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On reflection, Evan Davis is wonderful

April 16, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I was delighted this morning to see the extensive coverage for an RSA report by my colleague, Dr Jonathan Rowson, called ‘Reflexive Coppers’. The report described a small scale but fascinating study of the value police offers felt they received from insights into cognitive processes and exploring ways of thinking more effectively.

The positive findings reinforced the RSA’s more subtle and empowering approach to behaviour change. Instead of ‘nudging’, which seeks to change choice architecture (for example, putting healthier food more easily in reach than unhealthy in canteens), the RSA’s ‘steer’ approach aims to give people the understanding and tools they need to change their own behaviour. This was particularly relevant to police officers as they try to find a way to reconcile their public order and public engagement functions.

We try at the RSA to be honest about the disappointments as well as the successes of research. So Jonathan’s report also describes the problems police officers had applying the lessons they had learnt from their training, and the limited take up when they were offered an opportunity to have further discussions about reflexivity.

I suspect this latter finding reinforces a point I was making last week about the need to embed more thoughtful ways of operating in day to day work practices. Unless methods of refining individual cognition and regularising group reflection are made a core part of work, attempts to think better are likely to be undermined by day to day pressures.

The Society’s ‘social brain’ strand of work (of which the police report is a part) is central to our broader historical focus on enhancing human capability. Whether the issue is improving children’s attainment, tackling social problems or fostering innovation, how to think and decide more effectively is an important question. Indeed, the RSA is seeking to achieve greater depth than other research organisations by underpinning our practical and policy related work with a set of cross-cutting insights not just on cognition and behaviour change but also social networks, design and social enterprise.

Given the RSA’s broad remit, it is important that we connect the specific focus of our work to wider themes. Which brings me to Evan Davis, who, as we all know, has a background, and continuing interest, in business and the economy. As you can hear, it is the esteemed broadcaster who spontaneously links Jonathan’s work to economic productivity and manufacturing specifically.

Indeed, in a knowledge economy dominated by the service sector the question of how we might organise work so that people are better motivated and more likely to develop and apply new ideas is as vital to business profitability as to public sector efficiency.

In ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt reports research showing how the quality of people’s reasoning is improved by being forced to reflect for just two minutes, rather than responding to a question spontaneously. With that in mind, look at this research on how our on-line behaviour indicates a growing intolerance of even the most minor delay in gratification.

It is the ability to reflect which makes humans different and social psychology, behavioural economics and other disciplines are finding more and more ways in which our intuition is unreliable. Imagine a world where everyone every day was given the encouragement and the time for structured reflection (sometimes alone, sometimes with others) it is hard to believe it wouldn’t make the world a better place. As work intensifies and information multiplies it is also hard to see how we can make it happen.



  • Jules Evans

    Agree – Jonathan’s on to something interesting here. I like the idea of encouraging a reflective culture as opposed to the Nudge school’s rather bleak assessment of humans’ capacity for autonomy (and by humans they always mean ‘other people’ and usually ‘the working class’)

    Reflection, it seems to me, is best practiced together, in small groups. Like this organisation, for example – – who I have just come across today. Very easy model to apply to different contexts – policing, health etc.

    Such ‘reflective groups’ are part of a great British tradition that goes back to the London Corresponding Society (based on ‘a spirit of Socratic examination’ as John Thelwall put it in 1795), and further to the coffeehouses and Royal Societies of the 18th century, and the Putney Debates of the 17th century.

    I much prefer that project to the ‘libertarian paternalists’ of the Nudge school, who always remind me of a cross between Huxley’s Controller and Cornelius in Planet of the Apes.

  • Kathryn

    I couldn’t agree more with this – while working at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, a high-performing mental health trust specialising in talking therapies (you may know it as the Tavistock Clinic) I was struck by the emphasis they placed on time for reflective thought – including supervisions with their peers singularly or in groups. They took this model of working into schools, working with teachers to reflect on their practice. This time was used to help teachers understand the underlying meaning of pupil behaviour, to be able to identify more easily children who are considered to be at risk, and to feel more confident about pupils they were concerned about. It showed a reduction in school exclusions as 97% of teachers were helped to persevere with challenging pupils when they felt like giving up. It also lowered the rate of sickness absence amongst teachers, with 83% of teachers reported feeling less stressed after talking about these pupils/groups. They also used this model in their work with looked after children – and their services in this area are often cited as best practice examples. I often wondered of the impact it could have across other public services.

