The Law of Instrument

Abraham Maslow, a twentieth-century American psychologist, is best known for the creation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shown above. But I find one of his quotations to be far more powerful than the Hierarchy of Needs.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
— Abraham Maslow

The law of instrument says that we judge what’s in front of us with the tool we have. The law proposes that we treat the same object differently depending on if we hold a scale or a ruler in our hands.

Similarly, when a group of people experience an event, there are numerous, unique perceptions made. Each imprinted into their minds. Each slightly altered when recalled later.

This also applies internally.

We must hold different perspectives in our head at the same time. This is necessary today because our world is more and more imagined — we live in the world of electricity and the internet. These things are infinitely more abstract than the creation of farming and clothing.

Put another way, as society (collective intelligence) advances it leaves behind biology (individual intelligence). 1,000 years for a civilization is a long time. 1,000 years for evolution is a smudge on the hourglass of time.

“We distort things … because we are trained neither to voice both sides of an issue nor to listen with both ears … It is rooted in the fact that we look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white — and we fragment reality into an endless series of [dichotomies].
In a phrase, we think the world apart.”
— Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

As the world becomes more imagined, we have to be cognizant of the law of instrument. And we have to stop succumbing to it.

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