternal opposition between psychologists and sociologists: is it about the individual or the group? Haidt states that both are at essential parts of understanding morality, and that we should not skip group dynamics when trying to understand it. Group processes such as raves, religion and the Sunday football game make us more resilient, efficient and – for the others within our group at least – nice. Group processes can also have very nasty effects, especially for those we do not count as part of our group. But the solution that every person should belong to everything, John Lennon’s vision of the future in the song ‘Imagine‘, could be very negative according to Haidt. We need – he says – belonging to a group. If only because in that group we can really use the advantage we have as ‘Homo Puppy’. The Homo Puppy thrives best in a pack.

What did the book and article teach me? That I can expand my blinkers. I want and will dive into that moral plurality. From my background and environment I am much more familiar with the parts Honesty, Care and Freedom of morality. Loyalty is kind of neutral to me, Holiness is a large white space in my mind and Authority even evokes negative associations with me. I want to feel and notice how these parts are of value to other people, how they can have a positive contribution to the moral compass of a society.

The images of the Homo Puppy, who excels in learning from others, and of the rider with the elephant, who has an immediate but fleeting first reaction, will also stay with me. The Homo Puppy gives me the confidence that we can move forward together. That setting a good example really makes it easy to follow. Something we also see in today’s society. It’s not only torment and sorrow, tribalism and polarisation. There is also a Gilette advertisement (see link below), which shows how men can be a better role model for their sons.

Still from the Gillette advertising

And my elephant? From now on I will give them more attention and space just to be present. Without behaving like an unwilling follower of his preferences. He may make the first move, but if I, as his rider, will take the time to have the last laugh.

The mirror cracked

The new year starts with a new point of view for me. Or rather: the slow realisation that in my life I have ignored certain viewpoints. Not out of ill will, but out of total ignorance.

The seed for this slow awareness had already been sown at the end of last year. As I told you all in my last blog, I am now trying to follow the course ‘Religion, conflict and peace‘ at Harvard online. I say try, because the material is incredibly heavy. I do this really slowly in small chunks. The course looks at the connecting and devastating power of religion. In one of the first weeks Galtung’s theory about institutional violence was discussed. In short, this theory says that a part of our violence is in our structures and institutions: we marginalize certain groups in our society, with the result that these groups have no or reduced access to the benefits of our society. Even without ‘visible violence’ against certain groups, a society can be violent in this way.

The marginalization of certain groups is of course a hot topic in society today. The yellow jackets (A European movement) and their demonstrations give sound to the unheard: their anger comes from the feeling of not participating in society.

The marginalisation of groups is also very striking in this video by Joris Luyendijk (It is difficult to watch in English, sorry).

In the video we see a woman who votes for the PVV (our right wing party) and hopes that party can do something against immigrants. Because her foster son is unemployed, and those immigrants will be given jobs within 4 months. As the interviewer asked her how she knew this, she answered: I read it on Facebook. This clip is being shown to an audience in a theater, who are there to listen to Joris Luyendijk, an intelligent, kind of left wing, journalist. The whole audience laughs at the Facebook remark. Then, Joris claims: If you want to see what is wrong with society today, you can see it right here: the laughter in the audience.

As Joris puts it aptly: we laugh it away, but we who laugh, we are the problem. We marginalise a whole group of people, put them away as stupid. And – as he rightly says – we don’t deliberately laugh out of meanness! He says it himself, he would also have laughed if he hadn’t accidentally studied the story of PVV voters for a long time. We do it out of ignorance. We are part of a society that – to put it in Galtung’s terms – commits institutional violence against PVV voters.

Hard to realise, even heavier to write down. Yet this is the realization that slowly comes to me in recent weeks: the realization that we structurally do not allow certain groups to speak. At the moment, I’m studying homeless youngsters, and what strikes me is that I can find and read a lot of research, but that I can hardly find research based on conversations with these youngsters themselves. Studies are based on figures and facts or on interviews with social workers. Why did I never notice this before? I have worked for years in the youth domain. Why has it never occurred to me before that in all these studies into the effectiveness of youth policy, the experiences and opinions of young people and their families are seldom put central?

