CEPA eprint 4217

Attitudes and identity: From von Glasersfeld to Kahneman

Gash H. (2017) Attitudes and identity: From von Glasersfeld to Kahneman. In: Lasker G. E. & Hiwaki K. (eds.) Personal & spiritual development in the world of cultural diversity. IIAS, Tecumseh Ontario Canada: 45–50. Available at http://cepa.info/4217
Table of Contents
Introduction
Intra and inter individual consistency
Prejudice as conservation
Classroom interventions
Heuristics and prejudice
The importance of identity
Identity in relationship
References
Ernst von Glasersfeld (1974) used the phrase Radical Constructivism (RC) to clarify the meaning of Piaget’s constructivist epistemology. This interpretation was proposed in the context of a Piagetian compensatory early education programme in the USA. Much of the work that followed initially was directly related to subjects like maths and science. The implications of radical constructivism for social understandings led the present author to study stereotypes. This work emphasised the role of identity in prejudice. Identity reflects the social heuristics and world views of one’s culture. Balancing self-perception with acceptable cultural expression is a key to well-being, personal development and one’s social functioning.
Key words: Radical constructivism, prejudice, stereotyping, tolerance, heuristics.
Introduction
Ernst von Glasersfeld (1974) introduced radical constructivism at a time when B.F. Skinner was a radical behaviourist. The philosophical positions were opposed. Skinner’s held that what was internal was out of bounds in science. Glasersfeld held that models of mental structure were vital to understand human behaviours. Skinner’s view appeared at the end of a long productive examination of learning, and at a time of paradigm change when Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget were identified as structuralists in Howard Gardner’s early publication, The quest for mind (1972). Some courses I took at graduate school in educational and developmental psychology included each of these paradigms. There were lively debates at seminars.
A key difference between the positions was the importance given to what was internal and what was external. Moving from one paradigm to another is like changing culture. It involves ways of seeing and ways of being and feeling. It is possible to think of new paradigms as emerging like stages of understanding (Gash, 2014). Others have argued that it makes more sense to talk of different discourses (Engström, 2014 cited in Gash (ibid)). I described my own personal journey in psychology using the metaphor of stages, that is, ways of thinking that reflect deeper understandings of the systemic nature of mental operations emerging over time. For example, the Piagetian constructivist approach was initially presented (stage 1) as an interaction between the individual and the environment, and later radical constructivism (stage 2) emphasised the priority of the individual interpretation (Gash, ibid). So, reality is essentially mysterious, and while there is always a gap between what we know and reality, more viable models of our experience may emerge. A third stage concerned recognition of the role of the social, though it is important to emphasise that the social is always an interpretation. Mentioning the social in the context of radical constructivism invites critical comments from radical constructivists who are focussing on the second stage (Bowers et al. (2014); McCloughlin, (2014) both cited in Gash (ibid)).
Intra and inter individual consistency
Glasersfeld (1979, p.28) described the Self this way: “It resides in no place at all, but merely manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours.” Our activities are anticipatory and multileveled, ranging from personal movement to social roles. The continuity of our acts implies that there is a form of stability in what we do. As we move from one set of acts to another, connections between the items in sequence conveys stability. We might provide examples like skill in tennis, or negotiating a point at a conference. Within the context of radical constructivism, intra-individual consistency reflects the need for a system of interrelated activities to be internally coherent. One’s self esteem depends on this consistency. Inter-individual consistency, in turn, signals consistency in one’s activities as noticed by others in one’s experience. One’s skills, one’s interests, one’s preferences and one’s actions are all noticed and form part of the expectations others have about us. This is a social side to our identity.
Prejudice as conservation
Piaget’s accounts of conservation of various mathematical features are a landmark of his work on young children’s thought. They imply the emergence of an ability to appreciate that forms of perceptual transformation do not mean a change in the category or attribute conserved. So, the physical and perceptual arrangement of four items is irrelevant to the number. In the social sphere, in 1983 Aletha Huston drew attention to a cultural change in the way gender roles were perceived. This was a change from a fixed traditional view of gender roles to a newer more flexible view that she attributed to contemporary feminist discussions. Research in schools in Ireland seeking to promote equality in education between boys and girls was initiated via a European initiative in 1987 (Arnesen & NiChearthaigh 1987). One initiative in Ireland sought to reduce gender stereotyping through a constructivist classroom intervention in primary schools (Gash & Morgan, 1993 cited in Gash (2014)). Children’s gender stereotypes were measured using a standard questionnaire. That is, we assessed the meaning of what it was to be a boy or girl for each participant in terms of gender based personal and social attributes. The children had their own ideas about gender, and the teachers involved in the intervention reported their perceptions and sensitivities to the children’s feelings and ideas about gender. The teachers told us that they thought that changing gender stereotypes was not about giving information.
