259 – Lamenting the demise of mental maps

Posted on October 11, 2013 by

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”[1]

George ORWELL

A friend of mine, together with an artist, just created a multi-page insert for publication in a review. Their concept envisioned text and drawings facing each other on opposite pages. Therefore, the text was to appear on even (left-hand) pages, and illustrations on (right-hand) uneven pages. They delivered the whole work in .PDF format: the copier only had to insert it in the printing file. Murphy’s Law is blind and pitiless: the review carried the insert – beginning with an uneven page. The mirror effect was lost.

What had happened? While the specifics may be complicated, the core issue is obvious to me. The copier was following task-related instructions. The proper sequencing of the piece within the issue was “someone else’s job”. Putting it another way, he was following nudges (cut – paste). He had never developed the mental map of the finished product, nor had anyone encouraged him to do so. He was bereft of a sense of context and unable to use “common sense.” The result was a crying shame.

Popular lore defines “common sense” as “prejudices one has acquired before coming of age.” The quip tickles the funny bone, but it is wrong. “Common sense” is the satisfying outcome of solving a specific kind of problem: matching a heuristic (or a known rule) to a new context. It is a (lesser) form of creativity – not spectacular as in the case of an invention. The seed is there, however: is a “joining of what had never been joined before.”[2]

Increasingly, I notice this disconnect between proposed or applied solution and context. There is nothing just with the proposal: it is simply inappropriate to the context. The disconnect is often glaring, yet it is not perceived. It is as if the context did not exist, instead of being in front of one’s nose. Why this?

As a group, hunters-gatherers confronted an immensely complicated context with exceedingly few tools. They needed to understand the context fully, in order to have a chance of catching their prey, or surviving a famine. They carefully observed the least details of the context and constructed complex choice architectures – mental maps of what to do under what circumstances. So did agriculturalists and nomads. They were all consummate “problem solvers” – their life depended on it. That is how hunters-gatherers out of Africa became Inuit. Problem solving is “niche construction” (see my 258) and is a creative act. Problem solving should not be confused with solving puzzles. In puzzles,  the creator absconds the solution awaiting discovery. After all, there is only one solution to the fiendish Sudoku, and tomorrow’s paper will carry it.

Let’s go back to human history. Division of labor shattered the workers’ ability to construct personal mental maps of their work space. The map-constructing function has been externalized – “the boss knows best.” Workers toil as before, but in their work they no longer “solve problems.”[3]

We also build mental maps of personal preferences when we go shopping. However, as consumers we are no longer in charge. Advertising frames the search. In their stores, retailers build suggestive choice architectures – they guide us subliminally to specific products. Here as well, personal mental maps have been externalized. We let ourselves be nudged, rather than using discernment in our purchases.

The state as well, as a large provider of services, is entering the game. Prof. SUNSTEIN[4] proposes benevolent paternalism in form of “nudges” to facilitate access to state services. Once more, external choice architectures are replacing individual mental map construction and problem solving.

After production and consumption, increasingly social intercourse and recreation are based on external, rather than autonomous choice architectures. Facebook criteria for “friendship” replace personal exploration and validation of the personal encounter. As children swap video games for the living thing, manual dexterity replaces the ludic development of goal setting and problem solving. Androids are the rage: their behavior may be puzzling at first, but it never requires problem solving.

The cumulative effect of imposing/offering external choice architectures and down-grading problem-solving to solving puzzles is two-fold. First and most immediately, there is the fading of the personal ability to construct mental maps, of goal-setting, and solving unexpected problems. Dexterity replaces inventiveness. Looking for pre-programmed cues (solving puzzles) replaces reading, understanding, and manipulating reality. The “efficiency” heuristic replaces personal goal setting. As “problem-solving” ability fades, so does cultural diversity, curiosity, and creativity.

We bemoan the loss of biodiversity, but seem to take the loss of cultural micro-diversity in stride. When expert “best practice” replaces personal experience, mental map building and problem solving becomes elitist, as we downgrade the “wisdom of crowds.” In evolutionary terms, we are narrowing mankind’s overall ability for “niche-construction”, which is one of the many foundations of evolutionary change (or survival).

I see the loss of “political sense” or “sense for the social whole” as a second (and, in my opinion, even more immediate and ominous) issue. Philip KITCHER speaks of humanity’s need for a common “ethical project”; anthropologists speak of “self-domestication of the human species.” This goal cannot be achieved simply by triangulation of opposing self-interests – if nothing else because of the constant coalition building, which interferes with individual self-affirmation. In biological and cultural systems, triangulation need not yield social stability. It is a zero-sum game leading to stasis. Alternatively, it easily leads to discontinuities as circumstances change. More deeply: triangulation is static while “problem solving” is an emergent feature. Emergent features arise from cooperation, not conflict. They are based on discernment.

Discernment is understanding the other’s needs, mutuality and respect. Discernment builds mental maps of the social space. Discernment is the ground on which social stability and resilience rests.

For all the laudable suggestions Prof. SUNSTEIN presents, one remains uneasy about their collateral effects. Nudging fosters reflexive rather than reflective behavior. At the same time as the government nudges us, we may need to consider pro-active ways of fostering the survival (i.e. social) skills of mental map construction, goal setting, and discernment. I may put it another way: down-grading personal ability to solve problems to that of solving puzzles is hardly wise. Sudoku may be entertaining, but it does not help us coming to grips with life’s unexpected changes.


[1]           The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Editors / Paperback / Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, p. 125.

[2]           See: Arthur KOESTLER (1966): The act of creation.

[3]           This is not always the case. At Toyota, “organizational problem solving” is the cusp of the Toyota 4P system. See: Jeffrey K. LIKER (2004): The Toyota way. 14 management principles from the world’s greatest manufacturer. McGraw Hill, New York.

[4]           Cass R. SUNSTEIN (2013): Simpler. The future of government. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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