Take this TED talk. In it J. Marschall Shepherd, a meteorologist, describes how difficult it is for him that people do not believe in human influence on climate change. His TED talk is basically exactly as I could have told it, a few weeks ago in my research. He blames three major biasses:

In short, these biases come down to the following: you see facts that correspond with your conviction much easier (confirmation bias), you think you know more than you actually know (Dunning-Kruger effect) and you feel stress when you are confronted with experiences that affect your convictions/world view (cognitive dissonance). I have written about this in my blogs before.

According to Shepherd, these biases, combined with ignorance and misinformation (compare also with the women who got misinformation from a Facebook in the example from Joris Luyendijk) keep us trapped in our conviction.

How do we get out of this prison, according to Shepherd? We need to become aware of our biasses, we need to investigate more carefully where we get our information from and finally: we need to talk about our experiences. He confirms that with a beautiful short film (at about 10:30 in Shepherd’s TED talk, link below the photo goes to the right moment) in which another Meteorologist tells us how he found out he was holding himself in this prison: how he only looked for (and found) scientific evidence that people had no influence on the climate. And what it did to him once he realised this.

Still from the clip in which Greg tells Fishel about his discovery.

I thought it was a beautiful video, and was impressed by the idea that Shepherd posed that we should talk about our experiences. Hearing a real change of insight, actually getting to see his own biasses, by someone who told me about himself, I find this very powerful. Story telling helps to pass on learning experiences.

But, and this is a big one but, what I really regretted about the TED talk, was the superiority the talk radiated. How much stronger would the story have been if Shepherd had illustrated his argument with examples in which he himself was caught in these biasses? Why set up the argument in such a way that it seemed as if only climate deniers were stuck in the prison of ignorance and prejudice? Was this again the laughter at the PVV-voter in the audience we witnessed before?

All in all, I will start 2019 with a moment of reflection. Reflection on my own blinders. Reflection on the reality of my research, which has the goal to change ‘the other’. This XKCD is quite a striking representation of how I started this research:

I slowly let the awareness grow. Small steps, because this is quite scary. I want to do two more important things this month:

  1. I want to tell you the ‘Deep Story’ that is in the book Strangers in their own country, the story of the tea party voters from the deep south of America. This story was my first encounter with the story of the marginalized.
  2. I want to write a blog about how I think this awareness of marginalization and institutional violence is not just misery, but also a key insight into how we will be able to make our world a better place together. Namely by telling stories. The power of honest, personal, stories, has become increasingly clear to me. But more about that in a next blog.

Tea, earl grey, hot.

As part of my curiosity trip, I have started a new HarvardX course: Religion, Conflict and Peace. I find it very intense to take this course: it is about religion, about nationalism, about tribalism and sectarianism (the best quote so far from the course: ‘Sectarism is belonging gone bad’). All the things I’ve been struggling with lately in my research, so very useful but very tough.

The reason why I want to share my experience in this course with you is that following it I was confronted again what I discovered earlier in my search on changing my mind: the unattractiveness of doubt.

Doubt in itself is a bit of a cowardly word. It feels unfinished, as if you haven’t finished working yet. Doubt is a state you want to get out of as quickly as possible. At the same time, when I immerse myself in the great contradictions that our country – and our world – is currently struggling with, I see that doubt is again and again the starting point of understanding and reconciliation. Doubting, not knowing, postponing your opinion: it are these qualities that make it possible to start the dialogue over the gap of the disagreement.

Doubt, and an infinite amount of tea. Because whether it is about the abortion referendum in Ireland or the conversations between parents of deceased children in Israel, a dialogue with doubt and respect for the other takes time. Lots of time. In Ireland, a ‘Citizens Assembly’ – a group of randomly chosen citizens – discussed the text of the constitutional amendment on abortion from November 2016 to April 2017. Six months, and a lot of tea later, the amendment was put in vote in a referendum. That referendum was held this year, and Ireland voted in favour of the amendment. Since then, abortion under the Irish Constitution is no longer illegal.