  • Indy Neogy

    Kahneman’s latest book (Fast and Slow Thinking) seems relevant to this discussion as well. There is a place for reactive, gut thinking in various roles and places. But the reflective portion of the brain brings a lot of value too.

    One obvious element is a lack of structured reflection in education. Reflection and creativity are both areas where we seem to “let people work out their own way forward” but I think we can do better than that. This is especially the case for group work. One of the big things we’ve been working on recently is developing a set of ways of working to help businesses with creativity and reflection. We hope to find a way to turn it into something that can work in education too, despite the ever decreasing time and money budgets there.

    In the workplace, we seem consumed by busy-work. IT systems were supposed to free us of this – and in some ways they did, but in other ways they only facilitated the sacking of the ledger clerk and the secretary and transferal of the busy-work to the line manager who now ends up wrestling with the spreadsheet. There are obvious productivity gains of a certain kind to what has happened, but I think there’s an insidious way in which efficiency has been a license to remove informal thinking time.

    I don’t really know what the answer to this is. As an entrepreneur I’m swamped with busy-work. There are enough random tasks every day to make reflection a rare thing. And this is not imposed by some “boss”, this is just the enormous list of what needs to be done to make this company a success. There’s definitely a treadmill where various pressures in society conspire to make everyone busier, I suspect.

    What to do? Some vague thoughts:

    1) As I mention, better structures to help people be creative and reflective, esp. in groups. Further, we need to introduce people to these ideas in secondary school, instead of sometime after university when they are in the world of work.

    2) One place in particular the IT revolution has yet to pay off is that we still have not cracked true role/job sharing. Many people are falling down the crevasse between having too much to do and having enough to do that it’s easy to see how you split the job between two people. This results in many people actually so many tasks to do that reflection is a violation of their job description. Many dispute this, claiming “if they were more efficient, they’d have the time” but we need to start recognising that for many “if they were more efficient, we’d give them more tasks” is closer to the truth. And then we need to get thinking and inventing seriously around splitting knowledge work across more than one person.

    3) This is not at all original on my part, but we need to develop a healthier relationship with information and information devices. We have an abundance, where we used to have a scarcity. One might draw a parallel with obesity, this change to abundance utterly confuses our instincts and draws many of us into damaging cycles.

    4) My gut feeling, somewhat examined, is that our reward systems have become unbalanced. The benefits of reflection and creativity tend to be – a better sense of what is the right place to put time and energy or new ways of doing things that produce more value or new things to do that solve something more elegantly. The difficulty is that all of these things are harder to measure than the piecework mentality that many reward systems derive from… not sure how we fix this…

  • Jonathanrowson

    Thanks for the mention, and your help with the report.
    In the three radio interviews I did today (LBC, Today programme and Five Live) around the mid-point all the presenters said something like: “Hang on, this is not just relevant to police…” And that’s very much what we are trying to say- but you have to start somewhere, and the police have a particularly interesting set of cognitive and behavioural challenges that we try to make better sense of in the report.
    The basic message: maybe we should take a time out every so often and see how we are doing is pretty compelling…but the challenge is to give it enough definition and organisational support to make everybody feel it is worthwhile.
    For those interested in the report and the wider press reaction, I blog about it here:

  • David Fell

    I intend having a bit of a think about this, and will post something later.

  • matthew taylor

    Thanks Jules, Kathryn and especially Indy for some really interesting feedback. One question is how you create spaces for reflction in which everyone feels able to participate not just those most comfortable with being introspective and speaking. Love the idea that David is still sitting somewhere reflecting. Imagine how brilliant his thoughts will be when they finally emerge !

  • Indy Neogy

    Hi Matthew,

    If we posit “there are two kinds of people, introverts and extroverts” – just for now, then if introverts are happier with solitary introspection, then the group processes mentioned are where extroverts can be drawn into reflection. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time recently, inspired by Susan Cain reworking some group processes to involve both ends of the spectrum effectively.

    One interesting element you made me think of was that “reflection” is culturally coded as an introverted pastime of weaklings – and not suited to “men/women of action.”

