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Humans are masters at building paradigms of our world – basically, models that enable us to understand and navigate various aspects of our reality.  Thus, for example, we have paradigms of how our workplace, family, political system, and, for those with an interest in physics, even the universe function.  These paradigms are very important, as they provide us with an understanding of the structure and rules that govern each component of our world and that, together, define our reality.  Without them, human society would become dysfunctional.  No other animal builds paradigms that are nearly as sophisticated as ours or relies on models of reality as extensively as do humans.  We have our larger and more complex brains to thank for that.

Paradigms are built from a combination of education and observation.  For example, while our parents and other family members with authority instruct us on how our family operates, we also gain an understanding of our familial paradigm by observing how other family members, particularly siblings, behave.  Interestingly, most of us don’t even realize that we have constructed these paradigms.  To a large extent, these paradigms reside in our unconscious, a convenient fact that enables us to navigate the world through an innate understanding of it, rather than having to expend the time and effort to work through an ad hoc analysis of every scenario in which we find ourselves.  Through experience and instruction, we instinctively know, for example, how to communicate with a work colleague in most cases; we don’t need to puzzle through the rules and structure of the office or go to the boss for instructions every time we need to communicate with a colleague.  This internalization of our paradigms enables us to get through the world far more efficiently and effectively than we could without it.  There are individuals, mainly highly intelligent folks, who build and assess their paradigms more consciously.  This can yield more accurate and complex paradigms, but can also sometimes result in overthinking, detracting from the robustness and efficiency of the paradigm.  Not surprisingly, conflict can arise when different people sharing a context governed by a paradigm (such as a school or workplace) develop different paradigms for understanding that context, as it means that they perceive the structure and rules of the context in different, possibly inconsistent, ways.

An additional observation on how paradigms are constructed and developed bears pointing out.  As noted above, that occurs through a combination of education and observation.  Those with a more critical or Marxist bent will assert that those with power have enormous influence over what a given paradigm comprises.  This only adds to their power, as paradigms have a tendency to take on an air of objectivity and invulnerability.   Even when confronted with conflicting information, paradigms may be resistant to change.  (For more on the related subject of false consciousness, see my blog post titled Communism as Ideological Bogeyman.)  Thus, for example, it is the wealthy and powerful who define much of what the paradigm that governs our economy looks like.  Not surprisingly, that paradigm presents the economic system as being largely fair and efficient.

Now, moments do arise when an event or other aspect of our reality appears to violate the rules or structure of our paradigm for it.  Such an occurrence, which I refer to as an anomaly, can give rise to some degree of anxiety on the part of the person who is experiencing it, as it suggests that their paradigm may be flawed and in need of modification (often referred to as a paradigm shift), and they become unsure how to react to the anomaly.  When such an anomaly arises, we respond to it in one of three ways.  First, the person confronting the anomaly may not realize that there is an anomaly and thus will unconsciously discard it, without any modification of their paradigm.  This non-response can be problematic, as it may result in the person retaining a flawed paradigm.  Second, the person may consciously dismiss the anomaly as a meaningless deviation from the paradigm and choose to retain the original paradigm without any change.  If the anomaly is salient, this too can result in the retention of a flawed paradigm.  This sometimes occurs in the case of cognitive dissonance, which refers to our tendency to dismiss information that departs from our established thinking.  Third, the person experiencing the anomaly may recognize that this departure from their paradigm suggests that their paradigm is incorrect in some respect and endeavor to revise their paradigm accordingly.  Sometimes, the person may need to await further anomalies before deciding in what respect their paradigm needs to be modified.  But this assessment of anomalies is crucial to ensuring that our paradigms remain accurate and useful.

One example of the phenomena described above is the effect which Donald Trump’s political emergence has had on the paradigms of our political system that we have developed over the course of history.  As politics normally adheres to established norms and conventions, such paradigms remain fairly consistent over time.  But Trump’s candidacy presented an anomaly, as his behavior and communication departed radically from established norms.  In this regard, to name just a few examples, his manner of communication violated traditional norms of decorum, propriety, and formality that had long prevailed in American politics, his management style was highly chaotic in a departure from the professionalism that most Americans had come to expect from the White House, and he did not hesitate to buck pillars of American foreign policy, such as raising questions concerning the U.S.’s commitment to its alliances.  These developments induced anxiety in many Americans, as the conduct they had become used to over time and that formed part of their paradigm of our political system was being overtly disregarded.  It remains to be seen whether Trump was a unique exception to the rules, in which case the anomaly he presents can be discarded once he leaves the political scene, or portends a more permanent change in how at least some politicians conduct themselves, in which case our paradigm needs to be adjusted to accommodate the challenge Trump presents to the established political order.  To offer an example from the sphere of economics, our paradigm of how monetary policy works held that when the Federal Reserve increases interest rates significantly, a recession will ensue.  However, what we are seeing now is that that the economy is roaring along, despite substantial interest rate hikes by the Fed, strongly suggesting that our paradigm needs to be adjusted to accommodate this anomaly.  Yet another example of this dynamic at work takes us to the world of physics, where curious anomalies emerging from the study of quantum mechanics have forced us to drastically change our paradigm of how sub-atomic particles work.

So, why do I raise all this?  I raise it because it is important that we examine our paradigms critically to ensure that they are as accurate as possible.  Flaws in a paradigm will cause problems to develop in the context that the paradigm governs, while conflicts among paradigms that relate to the same context can give rise to conflict among those sharing that context.  Likewise, we must be careful to pay attention to anomalies and not just dismiss them as meaningless because it is easier that way.  We need to be on the lookout for when anomalies may reach a tipping point, as it is at that point that we need to attend to a paradigm shift.