In Israel, parents of children killed by violence – Jewish and Palestinian parents – talk to each other. And they stand side by side to end the violence. In the beautiful documentary ‘Encounter Point‘ (can be seen via the youtube link, highly recommended!) you can also see these parents talking to their ‘own’ people. Years of violence, fear and propaganda make it difficult to spread their message of peace. Step by step these parents continue to work on a world in which violence is no longer common. That too takes time, and tea.

Doubt is therefore a great asset. But at the same time, doubt seems to put us off, seems to exit us from the play field. As one participant at the meet up in November put it: I don’t know how to form an opinion about many things! I read information, try to inform myself, see points of view already arising and colliding and then… I withdraw. I don’t participate anymore.

A former inhabitant of a settlement in the occupied territories expressed it as follows: The left and right wings in this country have it easy. They know what their opinion is, they have the truths clear. They print their truth on a sticker and stick it on the back of their car. But how about people like me? People whose truths and opinions are a page long? That doesn’t fit on a sticker! Nobody reads my opinion.

At the meet up, the mood at the end of the evening became rebellious. We doubters are marginalized, we concluded. We have to claim our place! It is time for a Radical Central Party. It is time to normalise the sound of the doubter, or even better, to idealize it: doubt is good for you!

As Atalia Omer (Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame) says: we need to rethink nationality, identity and citizenship. By talking to each other, being critical and staying in dialogue, we can ‘denaturalize’ settled definitions of citizenship. This means that we make them un-usual, questioning the ingrained pattern. By doing so, we can look at our own identity and our definition of justice with a fresh look.

So that’s my good intention for 2019: I’m going to drink a lot of tea with people I don’t know yet. I’m going to find my own blind spots. And I will try to examine my ingrained definitions step by step. Because understanding the other, that goes through the mirror. I will continue my journey through the mirror in 2019. I wish you all a very beautiful day, and hopefully I will see you again in the new year.

November rain

It’s eleven December already and I’m only now getting to my November blog. What did I learn and do in November? How did my research go?

November was as busy as I feared it would be. But busy with a lot of the best things: teaching and being a training-actor. Seeing pennies drop, seeing the twinkle in the eyes of people who suddenly get a new insight: it’s fantastic.

In November I got to teach two on important themes in my professional career. The first theme was cooperation in the social domain. Together with professionals who make a difference for young people every day, I worked on effective cooperation. We learned the theory, but more importantly we learned from their own experience. What do you see? What happens? And what can you do?

It is remarkable how much power and pleasure it gives professionals to take the time to take a step back and actually analyze what is happening in their daily work. For them to ask the essential to ask many questions: ‘Why do we actually work with these partners? What’s in it for my organisation, and what’s in it for me? What are our goals? What is the phase of the collaboration? What have we already set up properly, and where are the white spots? These and other questions not only gave the students a lot of insight, but also a lot of strength in their own work. Because if you know what’s going on, you can also choose much smarter and more powerfully what you’re going to do yourself. And this produces very nice results: cooperation can really be easier, better and more effective, and you can do something about it yourself!

At the same time, it is difficult to see how we are still struggling in the social domain in this country. That it is so difficult to build and maintain powerful partnerships. That it is still not self-evident that the decentralisation of 2015 has led to better care and to working more effectively. As co-author of the 2014 transformation agenda, I know so well what hope and expectation we all had. And I also see a lot of beautiful things happening, but also a lot of struggling. I think that has to do with the major changes that are taking place in our society on a wider scale: different expectations of the government, a different role for the professional, more customization but also a shortage of money and a new division of responsibility between client, network and professional help. We have to find each other again, on a lot of different levels.

Anyway, I’m digressing. November was also busy with me teaching people to negotiate. As a training-actor I supported Mieke Bouwens in her two-day masterclass Excellent Negotiating. What a blast we had! So wonderful to give people the opportunity to actually practice their behaviour. To show how big the influence of small things like body language, position and use of language is. To play ‘games’ around themes such as: how long can you keep asking questions? Don’t say anything? Don’t use the forbidden word (price, discount, money)?

