The Elephant in the Room – how we aren’t always as objective as we like to think

Over the August bank holiday weekend a number of the transparency project team went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex. The festival was a mixture of music, rain, and workshops, talks and interviews about journalism (next year by the way The Transparency Project hope to be running a workshop for journalists on the family court). The session which I found most interesting and useful was a workshop run by Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist at Kings College London : Truth for Elephants, or how to disagree.


The theme of the workshop is nicely summarized here in the opening paragraphs of an article by De Meyer on The Conversation website:


As a citizen, the growing divisions trouble me. As a neuroscientist, it intrigues me. How is it possible that people come to hold such widely different views of reality? And what can we do (if anything) to break out of the cycle of increasingly hostile feelings towards people who seem to be on “the other side” from us?


I missed the first few minutes (having stopped to check in on the 10 yo who was in the kids media tent making news), so the elephant connection was slightly lost on me. I *think* it was used as a metaphor for that part of the brain that deals with our automatic emotional responses – our instincts if you like.


As I listened to Kris delivering this workshop, through examples about Brexit and trump and the British and US political system I realized it had huge resonance in the field of the child protection and family justice system and how we talk (or don’t talk) about it.


So here goes, with my summary of the gist of what Kris De Meyer was telling us (apologies if I’ve got this wrong – the tent was rammed and I was peering in from the outside so may have missed or misunderstood some of it).


Apparently, babies have been shown to make social judgments from 3 months old – an example was given of babies showing preference for the ‘nice’ bear over the ‘mean’ bear. So, the implication is that we need to be alert at how much of our responses are driven by the elephant in us.


De Meyer used a really interesting diagram of a pyramid (the pyramid of choice) to illustrate the main mechanism (It is reproduced here with kind permission of @rightbtw based on an analogy proposed first by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris in Mistakes were made), and what follows is my attempt at an explanation of it.

Image courtesy of @rightbtw

The Choice Pyramid, courtesy of @rightbtw


When we adopt positions on a contentious issue (the example given here was Brexit before the referendum) many of us may start off from a ‘mildly convicted’ position (the top of the pyramid). But somehow, through the process of making a decision and expressing a position, we find ourselves pushed further down the side of the pyramid as we rationalize and justify the rightness of our decision in the face of challenge. We do this because of cognitive dissonance (which I think of as the unbearable noise of voices on your shoulder telling you you’re wrong).


Going back to The Conversation article for some assistance in expressing this more usefully / scientifically :


What people are less aware of is that dissonance drives opinion change. Festinger proposed that the inconsistencies we experience in our beliefs create an emotional discomfort that acts as a force to reduce the inconsistency, by changing our beliefs or adding new ones.


A choice can also create dissonance, especially if it involves a difficult trade off…That choice and commitment to the chosen option leads to opinion change has been demonstrated in many experiments.


…Almost 60 years of research and thousands of experiments have shown that dissonance most strongly operates when events impact our core beliefs, especially the beliefs we have about ourselves as smart, good, competent people.


And it’s a little bit like a rolling stone (or as De Meyer explains it ‘a cycle of self-justification’), and the more you justify (and the further down the slope you roll), the more challenging it is to hear a different view. And this process of sliding down opposite sides of the pyramid is something we are mostly not even conscious of – and if we think we are neutral or objective in reaching decisions we are kidding ourselves. We make decisions in a value landscape, and whilst this value landscape and the elephanty bit of us doesn’t determine what decisions we make and what actions we perform it does predispose us to polarization. And in political terms, pressure in the centre ground inadvertently pushes opinion to the sides and clears out the middle ground. This accounts in part for the polarization of politics, for example in the US.


And once things become that divided, all that is left is shouting abuse. We’ve all seen it and it doesn’t just relate to politics.


And the position we are then left with, which I think we will all recognize is that :


Paradoxically, this means that every time we argue about our position with others, we can become more certain that we are, in fact, right.


De Meyer’s message and aspiration I think was that in raising aware of these hidden processes, we might perhaps be better able to innoculate ourselves from polarization and from angry and irrational responses – using our conscious rational mind to pull ourselves back up the slippery slope.


Psychologically, there are 3 ways to deal with cognitive dissonance :

  • bat away the evidence
  • change your view of yourself as good or smart
  • ask what can I learn – the mindful approach


I suspect that those who listen to what parents who have had social workers come into their lives and homes are saying, and who are alive to their genuine fears will recognize a lot of this. But I suspect that there are a lot of my professional colleagues hunkered down at the bottom on one side of the pyramid of choice talking amongst themselves, whilst a lot of parents are shouting loudly from the bottom of the other side. I don’t think they can always hear each other.


It sometimes feels as if the more you try to explain that social workers are not all corrupt, baby snatching, financially motivated, target driven monsters, the more some parents believe it is so. It can feel futile. And the same is true I fear of some colleagues who seem to have their fingers in their ears and who go out of their way to avoid the cognitive dissonance that arises from parents saying loudly ‘something is wrong here’. The job of working to protect vulnerable children is emotionally tough, harder still when we are bombarded continually with criticism. Easier then not to listen. Except that sometimes it seeps in to the very fabric of what we are doing because parents and professionals are forced to work together and forced to expressed views of one another through the assessment, reporting and court processes. And increasingly often the result is ‘won’t engage’. Sometimes non-engagement is a two way street. Sometimes we are not mindful enough of the value landscape and the levels of cognitive dissonance that vulnerable parents are attempting to manage.


I asked De Meyer at the end of the session what individual lawyers could do to help their parent clients back up the side of the pyramid. His answer was depressing – he wasn’t sure how much could be done once somebody was right down at the bottom of the pyramid, the answer is to prevent them getting there in the first place. Easier said than done, but that is about wider public legal education and wider public confidence in the system. It’s about stopping the rot on a society wide basis and hoping that fewer parents find themselves caught in a perfect storm of societal distrust, bad advice and emotional vulnerability and limited insight.


Of course, professionals too need to be mindful of their own value judgments and self consciously drag themselves back up that slope again and again (I include myself in this). And we can self consciously listen to those fears and beliefs, try to understand them and why they are so compelling for parents, and try to discuss them with kindness, rather than pooh poohing them as stupid or wrong. Because the reality is that there are things wrong with the family justice and child protection system, both systemically and in individual cases. The danger is that in emotionally defending ourselves we have stopped listening to challenge and we aren’t hearing even those parts of the challenge that may have some basis in reality or that we may benefit from grasping.


Today, having written most of this post I took part in the #CPConf2018 Child Protection Conference. It was good to realise that the way in which the transparency project have been approaching issues has been pretty much along the right lines – listen, acknowledge, avoid being judgmental and be prepared to learn and change your mind. Although there were a few who preferred not to attend but to gripe on the hashtag from outside within the room there was a surprising amount of openness and consensus about what sometimes goes wrong, and a willingness to think about uncomfortable things, in particular the harm that we cause even when we are trying to do our best by children and families (whether parent or professional).


Recommended reading and viewing (which I’ve not had the chance to follow up on) includes

One thought on “The Elephant in the Room – how we aren’t always as objective as we like to think

  1. This is so interesting and difficult to explain. Apart from spiritual gurus such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is rare to find people who can depart from entrenched views (me included) as once instincts kick in as we will protect our ego’s out of fear. Humility is essential, to get out of black and white thinking, seeing the other person as an equal human being but so difficult if a person actually feels humiliation. It helps to try and understand what motivates the other person, in my experience it is 9 times out of 10 fear of loss ,either of something they are already have or something they aspire to.

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