How human communication fails in a complex world

Describing today’s world as complex is both a cliche and true. The world always has been complex of course. But in the past, the complexity was covered up by a strictly enforced set of religious, social and behavioral rules, which created the illusion of order, simplicity and straight-forward answers to any kind of question or problem. At the expense of almost everybody.

Today this illusion is gone. Humanity is slowly waking up to the realization that things are not simple and that there hardly are any easy answers to anything. These are some of the “discoveries”:

  • All systems are interconnected, and the connections are usually only “obvious” in hindsight.
  • Short-term actions have long-term consequences — sometimes in ways which no one saw coming (unintended consequences).
  • History and past culture shape today’s behavior, and this legacy is incredibly hard to shake off, both on an individual and on an societal level.
  • There often are various diverging but in itself not inaccurate statistics about the same issue, pointing towards different directions.
  • Often multiple and seemingly contradicting viewpoints can be correct.
  • Many debates are about morality and ideology alone, not about actual solutions to problems, even if the debates and its protagonists pretend the opposite.
  • People and their experiences can be very different — while at the same time every human is subject to the same cognitive biases and distortion of her/his perception of the world.

Unfortunately, humans are bad at dealing with complexity. The human mind and the human way of expressing in its current evolutionary state aren’t naturally built for this. Which is why most, if not all discussions about important topics, are mostly misunderstandings and people talking past each other. Some contribution factors:

  • Attention span is short (which is the enemy of talking about complex things).
  • The brain favors binary thinking (black vs white, good vs evil) and doesn’t do well with processing multiple contradicting viewpoints simultaneously.
  • We hear what we “want” to hear, based on our existing world view. Give 2 people the same text to read and ask them about the core message of the text. Chances are big that they’ll tell different things.
  • We communicate information, facts and ideas without adding sufficient context, assuming that everyone has the same starting point about an issue as we have. This is hardly ever the case.
  • We use words and labels based on our understanding of them, while listeners/readers might have a different understanding/interpretation of them — which is why most labels are useless and often even destructive.
  • How arguments are being sold matters a lot, often more than the arguments itself, due to cognitive biases on the receiver’s end of a message, as well as cultural norms. Therefore flawed arguments can gain traction if sold in a smart way, while intelligent arguments might not receive any attention (or the wrong kind) if they are being presented in a flawed way.

Dealing with complexity and a never-ending-stream of “on the one hand, on the other hand” dilemmas is tough in itself. Dealing with it using the flawed approaches of human communication is a disaster, and the reason for why the state of public debate and media is so poor.

Thus, we might be at a point in the history where some kind of Enlightenment 2.0 will have to happen (by using this label I might cause different readers to imagine different things. Sorry). In such a scenario, humans would gain so much awareness and understanding of their own flaws in thinking and communicating that they enable themselves to develop “hacks” to counter the destructive consequences of the flaws mentioned above.

How to get there? A good start would be if everyone, regardless of academic credentials, public influence, IQ test results and CV, would exercise intense critical self-investigation. To see the opposite of this, look at what’s going on Twitter.

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