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Nudge the System, Wag the Dog

When we think about perception, our first question is whether it is true or not. Our focus is on the relation of perception to the perceived reality. But often we forget about perception’s other side. On the other side, our perception is connected to our action, and this, in turn, influences reality. Let me show you what I mean. 

Imagine there is a glass full of water in front of me. But I assume that the glass is empty. My perception of the glass is objectively wrong. But as Epictetus says: People are moved not by things, but by the view which they take of them. Acting on the basis of my perception that the glass is empty, I take it and hold it upside down. In so doing, I actually create the reality that just a moment ago was my wrong perception. Now my perception is correct: the glass is empty. And yes, I may discover there is water on the floor, but as long as I only consider the glass important, that doesn’t matter.

One step up, we can find the famous Vase scene in the movie “The Matrix”. Neo has just entered the kitchen of the woman called the Oracle, and while she casually talks about cookies, she says: “…and don’t worry about the vase.” – “Which vase?” asks Neo, and turns around to look. In so doing, he knocks over the vase that was just next to him.  – “That vase.” And there, in a nutshell, is the key to the whole movie: The prophecy the Oracle is going to make, about Neo not being “the One”, will eventually be a crucial influence on his behaviour which will make him become “the One”.  

Now let’s take this from fiction to reality: A few months after his election to the presidency, Donald Trump said that Sweden had problems with violence connected to immigration. This perception at the time was wrong, and based on some fake or exaggerated news from one of his favorite sources. But now that the President of the United States had said it, it became something people reacted to. The Swedish government, indignant, denied it. Fox News set up an interview with a “Swedish government expert” who happened to be someone who once did a project for a Swedish government institution. He confirmed Trumps view, and as a consequence depicted the Swedish government’s denial as a tentative hush-over. Since by now everybody was on edge about the topic, one week later a small incident about how Swedish police treated a foreigner led to violent protests. Now Sweden did in fact have a problem with violence related to immigration… News produces its own reality, like in the movie “Wag the Dog”. 

While in this case things happen very fast, they appear more regularly, and less visibly, in systems that develop over a longer period of time. Think about how parents educate their kids’ attitude towards risk, for example in traffic. At the start, everyone’s assumption about how their two-year-old toddler is capable to move in traffic is the same: at that age, kids are mostly oblivious to oncoming cars and bikes. But the conclusion from perception to action is different. Some parents think that for a long time, the only way a kid can move on or near a road is with constant attention and intervention of an adult, and the best way is to take them by their hand. Others think different, expose their kid to a certain risk, and gradually increase their independence. If you compare the kids’ behaviour at the age of 6, both parents see their views confirmed: the child that was always guarded and guided, is objectively much less capable of moving in traffic than the other. Similar behaviour can be observed on the playground, when it comes to climbing objects and jumping down off them. Kids whose reality consists of having an adult constantly two meters behind them, crying out “Don’t go there! Don’t do that!” whenever it might get dangerous, will learn to rely on that warning signal, and not develop one of their own. The ones who are more independent, may sometimes hurt themselves, but can be seen to ask for help if they assess the jump as too difficult. 

Once we understand this way that agent-system coevolution plays out, we can use it for our purposes. In my case, it was precisely the Matrix that opened my eyes – by having arguably the most surreal effect a film ever had on me. It was in Paris, and after the closing scene where Neo stopped the bullets, I walked out of the cinema with this sense that reality can be influenced. In the crowd in front of the Odéon, I walked straight, shoulders wide, looking right through people – and they all stepped out of my way. Then I became bolder. I walked onto the street, in between traffic lights, gave clear signs with my hand to the cars, never looking at the driver for more than a split second – and they slowed down, and drove around me. After five minutes, slowly the thought came creeping in: and what if one of the drivers doesn’t see me, or doesn’t believe that I will not stop? And all the puffed-up sense of self-assertion ebbed off again…

While this example may make the point, here are some more practical ways in which this can play out. My friend Diane has a habit of being very trusting, even in situations where others would have backed off long ago. But here is how she explains it: “If you trust people – from the start, and sometimes relentlessly – then some may call this risky, and sometimes even naïve. But it is amazing how many people want to be worthy of your trust.”

There is an episode in the life of Hugh Bishop of Lincoln in the Twelfth Century, when he was in conflict with Henry II., King of England. The conflict had escalated to the point where the Bishop had threatened to excommunicate the King, and the King had threatened to remove the Bishop from office. As a result of a difficult mediation, Hugh had the chance to come to court to make his excuses to Henry, with all the powerful nobles and magistrates present. But given the proud nature of both King and Bishop, it was quite uncertain whether, or how sincerely Hugh would apologize, whether Henry would accept, and which way the opinion of the court would lean. The King, and most of the nobles, were of the firm opinion that Hugh needed a beating, and needed to work hard to earn back Henry’s trust and friendship that he had once enjoyed. So when the Bishop entered the throne room, the King sat on his throne paying no attention to him, mending a button on his coat. Two notes on the context for the modern reader: In the Twelfth Century, it possible for a King to mend his own clothes, but it was very uncommon to do so in public, on the throne. Second, William the Conqueror, Henry’s grandfather, was an illegitimate son, born by Arlette de Falaise, a woman of humble origin. Now Hugh enters the throne room, sees everybody in silence, and the King is mending his clothes. The tension rises, everybody awaits Hugh’s reaction. Then Hugh says: “How you remind me of your cousins of Falaise.” In the context of a humble return of an outcast, this remark was insolent to the extreme. But in another context, that of old friends, of a Bishop who was allowed certain personal jokes that others were not, it was ok. The surprise was so big that Henry couldn’t help laughing out loud. And that created the re-framing. The court joined in the change of mood, and Hugh was forgiven without further rites of humiliation. 

I remember when I was in a situation with a client. The team working with me introduced me to their top manager. I was to join him in a workshop with many people, and the success of the workshop depended partly on how much the people in the room trusted me to have a close relation with their top manager – on eye level, so that I could, if need be, stand up to him and push back. In the very short briefing I had with him, I did several things very consciously: contradict him, make a casual remark to a weakness both he and I had, make a remark that showed I saw behind his public façade, while at the same time considering it perfectly normal to speak about this. Each of these actions were just a bit unacceptable for a first meeting, but would have been normal under the assumption that the two of us had a developed, trustful and buddy-like relation. He could, of course, decide to confront me there, or at least question me internally. Or he could go with the flow, which meant participating in a kind of behaviour that could only be thought of as normal if he assumed that we had a good relation. And that was what he did. Our internal model said that this behaviour was the outcome of a good relation. But since it was the behaviour that started it, it actually created the only condition under which it could be conceived as acceptable. 

Agent-system coevolution, the fact that one reality is open to many perspectives, and the role of internal models in directing our behaviour, combine into a toolset which allows us to consider many situations as an occasion to nudge the system. It is up to us to use it. 

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