Classroom interventions
Initially the classroom interventions were based on counter suggestions and questions. Children who had not met female doctors were told about examples in class. We organised visits from soldiers and veterinary surgeons who were female for children who thought these occupations were men’s jobs. We sought to surprize the children. Watching classroom discussions guided by adroit teachers illustrated how it was important not to challenge identity. Children have their own constructions. They may be based on faulty samples but it’s always the child’s decision to change her or his ideas. Indeed, the importance of identity and privacy emerged emphatically when a small boy said to the whole class that the only time his Daddy was emotional (and cried) was when he was drunk. In this and other examples, teachers needed to be community diplomats when discussing gender stereotypes. Looking back at that project in the late 1980s in Ireland, and considering the huge political press these same issues raised in France in 2010, my view is that private initiatives from researchers in institutions deemed friendly by the participating teachers were given freedom to operate.
However, larger more official projects were in danger of running into identity related problems. In France, the official programme developed by the Ministry of Education (France, Web reference) to promote equality ran into vociferous opposition from groups who were also against the movement for single sex marriage in France (Fournil, 2014 web). There were indications from other partners in the European initiative (ibid.) that in some schools it was very difficult for teachers to introduce gender based curricula. Two examples I recall were related to employment. In subjects that were traditionally regarded as related to male employment, the idea that females could do these jobs was threatening.
Our ambitions were modest. We sought to enable flexibility in relation to gender based personal social attributes in young children. These included qualities like kindness, strength, gentleness and being affectionate. In further studies, again in primary schools, on national perceptions and learning disabilities the qualities were similar and included: greedy, bad, stupid, rich, clever, and happy. One study on national stereotypes targeted Irish primary children’s ideas about French and Greek children. The children had expectancies about social attributes based on their experiences and applying heuristics to members of the group concerned. These constructions are highly personal in that they regulate interactions, and at the same time they are highly social because interactions are social, and because we are known by our actions. It was clear that experience of the “other” potentially but not inevitably made a difference. For example, younger children tended to be very positive towards children with a learning disability. Older children and children who knew a child with a learning disability were more aware of the difficulties surrounding shared class activity and indeed of shared social activities. Also, in the study of views towards children from other countries, it seemed apparent that the different “other”, even if unknown, tended to be a focus of a projected “not me” (Gash, 1995 cited in Gash (2014)).
Heuristics and prejudice
Radical constructivism prioritises the role of individual judgment. It emphasises that people make up their own minds, though they may take others’ views into account. Further, there is some obligation for ones’ thoughts to be viable, that is to resist the challenges of experience. Clearly, in the present post-truth context, we see more clearly that many people seek to avoid challenging ideas and hold onto ideas even when challenged. Heuristics are shortcuts the mind uses to make judgments. Shweder (1977) in his discussion of judgment and heuristics, mentioned how difficult it was for people to include statistical analysis in their judgments. Hasty stereotypical judgments that are supported by one’s social group become part of a person’s identity and are difficult to change. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2012) adds significant detail to the role of heuristics in human judgment. Kahneman described fast thinking (system 1) as prioritising making sense of experience, but it is automatic, influenced by contextual factors and with no sense of voluntary control. Slow thinking (system 2) requires effort and reflection. Today, when sound bites are normal discourse there is an urgent need to invite and promote reflection. I must emphasise that when flawed political statements are lauded, there is a need to identify flaws that play a role in facilitating prejudice and tolerance. Radical constructivism prioritises different interpretations of experience, this does not mean that conflicting views cannot be resolved, rather difference invites discussion. However, this is a challenge in today’s world when the opportunities for discussion and careful consideration of ideas are challenged by work, the media and the many calls on people’s time.
The importance of identity
We can be threatened physically and or psychologically, and as individuals or in groups or nationally. Physical violence threatens biological integrity and psychological violence threatens psychological integrity and our sense of well-being. How we react to threats of violence depends on self-confidence. This is partly due to our psychological history and whether our psychological context is supportive or destructive. Questioning identity may reveal our vulnerability. We must meet our needs. Even simple threats may hurt. Maureen Gaffney (2011) argued that the ratio of positive to negative events in our inner experience and in our relationships with others must be about five to one for well-being to survive.