    I think tackling the cultural biases around “time” and “action orientation” are probably key difficulties in promoting more reflection. The techne is something that I (and I’m sure others) are working on and, I’d argue, making good progress. Spreading that “techne” is dependent on tackling the cultural biases…

  • Pingback: How would you use your 20-minute reflection session? | HR blogs – People Management()

  • David Fell

    OK, so now I’ve had a bit of think, and despite being slightly intimidated by Matthew’s expectations of brilliance, I offer the following:

    Three things. (Three thinks?) (Three thinklets?)

    Thing 1 – I’m quite and easily persuaded that, as Matthew expressed towards the end of his original blog, things generally would all be a bit better if everyone did a bit more thinking before they acted. But then I – like Matthew and the other contributors to this discussion – have bought into Enlightenment 2.0 and the generalizable notion that reflective practice (of whatever form) is the means by which we can live ‘the examined life’. I – we – give pre-eminence to the intellectual over the physical or emotional (we buy into the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living) so it is inevitable that we – I – would be delighted to see it confirmed that ‘thinking’ is a ‘good thing’.

    But my reading of Kahneman (and, before that, Damascio) is that, whilst it makes some philosophical and/or analytical and/or explanatory sense to distinguish the cognitive/reflective from emotional/instinctive, in reality these distinguishable systems are intimately and inextricably linked. Everyone, I’m afraid, indulges in reflective thinking, just as everyone indulges in gut-level action. The question, really, is not ‘Is it a good idea to do some reflective thinking?’ but ‘How much reflective thinking is enough?’

    Thing 2 – I enjoy the idea of the ‘social brain’ and, as a Fellow of near 20 years’ standing and given my professional research interests, I’m delighted to have seen the RSA’s recent attention given to social networks, social psychology and processes of collective change. Something nags, however, at the idea – suggested, I think, by Jules and then picked up by most of the other contributors – that reflective thinking is best done ‘together’. I suspect that this is probably accurate – but I can’t help but think that the contributors to this discussion (myself very much included) tend to prefer it if the ‘reflecting together’ is mainly done by other people. Is there a hint of liberal paternalism to this: I’ve done the reflection and now I understand; all that has to happen is for others to reflect too?

    Conversely – and this, I hope, is illustration of how this is supposed to be, thinking out loud, correcting as you go along, acknowledging (like some weird hybrid between Popper and Dennett) that the perpetual drafts are where the action is – it’s clear that our ‘wicked problems’ require hive mind solutions; and, amid the cacophony of the information overload in which now we flounder, we absolutely have to figure out how to enable this social thinking to happen effectively.

    (Weirdly, it’s possible that it is already working, but that we – we, the individualised contributors to this discussion – cannot actually see it, because it is – in good systems thinking fashion – actually an emergent property of our discussion and thus permanently and unavoidably inaccessible to us.)

    Thing 3 – I thought Indy’s points about busy-ness were important and certainly speak to my day-to-day experience. I, too, run a business (etymological link, busyness to business) and have had to work hard (by which I mean, I suspect, ‘think hard’) to devise mechanisms to ensure I do indeed incorporate reflective practice into my… er, practice. But in the supermarket of options, how do I choose? Contemplative quasi-meditational breaks? Action-learning sets? Get in a life coach with a track record of Buddhist-inspired motivational techniques? Read a whole load of reports? Just do what comes naturally?

    I suggested, above, that I think that everyone indulges in ‘reflective thinking’ (and I mean this not merely in a passive way a la Kahneman but in an active fashion), but I suspect that the manner and focus of that thinking varies dramatically. Perhaps a further challenge resides here. Are we happy if great swathes of reflective thinking are devoted to football, the X factor or Hello magazine, for example? Or do we have some set of topics or items that we would rather see reflected upon?

    It was suggested, with some glee I thought, that it was rather exciting that all the journalists twigged that there might be some connection between ‘reflective coppers’ and ‘productivity’. That’s good, but it’s not enough. My (closing) thought is: if great numbers of us begin some proper, serious reflective thinking, perhaps we’ll actually start to think past mere ‘productivity’ and begin to figure out what the real post-orthodox economy is going to look and feel like.