094: Where Reason Fails and Leadership Works (transcript)

October 9, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

I just read about someone describing the ultimatum game as showing people are irrational. The ultimatum game is used in classrooms and by psychologists. The teacher pairs people up, gives one person ten dollars or something like that and says, “You can keep as much as you want but give the rest to the other.” But if the other vetoes, all the money comes back to the teacher. So you can think about what you would do in the situation, what does the giver, the receiver and so forth. You could reason that the first person should keep nine dollars because the other person should keep the one dollar because something’s better than nothing. They shouldn’t veto that. In practice, offers and vetoes are evenly distributed implying that different people value the offers differently. Economists and psychologists, they use this result to imply that we are irrational. The ultimatum game is relevant to the environment because people are trying to get others to accept laws, norms and behaviors and so forth affecting the environment all the time often disagreeing, often resulting in people vetoing and so forth even when it seems like it should be rational not to.

You’ll hear my interviews. I do my best to avoid telling people what to do. That would be imposing my values on them. Instead I ask them their values, then invite them to act on those values. If so, they do things not for me which would be compliance or authoritarian, if I had some authority over them, but they do it for their own values. They do it for their own reasons. They want to do it. They like to do it. If the person doesn’t share value with me in a conversation, I don’t proceed. Listen to my first conversation with John Lee Dumas on this podcast. When I asked him his values, he said he didn’t care, at least at first. I would not continue past that. When he asked me to educate him on these things, he was asking me to convince him. I did not do that. As we spoke more, values of his did emerge, in particular the cleanliness of a beach near where he lived. Then he chose to act on that value. I didn’t convince him. I led him that is I found out his values and connected those values to a task. This is the style of leadership that I use. He then thanks me for taking on a challenge that he wouldn’t do if people paid him to do it that is to pick up garbage from the beach but he’s doing it for his values. What’s the difference between convincing or using rationality and leading? And why did leading result in him wanting to do something which he then did and enjoyed doing? Why did I avoid telling him what to do or use reasoning to convince him?

Many people think that if you just reason enough, you’ll get to what’s right and wrong in a way that everyone will agree with you, that everyone will believe. This happens in the environment and many other places in life. In the environment for example, you may believe that we should pass a law limiting emissions. When you hear another person suggest that that law might hurt jobs, you might think if I convince that person through reason, they’ll come to agree with me. Experience has shown me and probably you that trying to convince people tends to provoke debate. I’ll show you why trying to convince others and change their behavior through reasoning usually backfires. Convincing and logical debate often leads people to reinforce their positions in disagreement with you and often dislike you as well. People who try to use reason to influence other people they think emotion gets in the way and confuses us from seeing clearly what’s right and wrong. They don’t understand reason, they don’t understand emotion and they don’t understand how the human mind works regarding judgment.

Let me talk about reason for a second. Reason enables you to move from one belief to another. One plus one equals two. It enables you to conclude results often widespread from a small starting point or from small numbers as starting points. So mathematics is a great example. From a few axioms the field has proven many useful and beautiful results. Many people want to accomplish similar things with ethics and morality. They want to start with a few starting points and reason through to prove this is the way you should see the world. We should all agree on this ethics or morality. Euclid, in particular in mathematics, started off with five axioms and generated books of geometry that were the foundation of mathematics. People don’t get that the starting points are not the results of reason, can’t be and never will be. They stand outside of reason. You can reason from them and you can reason from simpler starting points to get to them so you may find more fundamental ones. But reason needs starting points. It always has, it always will. It doesn’t generate starting points. I will say that reducing your starting points to simpler and fewer ones makes it easier to understand and communicate your conclusions based on your reasoning. Simplicity may help understanding and communication but it doesn’t change that you started from starting points outside reason.

So for example, you may start from the point that human life is your key value. Someone else may agree or disagree and you may find it surprising if someone disagrees with you that is until you often will hear their starting point. But if they start from different starting points, you can’t reason them into agreeing with you on your starting point. For example, they might consider human happiness more important or the family unit may be more important for them and you can’t say, “I value human life and therefore you should value life too” because they might say, “Well, if the human is not happy,” you can go back and forth on these starting points but your starting points, if they don’t agree with them, reason will not get them to agree to your starting points. They’ll have their starting points which will lead to different results. So if you have different starting points, you can use reason to understand each other and communicate your differences but reason alone won’t change them. In a moment I’ll get to what will.

