Friday, February 21, 2014

On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking

Styles of thinking occur along a continuum. At the center of the two extremes are top-down and bottom-up thinking. In fact, these are not the most extreme forms of thinking, but we have to first establish the norm of each before we can understand the extremes of each.

Top-down thinkers tend to see the big picture first. They start with the answer. The end goal is identified, and then ways to get there are investigated. To flip the old cliché, you see the forest, but not the trees. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a top-down thinker will get a handful of data before developing the ideas, theory, hypothesis, then proceed to try to find ways to prove that theory, as proving the theory is the end goal. Of course, data may not prove the theory, in which case one then posits a different theory. The more top-down a thinker is, the less data is needed to develop an idea, etc., or to prove (or, indeed, disprove) a theory to them, which makes the process faster; however, this means they are more likely they are to engage in confirmation bias. Such thinkers are strategic thinkers.

Bottom-up thinkers tend to see the parts first. There is no clear end goal identified; the process itself is sufficient, and the end will be reached when you get there. These are the people who sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Or, specifically, they need to have a sufficient number of trees in order to agree that what we have here is in fact a forest. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a bottom-up thinker will collect copious amounts of data, work out the patterns within the data set, then develop the idea, etc. from the identified patterns. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more data is needed before they are comfortable developing an idea, etc., but as a result they are very likely to be quite confident in their idea, etc. However, sufficient contradictory data will in fact change their minds, especially after they figure out how to fit the new data in with the old data. Such thinkers are analytical thinkers.

Now please note that these are general patterns. The fact that one is generally a bottom-up thinker does not mean they cannot engage (or learn to engage) in top-down thinking. Or vice versa. However, the more extreme one's natural thinking process is, the less likely one is going to learn (or learn well) how to engage in the other kind of thinking.

Also, one may note that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. If you need to strategize, you need to engage in top-down thinking. If you need to come up with a solution quickly, you need to engage in top-down thinking. However, if you need to do a careful analysis, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking. If you want to understand patterns, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking.

I will also note that both styles of thinking also match the two general patterns of network architecture: top-down, hierarchical networks and bottom-up, scale-free networks. Top-down networks require step-by-step organization. You start at the top and you add things over time to create the network. The most efficient way is to create a hierarchy. Our organizations, including our firms, are so structured. However, bottom-up networks self-organize as the parts interact with each other. Things aren't added; rather, patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts already there. As a result, you get a scale-free architecture following power law distributions of links.

I would further argue that those who primarily engage in top-down thinking are going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, top-down hierarchical networks, or organizations. Those who primarily engage in bottom-up thinking are, thus, going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, bottom-up hierarchical networks, or spontaneous orders. As a result, one would predict that the more top-down a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create more hierarchical organizations and which will organize the world from the top-down. Equally, one would predict that the more bottom-up a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create decentralized networks and reduce hierarchy.

Those who are most typically bottom-up thinkers, though, have been pathologized by the majority, who are primarily top-down thinkers, into Asperger's and Autism. But what if things are more complex than that? Although there are certainly problems -- from a neurotypical's standpoint, anyway -- with those in the autism spectrum, one ought to acknowledge that if the most extreme end of bottom-up thinking is problematic, then the most extreme end of top-down thinking is problematic as well.

What would you expect from an extreme bottom-up thinker? That the -up part is gone, that the world remains fragmented and that the pieces can therefore not be brought together at all. I think this would go a long way to explaining the behavioral situation of those with the most extreme forms of autism. Equally, then, one would expect from an extreme top-down thinker that the -down part is gone, that the world remains an undifferentiated whole. This would mean there is no difference between the person and the rest of the world -- which is solipsism. The solipsist, however, can function in the social world, whereas the extreme autistic cannot. However, the solipsist believes he has the answer to everything, that everyone is the same as him, and that to question his ideas is to insult him personally, as there is no differentiation between him and his ideas. The extreme autistic sees infinite variety; the solipsist sees infinite sameness. The solipsist would then be expected to support egalitarianism, to think wealth disparities are terrible, that differences in opinions from his own are terrible, and thus would seek to create a society that conformed to him and his ideals. The extreme autistic is a problem only to himself (and those who have to take care of him); the solipsist is a problem to society.

Let me now relate all of this to Spiral Dynamics. It seems to me that the more collectivist levels -- purple (tribal), blue (authoritative), green (egalitarian), and turquoise (holistic) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more top-down thinking. Individualistic levels -- red (heroic), orange (entrepreneurial), and yellow (integrationist) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more bottom-up thinking. The more one is able to switch from one style of thinking to another, the easier it will be to move through the levels; extremes of either side will find such emergence more difficult, since switching styles is more difficult. Difficult does not mean impossible, of course; life conditions can certainly give one a strong nudge, to say the least. But if we take the fact that most people are in fact predominantly top-down thinkers, while those with a more balanced style of thinking are relatively rare, we can perhaps make sense of the fact that there are relatively few of the most complex psychologies, even within even the most complex societies.

We would also expect top-down thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more collectivist levels, where they are comforted by top-down organization of society, whereas we would expect bottom-up thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more individualistic levels, where they are comforted by less hierarchical, more scale free social orders. At the same time, we would expect many business owners to be top-down, strategic thinkers, while we would expect analysts and scholars to be more bottom-up, analytic thinkers. All of which clearly problematizes any simple political divisions. Still, it would probably not be surprising if one were to learn that there is a positive correlation between dominance of bottom-up thinking and support for libertarianism.

All of this points to the fact that when it comes to understanding any social order of any sort, you are dealing with very complex situations. The dominance of a style of thinking is going to affect the structure of society and of the culture as well. It also suggests that we need to be careful pathologizing ways of thinking. As a style of thinking comes to dominate in a society, that society will itself shift into being a society more open to that style of thinking, but not to another. Today's pathology might be tomorrow's norm. But if we pathologize, we don't really have to even try to understand; we can simply get such uncomfortable thoughts such as that there are people out there who do not in fact think like us well away from us so we won't have to worry about it or even deal with it. But that impoverishes both ourselves as individuals and society itself as a whole.
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