The Cognitive Science of SHUT UP

“I’m going to be a shrill and rigid idiot.

“I’m going to blindly refuse to listen to contrary opinions. I’ve already made up my mind, and will invent reasons why alternatives won’t work. Most importantly, I’m going to get this done my way, regardless of whether it’s actually the best decision, or even a good idea.”

You’ve never approached a problem that way. No one has.

But you’ve probably told yourself that story about someone else. You’ve been on the receiving end of one of these mindless and petty tyrants, in a bug or a mailing list or a standards body, and you’ve decided that you were seeing a rigid idiot in action. I know I have.

My philosophy of science prof used to talk about how the two important tests of a scientific model are whether it allows you to make accurate predictions, and how well it helps you discover new things. This matters more than its elegance or its intuitive appeal, though a really nice model has those, too.

The Rigid Idiot model does, for better or for worse, predict. It predicts more rigid idiocy, and people using that model to inform their interactions are likely to get precisely that. But it’s a pretty hollow model for generativity; it doesn’t help you make progress.

Here’s an alternate model:

Stress response pre-dates our neocortex, and outranks it. It is wired more deeply into us than language, much less rational discussion. And it has predictable effects. A person under stress (personal, professional, social, physical) will lose patience more quickly, anger easily, resist change, and consider fewer alternatives before making decisions. It’s an ancient, optimized cognitive path: less waffling when there are lions nearby. That it impairs our ability to function in this 10,000 year old thing called ‘civilization’ is evolutionary postscript.

You get to choose which model you bring to a conversation. When you assume that the person you’re dealing with is acting atypically, from point-in-time stress instead of born-in idiocy, you give yourself follow-up questions to ask about timelines, or conflicting pressures, or hidden assumptions. You give yourself ways to understand motivations, and implicit guidance about tone.

Not every asshole is a stress response waiting to be defused, but I swear to you that the single greatest improvement you can make to your success rate with these conversations is to switch models. I have seen people turn on a dime once their stressors are addressed. Suddenly there are lots of solutions, and confrontation turns to collaboration. It’s like a god damned secret decoder ring, to be honest.

With practice, you may even start to recognize the descent into idiocy in your own interactions, though it won’t make you immune. This is old, lizard-brain stuff. Like drunkenness, you can get better at detecting it, but you can’t think your way out of it. And, as with drink, my hope is that if you see someone a little worse for wear, you remember that it’s fleeting. Give them some time to sober up before assuming that’s who they really are.

4 comments

  1. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but for others, a related article from Don Norman on emotion and design: http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/emotion_design.html

    “Affect changes the operating parameters of cognition: positive affect enhances creative, breadth-first thinking whereas negative affect focuses cognition, enhancing depth-first processing and minimizing distractions.”

  2. @Madhava – Yes and yes again. Precisely that.

  3. Oh, I get it! Cool! So these people who disagree with me aren’t actually idiots, it’s just that they’re pathetic spineless creatures who can’t deal with the pressures of their own life, and lack the ability to segregate their irrelevant problems from the issue at hand. They’re not dumb, they’re just weak!

    (Just kidding!)

    Remember: if you think this comment is inappropriate, it’s because you’re weak.