Understanding the world in 2016

2015 was an intense year. There is no reason to assume that 2016 will be different. Making sense of all the things that are happening in the world right now is, in my opinion, harder than ever. I see a lot of people who struggle with comprehending what is going on. I do so, too.

I am not sure if anyone individually really can grasp the complexity of everything. However, there are ways and models which can improve one’s understanding of the world in 2016. Here are a few that I try to employ for myself, and that work well for me. Feel free to question them or add additional ones in the comments.

1. Thinking in systems, not in cause-and-effect style
The common way of how society reacts to major news events and incidents is to look for THE one root cause, and to come up with a counter-measure against this specific cause. Think Donald Trump who wants to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. to decrease the risk of terrorist attacks. This cause-and-effect style of thinking is misguided in today’s complex world. Often, a better way is to think in systems. System thinking means acknowledging that changes to one part of a system will have bigger consequences to other parts of the system, even to other systems, and they might create feedback loops which lead to completely different outcomes than those initially desired. Read this great piece to learn more about thinking in systems.

2. Accepting and planning for exponential developments
Thanks to the Internet which connects more than 3 billion people with each other, information can spread extremely rapidly around the globe. The dynamics that are being triggered often follow exponential laws, not linear ones. Accepting this as a new default mode helps to better understand why certain phenomenon, movements, or memes can happen so sudden, spread so fast, and why the political, civil and bureaucratic systems often don’t manage to respond properly. Humans have historically fared well with practicing linear thinking. However, in the connected age, internalizing exponential laws into one’s thinking looks to be very useful to better understand our times.

3. Being humble and aware of the human brain’s proneness to errors
The human brain can achieve amazing things. Yet, it is far from perfect, and it is prone to all kinds of errors. However, a quick look on the heated debates in today’s online comment sections reveals that many people seem to lack awareness of that they might be wrong in their assumptions, statements and positions. Wherever you look you see and hear individuals who pretend to have it all figured out. People who believe they have “the truth” and who never even seem to consider the option of being mistaken. Personally, I think it is an advantage to learn about the various ways in which the brain cheats and lures their “owners”. This extensive list of cognitive biases is a good way to start. Spending some time developing a sensibility for these biases helps to catch one’s own fallacies as well as to spot them in others.

4. Focusing on statistics & data, not on single events
In recent times, several high-profile plane crashes took place. Without thinking too much, one might easily conclude that flying has become more dangerous lately. However, the official data proves that the opposite is true: 2015 was the safest year in aviation history. This is a prime example for how subjective perception creates a distorted picture of reality. Unfortunately, large parts of the media industry are built around the idea of focusing on single events, making it really hard for readers to resist the urge of impulse-driven judgements. One should note that data analyses and statistics do not guarantee to provide accurate images of reality either. But drawing general conclusions from single events certainly guarantees an inaccurate picture of the world.

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