KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The problem with the big picture

with 4 comments

In a previous post black and white I ranted about how most development discussions end up being very polarized. The recent scandal around Greg Mortenson, and the ensuing discussion leads me to think that the polarization is part of a larger phenomenon, a failure in our way of thinking about the world, which I’m going to call “Big Picture Syndrome”.

So my thesis – the universe is an extremely vast and complex place and our comparatively tiny brains can only really grasp a small part of it. This is a result of both any individual’s limited life experience, and their cognitive limitations.

But we need to make sense of the world we are in in order to make decisions and take actions. In order to do this we take shortcuts and make mental models of the world to help us understand and predict it. More sophisticated minds might also continually refine this model over time based on new information – but what we have is nevertheless a mental model of the world, one that is far less complex, and far less rich than the actual world we inhabit.

Humans are naturally inclined to finding mental shortcuts to explain the world – especially about those things we don’t have much direct knowledge of, and no easy means to verify. These mental models are heavily influenced by our experience which we assume is typical of the wider world, even though statistically speaking that’s unlikely to be true (for any one individual that is).

So this leads us to adopt particular positions whether it be about politics, the value of RCTs, celebrity activism, private sector involvement in aid, markets versus central plans etc.. And then we interpret subsequent experience in light of this and tend to seek to use new evidence confirm what we already believe (also known as confirmation bias). Often, only when the evidence contradicting our own beliefs becomes overwhelming and we experience “cognitive dissonance” are we willing to change our models.

A related problem is how many people react to scientific research. Researchers, quite rightly add all sorts of caveats and disclaimers to their work to explain what can and cannot be inferred from it – and usually this means that technically speaking very little can be said to be certain – but for non-experts in a field there is a desire either to over interpret the research to be much more definitive than it actually is (especially if it confirms your existing world view) or to dismiss it saying that if the researcher adds so many caveats, then it doesn’t really tell you anything with sufficient certainty to take it seriously. Until recently at least a good example as been how mainstream society, especially in the US has treated climate science research.

Another manifestation of “big picture syndrome” is how we treat “heroes”. Some people deliberately seek to be heroes, but many have this role thrust upon them. When we look at individual leaders it’s too easy to think of them as positive all round rather than as complex individuals with positive and negative characteristics and ones which vary depending on the circumstances they are in behaving honourably in one set of circumstances and dishonourably in another. This is known as the “Halo effect”. We turn a blind eye to the faults of those leaders we idealize until the evidence of their failings becomes too big to ignore – then we suddenly need to turn on them and find fault in everything they do -or to claim we always doubted them. We also often seek to personify a cause or issue by identifying individual leaders and focussing on them rather than the cause itself – since it is easier to relate to a person than an abstract concept.

Another manifestation of “big picture syndrome” is the idea that other professions from our own, especially ones we don’t understand are actually easier and less messy than our own. For example if you are not an economist. it’s hard to understand why economists don’t know more about running the economy and to have the sneaking feeling that if you studies a bit you could do a better job yourself (it can’t really be that hard can it), but if someone else were to attempt to do your job- well that’s different – it needs extensive training and experience, and even then we still don’t know many of the answers. This is probably a major reason why there are so many DIY aid workers who come into this work without real knowledge or experience.

What can be done about this? I don’t really have any good answers. Self-awareness and self-questioning- and certainly relying on the questioning of others to challenge our assumptions might be a good place to start.

Of course this whole blog post is a gross oversimplification – I hope you can live with that.


Written by Ian Thorpe

April 26, 2011 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Love your disclaimer at the end of the post 😉

    I also think the big picture syndrome refers to linking levels of abstractions that should not be linked.
    Generally speaking (big picture) a lot of things are right but we shouldn’t deduct that therefore thus, individual action on the micro-level is automatically “good”. Example: Macro level – “donating money to help the poor” is considered helpful – but on the micro level “donating (injecting) money in a well working local market environment” can lead to local market break-down and thus lead long term economic damage in this market.

    Sebastian Rottmair

    April 26, 2011 at 9:26 am

  2. Great post, thanks. One thing in common among most big-picture thinkers in development is that they are protected from the consequences of their views. If you’re Mo Ibrahim making decisions about Celtel, there is an “easy means to verify” whether your model of the world corresponds to the world: you won’t last very long in business if you have it wildly wrong. But can any of us name one person who will lose his or her job if a single Millennium Development Goal is not reached, anywhere? No one’s future depends on whether their beliefs about how to meet the goals are right or wrong. This vast gap between beliefs and consequences is a necessary condition for the lack of “easy means to verify” that you sharply point out, and thus of all of the interesting consequences above.

    The most promising development work tends in one way or another to create direct, unforgiving links between beliefs and consequences. The least promising things happening in Africa exhibit epic gaps between beliefs and consequences — like Robert Mugabe’s beliefs that Zimbabwe’s troubles are caused by a British homosexual conspiracy, and like the widespread belief that Africa can be “developed” from without by model-village interventions. Both of those are cases where not a single person’s job is on the line if the belief turns out to be wildly wrong.

    Michael Clemens

    April 26, 2011 at 10:38 am

  3. […] The problem with the big picture – In developing countries, equity beats microfinance – […]

  4. I felt, you were writing this post as a question, not realizing (or at least pretending 😉 that there are a lot of answers in what you are saying.
    But the answers are of course not simple.

    First, one thing that you very well extracted: We are often with models, so it is a huge step of realizing that we talk about man-made models instead of fighting on eternal truths.

    to be continued


    Gerald Meinert

    April 30, 2011 at 9:06 am

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