In Euclid’s case which is a very clear cut for example, his axioms seem so clear that nobody challenge them. People tried to create prior simpler ones and prove one from the others and for millennia nobody could until someone suggested something new. They changed one axiom. In doing so they created non-Euclidean geometry. It was just as reasonable as the Euclidian geometry, just different. It turns out that if you apply the same reason process to different starting points, you get different results. They’re not more valid, they are not less valid, just different. And the same applies to all of ethics and morality including regarding the environment. You can prove or disprove that some things are true, not true, contradictory, ethical, unethical, moral, immoral, and so on relative to a choice of starting points but you can’t prove the starting points. There always are starting points. You can try to get people to believe yours and agree with you and your starting points but you can’t change that reason starts from starting points outside reason.

This may sound like moral relativism if that’s what you want to hear and you want to put me into a pigeonhole but that’s not what I’m saying because the starting points don’t come randomly. We all share certain things in common which I’ll get to in a second which leads us to have very similar, very overlapping systems of morality and ethics but key differences as well which is important to understand. And if you believe that your starting points are the only starting points that are there and everyone should agree with you, you are going to have a lot of trouble working with people and interacting with people.

Someone who chooses different starting points will construct a different set of ethics, different set of morality or whatever system you’re trying to reason. Starting from different starting points you won’t be able to reason them out of theirs no matter how right yours seem to you, if they have different starting points, your right won’t seem right to them. You can try to show that there’s a contradictory but they’ll be able to show yours are contradictory too. And this is proved by Gödel, mathematician/philosopher/logician from, I don’t know, about a century ago. You can try to show that your starting points are better but they will be better by your starting points which they haven’t agreed to. Theirs seem better than yours and yours seem worse to them from their starting point. You trying to persuade them, may make you look like you want something from them which may imply to them that your system leaves you wanting which makes your system look worse to them from their perspective. It’s this weird irony that when you get it, it makes total sense. And I’m kind of skirting with it now because I’m just talking with you. But your behavior may lead them to stick to their beliefs more no matter how right your reasoning feels to you. It’s still coming from your starting points which they haven’t agreed to.

What are starting points? Starting points are your values or their values. Starting points are values. I spent a long time trying to figure out what values are. The term is pretty nebulous. Some people think of values as deep and unchanging but people’s values change. They change over time, they change from situation to situation, they change based on whom you’re with, they change based on experience and so on. So for example, you don’t value water that much right now but in the middle of the desert you suddenly value it very highly. You don’t value oxygen very high but if you’re flailing around a swimming pool, suddenly oxygen becomes the most important thing in your life. So I’ve concluded that values are based on our emotional responses to what we perceive. The term value, that is, is shorthand for how something makes us feel. If you’ve always seen values as the result of reason, you may find this perspective hard to grasp or even repugnant. I used to feel that way but I don’t feel that way anymore.

Let me give you another example. A dog you grew up with and played with your whole life that makes you feel emotions that you like you’d attach positive value to. You would say, “I value that dog.” The dog that bit you or growled at you without provocation and made you feel emotions you don’t like – fear, anxiety, things like that, you’d probably attach negative value to. You’d say, “I don’t value that dog. I want that dog away from me.” Meanwhile, some dog on some other continent owned by someone you’ll never meet and you’ll never interact with, you’d probably attach a neutral value to that dog. The dogs aren’t more or less valuable in any absolute sense. The owner of the dog on that other content will value that dog differently and your dog differently. Everyone will value everything differently based on his or her personal experience. Our unique experiences, environments and so on give us unique emotional responses and perceptions resulting in unique values to the extent our experiences, perceptions and emotional systems overlap we’ll agree and our values plus reasonable create ethical and moral systems that overlap but they’ll never agree completely. No two people have had the same experiences, the same emotional responses and therefore no two people have entirely the same values. When a lot of people’s values overlap, we call that overlap culture or society but always within societies there will be people who disagree and across all cultures there’s normally some types of agreement such as reciprocity. That cross-cultural agreement points to the root of where our values overlap which is our emotional systems. That’s because we all evolved from the same ancestors. Most things that we agree on kept our ancestors alive and their environments and having kids which resulted in us and once they had different values that resulted in different behaviors. Either they went on to become different species or they didn’t live and didn’t become us.

