What should you do with your life?

Last night was one of those crisp, clear nights when so many stars are visible it’s hard to pick out the constellations.  Sometimes the clear skies at Meadowcreek just overwhelm visitors at night.  Then, sometimes, the fog sets in and the night is darker than anyplace else.

wolfIt’s easy to see why astronomy was one of the first sciences to develop.  As long as the sky is clear, the truth is rotating right in front of you and all you have to do is figure it out.  The successes of astronomy, followed by physics and chemistry have led us to think we can master human social behavior using similar methods.

So far, those methods have left us with resounding failures.  Some tried to clear out the fog of confounding variables by bringing studies of human behavior into the lab. The idea was that we could control conditions and so isolate particular situations and behaviors for study.  This method is still on display in any peer-reviewed social psychology journal, but with little impact on society.  Probably because the lab is so different from real life and every important social variable is impacted by so many other variables.

Another approach is to accumulate more and more data.  If we could just analyze all the relevant data, we could understand social behavior.  So we have social scientists mastering statistics and computers and hoping.

In our research to understand resilience of social ecological systems, we do use high powered computers and analyze a lot of data.  But only to test our ideas with the available data to convince those who believe in those methods.  Such data analysis will never lead to a basic understanding of resilience, only observation of living systems can do that.

When I bring social psychological research into my workshops on resilience, I like to use an anecdote from the early days of psychological testing.  Such testing really took off in the Second World War to fit people to the best position in the war effort.

One study used scads of personality and physical tests to determine who would be the best fighter pilots.  One of the last tests was a personal interview.  One interviewer had his dog in the room and also recorded whether the dog wagged its tail when a candidate came into the room.  Of all the psychological data collected, whether the dog wagged its tail was the best predictor of fighter pilot success.

How could the dog figure out something that scads of scientific testing couldn’t discover?  What was the dog responding to?  As far as I can tell, no social scientists have followed up on this observation.  They are too wedded to their questionnaires and data analysis.  You can’t become a professional social scientist without being thoroughly indoctrinated with the “right” methods for research.  Whatever the dog perceived just does not fit with the accepted research paradigm.  So the inconvenient fact that the dog could pick out the successful fighter pilots was ignored.

All psychological testing is afflicted with this problem.  The methods used don’t examine the whole person as the dog did.  Instead they have the person take tests and answer questions to measure some supposedly important quality and then conglomerate the scores to get a numeric summary of the person.

Most of these tests are so far removed from the important quality that they are worthless.  The best predictors of success are tests which are as similar to the real life situation as possible.  You’ll be a success at Meadowcreek if you successfully ran a small farm in the past.  The trick is discerning which folks who have never lived on small farms will best fit at Meadowcreek.

We haven’t figured out how to do that by standardized tests.  Instead, we just invite people to come and stay at Meadowcreek for a few days.  We put them to work on whatever project we are working on and see how they do.  The good ones are easy to spot.

Sometimes I think about the dog wagging its tail and want to understand what it sees in humans that we miss.  Then I hear the coyotes howling in the distance and think of how much ability dogs have lost compared to their ancestors and remember the complexity of interactions which underlie ecological resilience.

Should you be at Meadowcreek?  We’ll only know and you’ll only know if you come for awhile and find out.