Listening to Ellen Langer talk about mindfulness is always delightful, entertaining, and re-mindful. For example, click to watch "Mindfulness over Matter" (Pop!Tech). In this talk she tells the story about a horse and a hot dog (one you may have heard before as she often tells the tale). Here it is from another talk "The Power of Mindful Teaching" (Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning):
To illustrate her point about "facts," she recounts being at a horse event with a friend who asked her to look after his horse while he went to get the horse a hot dog. "Horses don't eat meat," she thought, "period." The idea "flew in the face of the facts," she thought. But then the owner returned with a hot dog and the horse ate it eagerly.
And so the "fact" was wrong at least today in this context, and that prompted lots of questions in Langer's mind. "Which horses [hadn't eaten meat]? When? How hungry were the horses? What kind of horses? [There are] a bunch of questions," she says, "that once we ask them, we see that this information we've been given is probably probabilistic. Indeed, research only gives us probabilities and we transform those probabilities into absolute facts. When you know something is absolute then there's no reason to think about it anymore. But when you know something in this conditional way, then it almost primes thinking of counter instances. There are hidden decisions that go into any research program - What breed of horse? What kind of hot dog?-and once you reveal these hidden decisions, you begin to see how situated and contextual what we accept as facts actually are. One of the cultural myths is a belief in the absolute nature of science, but science itself is based on probability."
Falsely assuming the truth of facts is often related to discomfort with uncertainty and ambiguity: Rather than remain with presence and patience in a place of not knowing, people may want to rid themselves of uncertainty and so prematurely leap to an answer that seems true. That rush to resolution may lead to an answer that feels comfortable but may be faulty. How often do we see this happening in conflict resolution? (Isn't one role of a mediator to facilitate courage in parties to stay in the uncertainty if doing so may result in a better solution?)
Before I saw Langer's talk today, I read a chapter this morning which also reaffirmed the value of intellectual humility (or being comfortable with the awareness of how much we do not know). The chapter from The Mind in Context is titled "On the Vices of Nominalization and the Virtues of Contextualizing". The authors talk about how what we know is very context-dependent; what is true in one situation may not be true in others. (Reminds me of my Maxim of SIN.)
Extensive evidence exists for context effects. Regardless of one's theoretical orientation, there can be no doubt that context effects are ubiquitous. When a phenomenon is studied carefully, it typically does not behave the same way across contexts. Regardless of whether the phenomenon is genetic, neural, cognitive, behavioral, social, or cultural, it is likely to exhibit extensive sensitivity to context, ...
So what do you know? Are you sure? Do you think intellectual humility has value in dispute resolution? If so, how are you fostering it in yourself? In clients?
I hope this post with its links to useful resources reminds us to take any research upon which we rely or to which we refer with a large dose of questioning. Possible questions: Is this true? If so, when and where and with whom?