In 2016 in various countries including the Philippines, England and the USA complex democratic traditions gave way to waves of populist protest. Conservative political positions emphasising national identity swept aside more complex nuanced liberal agendas that included attention to human rights, gender equality, and social justice. In England and the USA national identity was a primary consideration in voting patterns. In each of these cases self-determination was deemed to be at risk because of the threat of the “other”. A survey by Ipsos Mori (web reference) showed that in many countries the number of Muslims is perceived to be significantly greater than the actual number. Further, the hatred of immigrants is inversely proportional to the actual number in the community (O’Toole, 2016). So, the fear of the “different other” is more important than the reality of the menace (Malouf, 1998).
The mind operates by noticing differences. Colour (Black, White) and national identities (USA, Mexico) offer binary choices. Identity, however, is more complex and the more complex the description of identity, the more the person’s uniqueness is specified and affirmed. Too simple a description objectifies and undermines uniqueness. In communication, it can be efficient to ignore a difference. If misunderstandings occur, one can slow down and let slow thinking take control. Kahneman’s (2012) approach is very relevant to understanding how stereotypes and prejudice depend on heuristics. Fast (system 1) thinking prioritises existing patterns and binary choices satisfying the need to understand quickly.
Errors may be made for a variety of reasons including overlooking small sample sizes, the availability of erroneous ideas, inappropriate emotions, incorrect parameters, and our inbuilt need to rapidly construct a way of understanding our ongoing dynamic experiences. Kahneman (2012, ch16. p.8) has an interesting quote: “We consider it morally desirable for base rates to be treated as statistical facts about the group rather than as presumptive facts about individuals. In other words, we reject causal base rates.” Such opposition to stereotyping helps equality, but may lead to less than optimal judgments. The importance of causes and our way of thinking about them is aptly captured: “Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.”
Identity in relationship
Over the years my writing about tolerance was linked to research on children’s ideas about “different others” Initial efforts to use surprize to wobble fledgling certainties about the social world morphed into classroom experiences designed to help pupils identify with others through activities. This promotes inclusion. If we are seeking a broad notion of humanity we need to avoid religion, tradition and a culture that makes people poorer (Maalouf, 1998). The bigger and more dominant the culture, the more desperate the excluded.
Kahneman (ibid) noticed that research on happiness often depended on estimations of remembered life satisfaction. So, he created another measure of happiness summing moment to moment satisfactions. The measures were not the same, indicating two different identities: the remembered self and the experiencing self who he said is like a stranger. Can we slow down and let this experiencing self flourish?
References
Arnesen A.-L. & Ní Chárthaigh, D. (1987) (eds.) Equal opportunities for girls and boys: A curriculum framework for teacher education with guidelines for action. Brussels: Association for Teacher Education in Europe.
Fournil J. (2014). http://newsactivist.com/fr/node/7080
France http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid4006/egalite-des-filles-et-des-garcons.html
Gaffney M. (2011) Flourishing: How to achieve a deeper sense of wellbeing, meaning and purpose-even when facing adversity. Dublin: Penguin.
Gardner H. (1972) The Quest for Mind. New York: Knopf.
Gash H. (2014) Constructing constructivism. In special issue of Constructivist Foundations, 9, 3, 302-327. on “Forty Years of Radical Constructivism in Educational Research” Editors A. Riegler and L. Steffe.
Glasersfeld E. von (1974). Piaget and the radical constructivist epistemology. In C. D. Smock & E. von Glasersfeld (eds.), Epistemology and Education. Athens, GA: Follow Through Publications. http://cepa.info/1324
Glasersfeld E. von (1979) Cybernetics, experience, and the concept of self. In: M. N. Ozer (ed.), A Cybernetic Approach to the Assessment of Children: Toward a more humane use of human beings. pp, 67–113. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. http://cepa.info/1346
Huston A. C. (1983). Sex-typing. In E. M. Hetherington and P. H. Mussen (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, Personality, and Social Development (pp. 387– 467). New York: Wiley.
Ipsos-Mori (2016) Perils of Perception. Available at: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-mori-perils-of-perception-charts-2016.pdf
Kahneman D. (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin: London
Maalouf A. (1998) Les Identités Meurtrières. Grasset: Paris.
O’Toole F. (2016) 2017: Do you feel lucky? Irish Times, Weekend Review, p.1.
Rodrik D. (2011) The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. Norton: NY.
Shweder R. A. (1977) Likeness and likelihood in everyday thought: Magical thinking in judgments about personality. Current Anthropology, Vol. 18, No.4, 637-658.
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