It was two days full of twinkling eyes, full of tears of laughter and full of seriously busy brains. Building new paths in your head, heart and behavior is hard work. And that’s what the students did. With result!

Besides all the work I was able to do in November, I was also able to spend time on my research. One highlight was a face to face Meet-up about my research! On 22 November we were in Amsterdam with a nice circle of people talking about how you can change your mind. I will keep coming back to this night a lot in future blogs, because it has given me a lot of insights. I will give you a short cryptic overview:

  • Changing my mind? I can’t even form an opinion anymore!
  • Irish referendums and the power of drinking tea.
  • It is time for a Radical Central Party.
  • From debate training to consensus training in secondary schools.
  • Steamrolling and the other persons truth.
  • Radicalisation and the power of a bridge builder

I am curious to see where all these insights, all these questions and cryptic beginnings of a thoughts will bring me in December. I am probably not be founding a political party this year, but who knows what the future holds.

In any case, what I am going to do in December is to study ‘the other persons truth’. After all, that frase was used a lot in my November. In the meet-up, but also, of course, in the Netherlands where we have struggled with understanding the pain of the other this last month. The conversation, sometimes debate and sometimes fight over black pete has faded away after 5 December. 

For me it was a crucial part of my November, because this year I did not want to stay away from this debate. I talked, read, listened and thought. I found beautiful sites like this one of the Meertens Institute that researches all kinds of questions about black Pete (sorry, it is in Dutch). Read and listened to Harvard professors who talk about moral philosophy and religion.

In short, November was for me the month of the group, the change and of the other persons right. In this month I shifted my attention from the individual and his/her brains, to the groups and communities in which we live together as individuals. I will continue this shift in December. I am very curious what kind of insights it will give me!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The time of the year has come for my research ‘how to change my mind’ to become extra topical for many of us. At the end of last week, most Americans sat around the Thanksgiving dining table. And before we know it we’re having Christmas dinner. How do we keep all those dinners cosy, without only talking about the weather?

Family toasting at Thanksgiving meal’, from an article by the Huffington Post about the dreaded discussions at the thanksgiving table.

It’s a question that keeps me occupied these days. As a true ‘change of mind’ researcher, I have been asked more and more lately whether I have any tips and tricks. Come on Marian, don’t you have a solution yet? How do I show my in-laws that the climate is really warming up? How do I make it clear to my sister that Black Pete is really a beautiful tradition that must be preserved? How do I talk about the pension system, Brexit or North Korea?

I have to be honest, I don’t know yet. I find it as scary as all of you. Frankly, my previous blog – the one about my opinion about Black Pete – was one of the most frightening to post ever. Ignoring is better than quarrelling and misery isn’t it?

Fortunately, I did post the blog anyway. And I noticed that I didn’t get into a fight about it. In stead I found more understanding and less taboo in my dealings with other people. Since the blog, I’ve been talking about controversial topics at professional meet ups, on the train with casual fellow travelers and even – oh scaryst of all scary environments – at a birthday party.

My experience? It’s possible, even if it’s frightening. I found the birthday party the most special. I was asked with sincere curiosity about the underlying views and feelings surrounding my opinion about Black Pete.

We did not agree on important points at that party. We were unable to find a ‘common ground’ about whether Black Pete is really racist, and especially about how you establish that, that something is racist. Is something racist if someone feels discriminated against because of race? Or if it is meant to be racist? And what if there is a difference between the two? Who’s feeling counts more?

But we have had very nice conversations. For example we talked about what a democracy really is. Is a democracy ‘the majority decides’, or is there more? To what extent is it a fundamental right to diverge from the majorities view? How much room should a dissenting opinion have in a democracy? To what extent should the right to demonstrate be protected? When should a demonstration really not be possible? And why do we think this right is so essential, even when it is difficult?


Together we have talked about great philosophical subjects. How much do we mind if not everyone is treated equally? Is discrimination unforgivable in all circumstances? And if so, where does it end? Is that really possible, a world without discrimination?

