icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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Knowdging and visions of paradise

Language and rhetoric of behavioural economics. Part 3 of 3: Frame yourself before framing the question

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2016). Knowdging and visions of paradise: language and rhetoric of behavioural economics. Part 3 of 3: Frame yourself before framing the question. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 5.4 (April).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2016). Knowdging and visions of paradise: language and rhetoric of behavioural economics. Part 3 of 3: Frame yourself before framing the question. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 5.4 (April).

The ‘rotten-to-the-core’ assumption about human nature espoused so widely in the social sciences and the humanities is wrong. This premise has its origins in the religious dogma of original sin and was dragged into the secular twentieth century by Freud and reinforced by two world wars, the Great Depression, the cold war, and genocides too numerous to list. The premise holds that virtue, nobility, meaning, and positive human motivation generally are reducible to, parasitic upon, or compensations for what is really authentic about human nature: selfishness, greed, indifference, corruption, and savagery. [...] In spite of its widespread acceptance in the religious and academic world, there is not a shred of evidence, not an iota of data, compelling us to believe the idea that nobility and virtue are somehow derived from negative motivation. On the contrary, I believe that evolution has favored both positive and negative traits; many niches have selected for morality, cooperation, altruism, and goodness, just as many have selected for murder, theft, self-seeking, and terrorism. More plausible than the rotten-to-the-core theory of human nature is a dual-aspect theory: that the strengths and the virtues are just as basic to human nature as the negative traits are, and that negative motivation and emotion have been selected for in evolution. Evolution, after all, works through two processes: zero-sum-game survival struggles lubricated by negative emotion - anxiety, anger and sadness on the one hand, and sexual selection on the other, a positive-sum-game process that has favored virtue and is lubricated by positive emotion. These two overarching systems sit side by side in our central nervous system, ready to be activated (on the one hand) by privation and thwarting, or (on the other) by abundance and the prospect of growth and success.
[Martin Seligman, in: “What we believe but cannot prove”, Harper Perennial, 2006]

London, 4 August 2016 - Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to visit at the very last minute two small temporary exhibitions. They were different by subject, time and space but they resonated in my mind the same thoughts. In fact, both exhibitions reminded me the influence of the rotten-to-the-core prejudice on innovation, media and corporate communications agendas - the notion is clearly defined by Martin Seligman, one of the most representative public figures in positive psychology, in the above passage.

The first exhibition was “Creation from catastrophes: how Architecture rebuilds Communities” at the RIBA. It documented various cases spanning centuries and continents (from the London Great Fire of 1666 to current initiatives in Nepal) in which it seems architects, engineers and the whole of the local communities involved reacted to natural disasters reconstructing towns, buildings and lives after “waves of terrible disruptions”. I found the intent of this little exhibition very engaging and timely, suggesting there are lessons to be learned on how we manage both personal and professional emergencies.
But, to say the truth, I really did not like the exhibition’ title and its implicit and very wrong and common inference and message. It is not true that to make sustainable and lasting changes people must go through disasters first or necessarily experience sufferance, pain and overwhelming disruptions before changing behaviours and taking the decision of a different course of action. We should, instead, promote a culture of constant critical thinking and incremental and continue changes that adapt human creations to new scientific and social advances.
It is possible to correct mistakes, to revert monstrous errors, to overturn negative situations of all sorts. It is, in sum, possible to accept we are immensely able to change our minds and overcome the natural tendency to laziness and dogmatism shown by people of all ages and social groups though usually - but not uniquely - with less educated or less healthy backgrounds.

