Making sense of history

Posted by  Mark Schenk —March 25, 2008
Filed in Communication

I am reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I enjoyed his description of how history is extremely opaque; how “you see what comes out, not the script that produces events.” He describes three ailments the human mind suffers when it comes into contact with history (he calls them the ‘triplet of opacity’):

  • The Illusion of Understanding. This relates to the pathology of thinking that the world we live in is more understandable, more explainable and therefore more predictable than it actually is. It also relates to our tendency to reflect and conclude that events had a specific cause and that events could have been averted by removing that specific cause.
  • Retrospective Distortion. How we assess matters after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror. Taleb describes his impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of anything, capable of mounting explanations for all sorts of phenomena and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability. History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture with few vibrations in between. Yet we believe in predictable, incremental progression. This is a slightly different take from Dave Snowden’s description of ‘retrospective coherence’ where cause and effect in complex situations only becomes visible in hindsight.
  • Overvaluation of Factual Information. Taleb also calls this ‘the curse of learning’, referring to the “handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories-when they “Platonify.”” In many cases, particularly regarding complex issues, experts are no better at knowing what is going to happen than cab drivers. The difference is that the experts think they know better what is going to happen. Taleb also describes how gathering more and more facts, details and information doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen.

Not surprisingly, we see these ‘ailments’ all the time. The trick is balancing our tendency to ‘Platonify’ with the need to make sense and become aware of the inherent unpredictability of our organisational environments. A bit more inquiry and listening, a little less arrogance (believing we know best). Continuing to see good data..and supplementing it with the willingness to try things and see what happens.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

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