And what about the rights of the child? How far should we go to protect them? What are the absolute limits we should not go beyond? We all have rules about what a child can see on TV, how do we deal with that in ‘real life’?

All in all, it was a special birthday. Which gives me hope for the gourmet table later at Christmas. Because it turned out to be able to differ in opinion, but at the same time to be genuinely interested in the other person’s opinion. It is possible to conclude a conversation satisfactorily, without anyone being convinced. Because you’ve learned more yourself. And the other has as well.

On TED Julia Dhar gave us a real manual to survive heated conversations at the dining table. Unfortunately for me, I only read this after the party. Fortunately, we did follow some of her ‘rules’ accidentally. The rules for a good conversation are, according to Julia:

  • Name the conflict. Don’t walk around it. With us this was accomplished by someone that asked: Marian, what do you think of Black Pete?
  • Establish a common reality. By questioning each other you can establish the ‘common ground rules’. The whole group thought it was important that children had a nice Saint Nicholas party. The whole group also thought that throwing eggs was punishable. Nobody consciously wanted to hurt people. As a society you shouldn’t want racism. We are a democratic country and that is important to us. Within these ground rules there were enough differences in emphasis, and we found them. But by starting to figure out our ground rules, we stayed in better contact during the conversation.
  • Focus on content, not people. The easiest, but also the most difficult. Because we are so bad at distinguishing these. Someone with a racist opinion, is he or she always a racist? Someone with an ill-considered point of view, is that person always stupid? Are farmers conservative? Are urban dwellers elitist? The nice thing is that this point must be feasible at the Christmas dinner table. Just look around you: this is a discussion you have with your loved ones. Your friends and acquaintances. People of whom you are pretty sure, that they are sincere people who do their best to organize their lives as well as possible.
Julia Dahr’s TED talk
  • Accept the fact that you may be wrong. I think this is quite an difficult one, to be honest. But let’s be real: if you have no doubt whatsoever about the accuracy of your own point of view, then you don’t need to have the conversation. Then you are not talking, but telling. The funny thing is that an open attitude is also a good debating trick: being less defensive makes people listen to you better.
  • Use facts – sparingly. Facts help. Especially if you sit together in a frame with space to listen to each other (see previous point). But be careful: only use them if you really know them. And don’t use too many. Splurging out too many facts often works counterproductive.
  • Know when to stop. The moment you notice that the conversation starts to go in to re-runs, the matter is sufficiently deepened. The differences of opinion that you still have can’t be bridged in this conversation. End the discussion, get onto the next topic, or decide to go and get a drink for everyone.

With this manual in my pocket I will be looking for the conversation in the near future. To practice in what may be even more important than changing one’s mind: to disagree in a good way and talk about it.

A different kind of tribalism

And then I decided to write a blog about tribalism, the week before the arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas, a Dutch celebration on december 5th). The arrival of Sinterklaas turned out to be a perfect example of tribalism: groups op people demonstrating against Zwarte Piet (the traditionally black painted helper of Sinterklaas and subject of a deep felt controversy in the Netherlands) were ‘egged’ by angry mobs. Police had to intervene in more than one city, leaving us with these kind of images on the news.

the subject of Zwarte Piet is obviously very controversial in the Netherlands. I therefore have chosen the ‘safe’ route up until now: ignore this particular subject in my research, or at least in my public findings. Only last weekend at the scouting (where I am a volunteer) another parent asked me if my research provided a solution for the Zwarte Piet debate, and I answered in jest: I think I will start with something simpler like World Peace.

But in the end I didn’t start this research or blog to be safe. And so it feels like it is time to share a personal story with you. The story of the first big change of opinion for me, my ‘origin story’ for this research. My change of opinion about Zwarte Piet.

It happened a couple of years ago, in 2012. I had a visitor from America in my home at around October-November. She was (and is) an American singer-songwriter who came to do a European tour. Completely in style with the ‘crowdfunding-hype’, the tour was completely made possible by fans. With money, but also with help. Like offering a place to sleep and organizing a living-room concert.

