Foragers, Farmers, Fossil Fuels – and Face

Media197I recently finished a book by Ian Morris called Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels – How Human Values Evolve.  Morris’s theory is that the dominant form of “energy capture” in any given age drives the characteristics of the value systems that societies adopt.  The book is interesting enough as far as it goes, but I think you’d have to be a fairly hard-core anthropology geek to really find it enthralling.

What is more interesting is something Morris did in this book: he invited four noted intellectuals of various backgrounds (anthropology, philosophy, and one novelist) to explain how Morris got it wrong.  That’s right – he invited people who disagree with the basic tenet of his book to voice their opinions in the pages of that book.  There are ten chapters:  Morris lays out his reasoning in chapters 1 – 5, and then he gives each of his critics one chapter in which to tear his arguments apart.  Morris then gets the final word in a Chapter 10 rebuttal.

This is hugely refreshing.  In today’s world of “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell” retrenchment, finding someone who is not only open to debate, but actually seeks it out – and in his personal area of expertise, no less, a subject on which he obviously cares very deeply – is just fantastic.  Whatever one might think of Morris’s arguments, one has to respect his integrity and intellectual honesty.

It’s frightening how absent healthy debate has become in our public discourse.  Clive Crook, a Bloomberg View columnist, recently wrote about how people on different sides of most political arguments have become downright fanatical in their devotion to one ideology or another.  And that devotion must be absolute; there can be no compromise.  Many politicians have been pushed to sign “contracts” swearing their allegiance to one dogma or another.

This is absolutely antithetical to good decision making.  One of the characteristics of a good framing session is open give and take, creative conflict.  People must be willing to consider ideas that are far removed from their own perspectives, and to challenge those ideas constructively.

This can be a challenge in cultures in which public conflict is frowned upon.  I spent four years in Southeast Asia, and there was no way you could gather a team in a room and expect them to start throwing competing or conflicting ideas around.  It would have made everyone too uncomfortable and there was too high a probability that someone would lose face if his or her idea was shot down.  That doesn’t mean you give Media545​ up on the goal of pushing creative boundaries and brainstorming; it just means you have to get there via a different pathway.  You need to gather thoughts and inputs one-on-one, behind closed doors, and preserve everyone’s anonymity so that no one loses face.  The process takes longer and requires a different set of skills in the facilitator, but it can still be done.

Southeast Asia is just one example of a place where one has to adapt a time-tested approach to suit the local culture.  In truth, this doesn’t just apply to national cultures; the same thing must be done when dealing with various company cultures, too.  What resonates deeply with the employees at Company A will be met with apathy, indifference, or maybe even derision at Company B.  Someone once said, “Culture trumps strategy;” I would go so far as to say that culture trumps just about everything.  Culture is about people’s core beliefs, what pulls at them emotionally for reasons they often cannot express.

So if you’re trying to get a group of people (a work team, a company, even a society) to change its ways, simply piling up data won’t do the trick.  Evidence is necessary, but not sufficient; you must also appeal to people’s emotions.  Chip and Dan Heath make this point repeatedly in Switch – How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  The Heath brothers liken people’s minds to an elephant with a rider, where the rider is our logical, cerebral brain and the elephant is our emotional, gut-feel brain – the part most deeply involved with our cultural beliefs.  They point out that the rider can get the elephant to do things, but it’s hard work and it can only be done up to a point.  If the elephant ever decides that it’s going somewhere, that’s the end of the argument.  Likewise, our cool, calculating brain can override our emotional, passionate side up to a point, but in an extended intra-brain argument, passion will win (except for maybe in a few Zen masters).  If you want to change people’s minds and behaviors, it’s not enough to explain to them why what you’re saying makes sense.  You must also give them something to rally around, a reason why they should care, a spark that puts a little fire in their bellies.

That spark will certainly be culture-specific.  People in all cultures sometimes make good decisions, and sometimes make bad ones.  If your job is to help people think through complex situations and arrive at good strategies and solutions, it’s important to keep culture in the front of your mind.

And whether you are a facilitator or a participant in such an exercise, it is equally important to follow Dr. Morris’s lead by inviting and genuinely considering alternative viewpoints.


Patrick, your comments are correct about the lack of healthy debate in the USA. One of the things that made William F. Buckley so great what that he encouraged healthy discussion and debating of viewpoints that differed markedly from his own. We’re losing this ability in our culture – all too often the points are lost and the personal attacks begin.

I’m active on FaceBook, and have been disgusted by the mean and hateful personal attacks that some organizations post and which people re-post. It turns out that you can tell FB that you don’t want to see “this type of post,” and they’ll filter them out for you (which I appreciate).

In a purely political sense, I think the time is right for a “competency” party that leaves the left and right wings behind. Singapore is the best example of this kind of culture – the government and industry work together. They have every major religion and culture represented in their society, and they make it work. We are unfortunately moving further and further away from their kind of society – one that works together.

Good Blog (as usual)!

– by Dave Charlesworth, Tue, 2015-Jul-7 at 4:05 PM,

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