The other exhibition was Visions of Paradise: Botticini's Palmieri Altarpiece at the National Gallery, a once-in-a-life occasion to remain bewildered - as the curators guessed the audience would be - staring at the painting (The Assumption of the Virgin, probably about 1475-6, by Francesco Botticini) commissioned by Matteo Palmieri, a true Renaissance man charged with heresy in his late life.
I felt that there was something missing, though. Was that possibly in relation to other particulars of Palmieri’s complicated political life (he was an advocate of civic engagement and empowerment) or the heritage he left with his own works and the commissioned alterpiece?
For a couple of months I could not reckon exactly what caused me that sense of having witnessed an omission or a curatorial intentional deception. I watched several times the film documenting the shape and extension of the Church of the Benedictine nunnery of San Pier Maggiore in Florence, where the Palmieri family had the chapel for which the The Assumption was commissioned: in fact, that Church was demolished in 1785 and its place taken over by shops, restaurants and private apartments. Researchers from the University of Cambridge reconstructed the Church digitally last year, thanks to 3D imaging technology and the many traces discovered through archival documents, archaeological research and site surveys.
It did not take too much time to reckon that my anxiety in respect of the exhibition’s contents was caused by the fact that, as a visitor, I was emotionally driven to either blame the unnamed Pietro Leopoldo di Toscana (Pietro Leopoldo d’Asburgo Lorena or Leopoldo I Grand Duke of Tuscany) for having ordered in 1785 the destruction of the Church - apparently because of an health and safety issue - or to interpret such event as an inevitable sign of social progress (the transformation of a Church in a market or in other social space is a quite common event after all). Both ideas seemed to me biased and superficial, and, in sum, unacceptable outcome of my visit.
I asked the curators a complete list of the works in the exhibition, very kindly received a couple of months later. I wanted to see if there was any other way to better understand the “journey” of the painting, survived to very difficult times first in the XV Century and then again in the XVIII (The Assumption of the Virgin was eventually sold in 1882 to the National Gallery that bought it on the assumption of a misattribution to Botticelli).
Unfortunately, the exhibition itself did not offer any clue to that extent. I just had to conclude that to the best of my understanding Pietro Leopoldo’s attempted reform of religious and social institutions in the XVIII Century was relevant in the history of the painting as well as the same Palmieri’s political ideas about “La vita civile” (civic engagement). Both Palmieri and the Grand Duke wanted in some ways to bring upon change and to accelerate a liberal, commercial and pedagogical revolution in tuscan society, the first showing the importance of women, the latter imposing a project of a new constitution and a more secular way to manage the public purse. They both anticipated and promoted in their times and roles huge social and cultural transformations.

All in all, the two exhibitions left me with the impression that the rotten-to-the-core belief have been inspiring policies and sense making operations (including curatorial initiatives) over the centuries and across different disciplines and sectors: sticking to the cliché, we seem unable to produce new meanings and development in more sustainable ways. To go further would require to understand complex ideas and facts and to design more convenient, sustainable and perhaps even simpler alternative ways to handle the knowledge we own.

Re-framing data, information and knowledge management

I believe that the rotten-to-the-core prejudice is very relevant in the way in which the new behavioural economists have tried so far to influence communication and policies in the newsroom, in the boardroom and in government.

Corporate strategies, in particular, seem very often locked into this way of thinking that idealises disruptors on one side and praises the resilience of those who bear with the dullness of everyday lucky little improvements (I say lucky because the examples are always from market sectors in which the demand is, surprise surprise, on the rise). Management literature does not tend to address the issue of change or innovation in a more scientific way neither.

"Why it is so hard for companies and leaders to embrace a change and break with the past without a near-death experience?" asks the author of one of those articles that promote the need to "unlearn skills and confront with mortality of your expertise (the title of the article, "Companies Can’t Be Great Unless They’ve Almost Failed" in Harvard Business Review, 21 March 2016, couldn’t flatter more the audience of the magazine, by the way).

Quantifying and interpreting the "sunk costs" of unlearning against the prospects of "do nothing" (or inertial options) would be intellectually more demanding but possibly very instructive for lot of people. It would lead to a realistic honest and true representation of possible alternative interpretative choices and actions.

When it is really true that default meanings matter in terms of architectural choices and behavioural influence?