She slept at my parents house (our house is a bit cramped, and my parents were kind enough to make their guest room available) and we organized a concert in our living room. It was very a very special time. Because the singer had just landed from America, she had built in a couple of extra days to account for her jetlag. So we really had time to get to know each other (five years later the whole family attended her wedding in America, but that is another story).

It was on one of those quiet evenings that we, with a glass of limoncello in our hands, got to talk about special regional and national customs. We talked about Luilak, St. Maarten and of course also about St. Nicholas.

It was when I told her about this last character, who came from Spain on a ship with his Zwarte Pieten as helpers, that I noticed that my visitor felt less and less at ease. I continued to talk cheerfully and proudly, because I was proud of the tradition that I described as ‘less commercial than Christmas’.

Finally, when I asked her why she was upset, she told me about the American tradition of ‘blackfaces’, which had been abandoned because of its racist characteristics. Black painted actors who caricature Afro-American people in plays. This way of acting comes from the time when segregation still took place in America. Since the introduction of equal rights, acting with blackfaces has been labelled racist and is subsequently no longer done in the States.

Because of this – for our European standards still quite recent – history in America, my visitor found our Zwarte Piet really very racist. Something that shocked me, but also filled me with complete incomprehension: our tradition was not meant to depict slavery. These were children’s friends in a children’s festivity. I understood that her American history led her to positions like this, but she did not understand the cultural differences. This was different. This was not evil, this was fun!

It was a tough evening. Not because we disagreed. But because our opinions were so close to our feelings. Feelings of pride and joy on my side, feelings of shame and disgust on her side. Firm, overwhelming, important feelings. Feelings that made it difficult to understand the other, to te even want to try to.

The conversation with my American visitor lingered in my head, in my heart, and in my lower abdomen, long after her departure. From a complete rejection of her point of view, respect and understanding slowly grew. I still did not see it as being racist, this children’s festivity. But more and more clearly I started to see that my viewpoint was not the only possible, or even the only legitimate viewpoint. When does something become racist? When I find it to be so? Or when I notice that others – who look at the same event from a different perspective – find something racist? More and more I started to feel that it doesn’t only matter how I looked at it. What was at least as important was that there was a group of people who felt that Zwarte Piet was racist and who were hurt by that. I had ignored their point of view, and I could no longer continue to do so.

The reason I found it so difficult to accept this new viewpoint, this new position on Zwarte Piet, was the fear that from this new viewpoint I was a racist. Me. The alternative hipster mother that cooks organically and supports many charities. I couldn’t be a racist! The sinking feeling that this ‘clash’ of viewpoint gave me, made me prefer to put my head in the sand and no longer think about the whole issue.

In the end, the issue of ‘am I a racist’ was finally settled with me last year at Oerol by George and Eran (another story as well, but in short: George and Eran are two actors who performed a very gripping and sometimes extremely confronting play about racism last year in the Netherlands): I’m not a racist. But sometimes I am. Or rather, sometimes I do racist things. Not deliberately, not because I am mean, but because I don’t know any better. Or because I get too tired of figuring out how I can learn to know better.

And so I stand. I am still Marian. A woman looking for how she can change her mind. A woman who believes that Zwarte Piet must change with the times, to stop hurting people. A woman who now finds it difficult to see a totally black Zwarte Piet, without thinking ‘how did I ever think this was not racist? In short, a woman who has changed her mind and feelings on this subject.

At the same time I still remember the pain. The pain of looking at my childhood memories from behind these new glasses. The enormous pain it caused me to realize that I thought and felt something, that made me a racist in the eyes of others. The pain of being called something that I never wanted to be. Only to discover that – to put it in George and Eran’s words – every person sometimes thinks racist thoughts. Even me.

Perhaps that is why I have kept quiet in this debate. Understanding for both ‘camps’ (because yes, that’s how far it has come, we’re talking about camps), is a recipe for getting trolled by two sides.