That’s why this is not moral relativism. While we have unique experiences that give us unique starting points, we share an emotional system because we descended from the same ancestors and our environments are pretty similar. And to the extent that you can see that people at different environments, you’ll see why they’ve different moral and ethical systems but then you’ll understand them better and be able to influence them, to persuade them or be influenced and be persuaded more effectively and you’ll have better relationships and you’ll be able to influence people more effectively. Certainly, more than if you presume that they share your values or if you try to impose your values on them not recognizing that your values seem wrong from their perspective.

Let’s get back to the environment. You’re here on the Leadership and the Environment podcast probably because you want to get results that we’re not getting. So how do we change other people’s values in order to change their behavior in order to get them to change, say how much they pollute or how they vote? Well, it’s not by reason. Reason may end up reinforcing values especially ones we disagree with. Reason may as I’ve said before reinforce values. Using reason such as trying to convince people, trying to argue with people may end up reinforcing their values, especially ones where we disagree with. As far as I can tell, you can’t directly change someone’s brain’s wiring. You can, however, give them new emotional responses by giving them new experiences. That’s the domain of leadership, not reason. Influence, persuasion, motivation and so on are not black arts, nor antithetical to reason. They’re different than reason. They’re social and emotional skills.

So I can now explain why the process of convincing an argument and using rational skills to attempt to change people’s behavior backfires so often and so strongly. When you use reason, you create a context that evokes emotions related to debate that is you motivate them, you lead them to argue with you. Since their starting points feel right to them, they’ll argue against yours reinforcing their starting points. You lead them in that process by convincing, by arguing to disagree with you more. However ironic this seems, check out your experiences and see how much that happens. If you disagree with me now, I’m actually using reason right now to talk to you about these things. I’m skirting with danger here because if you disagree with me, you say, “Josh, you’re wrong. It’s all about reason.” You’re actually reinforcing my point. If you are arguing with me in your mind and finding yourself disagreeing with me more, that actually illustrates that my using reasoning is leading you to disagree with me more. I’m skirting with danger here but I believe that if you look back at your experience, you’ll find that this different perspective gives you a different way of seeing things and you may find as I’ve found that social and emotional skills of leadership, of influence, of persuasion, of motivation, these lead people to change their beliefs, their values, they give them new emotional responses and that changes their behavior more than logic does.

Behavior and motivation are more fundamental than reason. Dogs have motivation and you can teach them. I don’t know how much reason they have but it looks it’s a lot less than we have. Our reasoning system serves our emotional system and motivational system but ultimately, we choose based on emotion. You can use logic and reason to influence someone’s decisions which will influence their behavior but ultimately their behavior emerges from their emotional system and logic and reason is a mere input to that. But our emotions are where we choose and that’s where our behavior comes from. If you try to engage people based on logic and reasoning and convincing, you’re engaging their logical, emotional, reasoning emotions which gets them to argue. So reason may help you understand someone but if you want to influence, persuade, motivate or otherwise lead someone, if you want them to vote differently or to pollute less, the social and emotional skills of leadership apply, not reason. And that’s why I named this podcast The Leadership and the Environment podcast because I believe that leadership is what’s missing. We have a lot of people trying to convince, a lot of people trying to use authority, not a lot of people using social and emotional skills to get people to like polluting less, to want to vote for certain legislation not because they have to, not from coercion, not from convincing but to lead them to value a clean, pristine, pure environment that we all share, that we can all be stewards of and that we want to protect and that we all enjoy together.

Going back to John Lee Dumas. Had I done what he asked to educate him, I would have engaged his reasoning based on whatever values he had but hadn’t shared with me. He reads the paper. He knows what’s going on in the world. If he says he didn’t care about the environment, it wasn’t out of ignorance or innocence. He’s already responded to what he’s read based on his values. If I repeated things he’d already heard, I would have engaged his reasoning and provoked arguments he’s already won in his head. Instead I gave him space to share value that he hadn’t acted on. Since his values are good to him acting on them improves his life. He improved his life. That’s my style of leadership to help people do what they value but haven’t figured out how to and that’s why I don’t see leadership as some black art or trying to get people to do what they don’t want. That’s what convincing and reasoning do as long as they try to change people’s values without recognizing that those values lie outside reason. Hence, I recommend learning and practicing the social and emotional skills of leadership which is why I share how I interact with my guests. For you to hear how those practices work and to practice them yourself and to make environmental action valuable and create a culture not of compliance and authority but where we like acting on our environmental values.

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