What are you optimistic about?

[ Sat. Feb. 16. 2008 ]

Each Christmas, those who know what makes me happiest usually give me the gift of knowledge in the form of a few good books. This year one of these gifts was What Are You Optimistic About?, edited by John Brockman. It contains a collection of answers by some of the world's leading scientists and thinkers to the third "annual www.edge.org question." It had me considering my own answer to the question. I also got to thinking about what answers might be given by members of the Webdiary community. So, here's my answer and then it's over to you: What are you optimistic about?

My third wish could begin to come true.

At the end of the year, Fiona Reynolds proposed that every Webdiarist have three wishes: one for the world, one for our dear ones, and one for ourselves. I reversed the order and made my third wish a wish for the world:

For all of us: An increased desire to understand and make good use of what unites us.

On reading John Brockman's collection I was delighted to see that more than one of the world's leading thinkers expressed an optimism about the prospects of what I'd wished for becoming real.

For example, David Berreby, science writer and author of Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind explains why he's optimistic about the diminishing influence of what he calls "the zombie concept of identity", which is "the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation". In other words, he sees signs that the incorrect assumption that people are obedient zombies who do what identity ordains is being overcome. I share Berreby's optimism that:

As we become more comfortable with the idea that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes it come to the fore in a given context?

My optimism is also encouraged by, Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor of Psychology emeritus at Stanford University and famous for the Stanford Prisoner Experiment:


In trying to understand human behavior that violates our expectations, there is a tendency to 'rush to the dispositional.' We seek to explain behavior in terms of the personal qualities of the actor. In individualistic cultures, this means searching for genetic, personality, or pathological characteristics that can be reasonably linked as explanatory constructs. It also has come to mean discounting or ignoring aspects of the behavioral context - situational variables - that may be significant contributors to behavior. Dramatists, philosophers, and historians, as well as clergy and physicians, all tend toward the dispositional and away from the situational in their views of human nature.

Social psychologists have been struggling to modify this bias toward inner determinants of behavior by creating a large body of research highlighting the importance of outer determinants. Rules, responsibility, anonymity, role-playing, group dynamics, authority pressures, and more have been shown to have a dramatic effect on individual behavior across a variety of settings.

The social psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic demonstration of blind obedience to authority showed that most ordinary Americans would follow orders given by an authority even if it led to severely harming an innocent person. My Stanford prison experiment extended this notion of situational power to demonstrate that instituational settings - prisons, schools, businesses - exert strong influences over human behavior. Nevertheless, the general public (and even intellectuals from many fields) still buys the dispositional and dismisses the situational as mere mitigating circumstance.

I am optimistic that this bias will be rebalanced in the coming year, as new research reveals that the situational focus is to an enhanced public-health model as the dispositional is to the old medical model in trying to understand and change the behavior of people in communities. The focus of public health on identifying vectors of disease can be extended to systemic vectors of health and success in place of individual ambition and personal failure or success.

This analysis will be important in meeting the challenges posed by international terrorism through new efforts to build community resilience instead of focussing on individual coping. It will also change the blame game of those in charge of various institutions and systems - from identifying the 'few bad apples' to actively trying to understand how the apple barrel is corrupting good apples. I have shown how this dispositional thinking operated in analyzing the causes of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib by the military and civilian chains of command. Dispositional thinking is no different than the search for evil by identifying and destroying the 'witches' in Salem. Although the foundations of such thinking run deep and wide in most of us, I am optimistic that we will acquire a more balanced perspective on how good people may turn evil and bad people can be guided toward good.

My optimism that we can make good use of the knowledge of what makes us human, and then also what unites us, is bolstered by the optimism of founder and CEO of Neoteny, Joichi Ito:

I am optimistic that open networks will continue to grow and become available to more and more people. I am optimistic that computers will continue to become cheaper and more available. I am optimistic that the hardware and software will become more open, transparent, and free. I am optimistic that the ability to create, share, and mix works will provide a voice to the vast majority of people.

I believe the Internet, open source, and a global culture of discourse and sharing will become pillars of democracy for the 21st century. Whereas those in power – as well as terrorists, who are not – have used broadcast technology and the mass media of the 20th century against the free world, I am optimistic that the Internet will enable the collective voice of the people, and that it will be a voice of reason and goodwill.

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