In addition, I have no answer, no easy solution. Because even though Zwarte Piet will evolve in Roet Piet (soot pete, with chimney soot on his face), or a Regenboog Piet (a rainbow pete with faces painted in many different colors): the real conversation, the conversation about our unconscious tribal behaviour, about thinking in ‘we-thay’ and in ‘our people and strangers’, is a difficult, long and tough conversation.

It is a long journey to find out that the stranger we see, resembles us more closely than we like. Only when we dare to look as much in the mirror as we do towards the other, can we overcome the tribal aspects of this ‘struggle’. This here is my first step, my look in the mirror…

When two tribes go to war.

Without being very aware of it, completing the online course ‘the science of everyday thinking’ brought me to an important point in my research. Over the past weeks and months I have studied how our brains work, why we think things, what unconscious shortcuts we use and what effect this has on our opinions. This research eventually led to the blog on climate change, where I summed up everything I learned and gave advise on how to make people change their minds.

That’s a wrap, you might say. But then something happened in America that made me feel that it wasn’t that simple. That there is more going on. The fact that sometimes people will keep insisting that untruths are true. Not because they believe it, but because they belong to a group in which that untruth is elevated to an established fact.

What happened? A political journalist, Jim Acosta, was refused entry to the White House. The reason given by the White House for this refusal was that Acosta would have ‘been placing his hands’ on an intern of the White House . Now the term ‘placing his hands’ is rather ambiguous, but the message was that the journalist had committed violence against the intern. A rather bizarre claim, given the images that were broadcast from the press conference at which this was supposed to have happened. What you saw was a journalist who put the president to the test with his questions, and did not want to stop asking questions.

Hyperlink to the clip as released by TIME

But, not much later, the White House releases its own version of the visual material. The same images, but zoomed in, repeated and probably somewhat accelerated. Experts, journalists and those present at the event are unanimous in rejecting this obvious manipulation. The source of the film can even be traced back to infowars, a ‘spinning website’. But still: the White House chooses to officially distribute this version of the film as its truth.

What is the consequence? Everyone is now arguing with each other over the extent to which the second film has been manipulated. The objective truth has become a ‘we say – they say’ story. A very good example of the ‘somewhere in the middle’ syndrome of course: the White House hopes that if there are two versions of the film, the people will think that the truth will be ‘somewhere in the middle’. And before you know it, the journalist is still suspicious… Because where there is smoke…..

But apart from the fact that this is a very good – and very threatening – example of how faith in conspiracies works and can be stimulated, I was seized by a discussion from a different angle: to what extent is this still a matter of believing in the conspiracy? To what extent is this still about the ‘somewhere in the middle’ syndrome, and about the continued belief of the people in the innocence of the president?

On twitter Amanda Marcotte, a political writer known to be ‘a strong voice for the left‘, took the view that we have long passed this phase in mass hysteria. This is no longer a matter, she said, of gullible and worried citizens who are fooled by their brains. This is now a question of peer pressure and abuse of power, of tribalism. People no longer believe in the myth, people do what the group – and the boss of the group – says they should do.

The distinction may be subtle, but it is important: in mass hysteria the people still believe in the lies, in tribalism the people know very well that lies are being told, but they still support lies. Because in tribalism it is a sign of loyalty to the boss, if you support him even if he lies.

You have to fight mass hysteria as I explained in my previous blog: presenting the facts in the right way. But what do you do with tribalism? Talking back is actually not desirable, after all: it is also a sign of loyalty to the boss if you can infuriate the ‘enemy’. And if we really are in a state of tribalism, we are in the middle of this enemy thinking. You don’t believe the enemy, not even if he presents the argument well. In fact, it’s no longer about believing at all. It’s about loyalty and power.

I don’t actually want to finish these thoughts in my head. I think a world in which large groups of people are victims of mass hysteria is a lot friendlier than a world in which we fight tribal wars. But at the same time I feel in my bones that I have the next phase of my research here. Changing your mind, that was one thing. Now we have to find a way to change our mind publicly in a group, and to change our behavior as well. This research has to be continued…

The Circle is completed

This week I had the opportunity to give a lecture at a convention for managers in the Social Sector of Government. The day was about vitality at work. I talked about how you can keep yourself – and your team – happy at work. And about why that is so important.

