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Embracing complexity

As a researcher in a think tank, you are constantly engaged in a struggle between the vast nuance and complexity of public policy and our broader culture’s short attention spans. If you want to make an impact on a particular area of policy or on how society thinks about a particular area of policy, then you need to be able to make a simple argument and you need to be able to make it short, sweet, and to the point, otherwise, you are told, no one will listen and no one will care.

Taxes should be lower – no, higher! Welfare benefits should be increased – no, cut completely! The Government should build more houses – no, more land should be opened up for development! Partnership schools will destroy public education – no, they’ll make it stronger!

This is how we tend to debate policy in the public square – simple slogans and solutions that ignore (and in doing so, often forget) the complexity not only of policy itself but also of how society and people function. 

The media, the public, and even MPs tend to ask the direct question: should we raise or lower taxes? Should benefit levels increase? Should we experiment with charter schools? When you start to answer these questions with a “well, there is no ‘yes or no’ answer to that question, you actually need to think through and balance out at least a few things,” you lose your audience. Media stop calling, the public stop reading, and MPs get distracted.

And yet, as researchers, we can’t help but want to maintain the nuance and complexity. This is why I was so interested to read an article in Slate by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in the US, on the need for schools to teach students how to pay attention.

Schwartz calls our current culture on its default “oh-well” position when it comes to short attention spans: 

By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed.

He then urges educators to begin training students in maintaining attention:

Maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

But what if we don’t? What if we continue to cater to people’s inability to pay attention for more than a few minutes?:

Before long, people stop realizing that they have an intellectual deficiency that needs correction. Oversimplified becomes the only game in town, at which point, it stops being “over” simplified. If people are fed a steady diet of the oversimple, it can’t help but affect the way they think about things. Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us. . . .

The world is complex, and it isn’t going to get any simpler. Unless we can create a population that is capable of thinking about complexity in complex ways, it is highly unlikely that the problems of global warming; economic inequality; access to affordable, high-quality health care; or any of the other challenges the U.S. and the rest of the world face will get adequate solutions. Good solutions to any of these problems will be complex, and they will not win support from a population that demands simplicity. 

Schwartz, as an educator himself, sees primary responsibility for developing longer attention spans sitting with teachers, but perhaps there’s a place for think tanks in there too. We can continue to embrace the complexities of policy (and of the world, in general) and work at ways of getting that complexity across to policy makers and the public in ways that are relatable and understandable, yes, but that may, at least on occasion, stretch beyond soundbites and 300 words.

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