It seems to me that for behavioural economics to bring change and improvements in data management practices or against existing standards - including any media agenda setting and policy strategy - there is no need to invest and perform complex social experiments, or having dozens of internships or volunteering PhD students accessing and mangling open data. Just read, analyse and review historical series, market and companies data, balance sheets and all the existing relevant sources of information about certain processes, activities and policies. Use the perspective of the endowment effect, the halo effect or any other behavioural economics concept to add more variations of possible ways to handle and convey scientific information in simpler and more digestible options - not to reduce the choices and induce a manipulated outcome.

We all tend to be demotivated and frustrated when we see the abuse of power exercised by individuals who have control on the information available to others and in a position to distort people choices. Is exactly at that point that the only way forward is to reject the rotten-to-the-core assumption and go further in re-framing the available information.

Three foundations principles at the core of knowdging

So what does it mean to convey data and information (stories and narrative) in a scientific way and incorporating behavioural economic lessons? I see fundamentally three principles:

1) Knowdging means we are willing to assure there is always some sort of auditing trace - a sort of breadcrumbs trail that allows everybody involved in the process to control, repeat and modify the content, the tone, the channel or some other properties and characteristics of the information given. In general terms, this means accountability.

2) Secondly, knowdging requires transparency on the multidimensional way in which we all conceive and design, process and elaborate or use information - this is the metacommunication requirement that I believe it is the most important ingredient of any communication strategy in digital environments. Metacommunication is not theatre, is not unduly influence, neither a script nor a term of reference. It is controlled transparency.

When we communicate about the way in which we communicate we build trust and we prepare our audience to ask themselves first of all if they are familiar and up to which level with the code or language we are using. There are dimensions of certain types of contents - for instance personal data, religious beliefs or pension annuities values - that may have very different impact in emotional terms for different people at different times. Acknowledge such very well documented layers of the ways in which we interact with a certain content and context and build awareness is therefore a very important practical aspect of the quality assurance we can put in place.

When there is no metacommunication (or no genuine metacommunication) people tend to interact always in manipulative and distorted ways, as they had to thick boxes, through stereotypes: problems of misunderstanding as well as deception, lurking, information avoidance, false or inconsistent statements and actions and more, including so called “clashes of culture” are all depending from the absence of metacommunication .

3) And finally knowdging means design and development of contents engaging with the cognitive as well as with the intuitive and emotional mind of our audience. “Keep it simple” does not mean anything if we cannot keep it also relevant, intelligent and challenging.

If you are familiar with information management and policy making issues you may see the difference between my foundation principles for knowdging in any field and what the Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) has defined as properties of an "effective communication": I look at the invisible process that assure integrity as well as a certain level of predictability of interactions among people and at what could be learned, replicated, challenged or modified by the recipients as a very welcomed when not very needed option. BIT efforts focussed instead on qualities of the information that can be measured, generally effective in conveying messages to a generalist audience: easiness, attractiveness, timeliness, and sociability.


Science says that most of the times we have to establish or assess the pre-existence of some sort of causal relationship, association or familiarity in order to discover new knowledge, to establish a basic form of communication or to learn new meanings. Besides the need of languages and cognitive efforts proportionate to the task, to knowdge other people we need to share a vision: that is the role of rhetoric, as art of shaping and feeding public discourse in a context.

But do not think we can leave the issue to philosophical or academic debates. Rhetoric is indeed embedded in any body of knowledge we use in the public and in the private sector at any level. Best practices, standards, by-laws and guidelines offer the normalisation of language we need in order to do the right thing within a field of common knowledge. Critical thinking, literacies and metacommunication assure the connections among different fields and build bridges towards new solutions.

There is plenty of project management methods and standards that contribute to this end. Lean and Agile, for instance, are the most recent two major trends and dozens if not hundreds of other methodologies can be useful for this or that purpose, new behavioural economics included.
What seems to me not acceptable - neither in government nor in the corporate world - is not to have a process in place (or to fake one) to assure that metacommunication is always included and accessible at various cognitive levels.

Where to start? Start saying who you are and what you want to achieve. In an interesting conference few years ago I believe I anticipated such insight suggesting a baseline strategy to journalists and PR professionals interested in common guidelines for effective and accountable science communication: frame yourself before framing the question. In a digital economy, we all live in glass houses and you are always part of the tale.