At the University of Berkely they did research into the effects of being happy at work. And those effects are considerable, and economically relevant. Happy people live longer, and are – not surprising – happier. But for the company there is also a gain: Happy people need less control, are sick less often and can solve more problems independently. So having happy people is a surprisingly economically profitable element of your business operations.

At the University of Berkely they even came up with a ‘recipe’ for happy employees: PERK! Or Purpose, Engagement, Resillience and Kindness.

Still from the online course Happiness at Work from Berkely on EdX

PERK works on a personal level, you can work on your own resilience and friendliness. But PERK also works in the interaction with others, and even as organisational advice: make sure, for example, that your employees know exactly what the goal is for which they work, and that they also feel that their actions influence achieving that goal. This beautiful video shows me very well how essential it is to work for a goal.

Still from the short film (click to view it)

The beauty of PERK is that it works on the three different levels. As a result of that, it is incredibly easy to start using PERK. Simply choose every day to do your mindfulness exercise for example. Or stop gossiping. Or every day looking for three moments when you can give someone a sincere compliment. PERK not only gives a recipe for happy employees, it also gives a recipe for motivated and empowered managers. The managers not only felt responsible for the happiness of their team members, they also felt that they had an influence on this happiness.

But besides motivation and empowerment, something else happened in the group that was listening. Something that is very relevant for my research. The group started to get more and more restless during my talk. Not always a good sign when you’re giving a lecture 😉 But in this case it was a visible unease about a very essential point in my presentation, which I ignored myself (my assignment was an to be enthusiastic, no problematic): how honorable is it to use the PERK recipe?

Because the image of the company as the happy family, where you feel at home and fit well, has a lot of beauty in it. And at the same time: how scary can it become? If everyone at work is there for the same noble purpose? How long does it take until full group think arises? Before you are no longer allowed to have a different opinion? For the company get sectarian characteristics?

The example of internet giants like Google and Apple, with their ‘company campuses’ with full-fledged child care, restaurants and fitness centres, feels a bit unreliable and insincere, if you simultaneously follow the discussion that is currently happening around those same internet giants. How ‘nice’ and ‘happy’ are they actually? How honest are their motives? What do they do with the gigantic power they collect?

Google campus at Mountain View

The book – and the film – the Circle was soon a central element in the presentation. Clearly a case of ‘not honorable’ use of all the beautiful PERK recipes. In such an extreme case, influencing people’s happiness leads to simply abusing people. This moral grey area, this tangled web of what is possible, what is good for yourself, the other, the customer and your company, was visible on the faces of the people in the room. Sure it is possible to influence happiness, and yes it is logical that you want this as a manager, but be careful that it does not get out of hand. Continuously check your own power and influence over the other person. Especially in a managing position.

The group gave me goosebumps. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction and discussion that arose. I notice thatI still chew on it in my head. The more I learn about how people change their opinions, their happiness, their behaviour, the more I run into moral questions. What makes us human? What is the right behavioural change? What is acting with integrity?

These are questions that I do not yet have an answer to. Nor do I think that these questions ultimately exist in their final form. But they are questions that must be asked in the search for behavioural change. Every time again. Because that makes the distinction between the world that the University of Berkely predicts us and the world that the film The Circle predicts us. Changing behaviour and opinions is not as difficult as we might think. Changing one’s mind, in relation with others and consciously done, with integrity, may be more difficult.

I have to work on this last idea further. Fortunately, I am currently following the Justice (political philosophy) course at Harvard. Perhaps the insights of people like John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle will help me in this tangle of power, influence and morality. On the other hand: if I thought psychology was a rabbit hole for me to disappear into, I can get ready for the real stuff now. Philosophy is beautiful, but doesn’t often lead to certainties. The circle is complete, now I have to be careful not to bite my own tail!

Still from a excerpt of The Good Place (click to see the short and funny scene)