Mindstyles and the workplace in the 2020s

Much has been written in recent years about ways of classifying variation in human intelligence, such as musical intelligence, verbal, analytical, emotional, spatial, kinesthetic, and so on. Such discussions have been fruitful, especially considering how the understanding of intelligence had previously been mainly limited to serial, sentential, logical reasoning. Not as much has been said about styles of mind, however. Mindstyle refers to tendencies in how a person responds to surroundings. It's the way a particular mind tastes the world.

A person may have a special aptitude not only because of some innate neural advantage, but also because a small preference for doing things a certain way will over time have significant consequences for how a person's mind habitually works. Similar to the principle of compounded interest, a small change in mental emphasis will accumulate over time, as prior effects on the mind become factors in how the present mental state affects a subsequent state, and so on.

Mindstyle describes tendencies, natural patterns of response, essential characteristics, tendencies in processing information, proclivities, and preferences in how to approach situations. Given two equally plausible viewpoints, mindstyle is what most clearly influences which one a person will choose.

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Mindstyle is the "shape" of mind, determining how the liquid essence of thoughts tends to flow into the mind and become contained by it. Some aspects of mindstyles are habitual, acquirable, and changeable. Others are too deep to be accessed.

Visual thinkers are often able to think on their feet. They simply "see" the way things are, without pondering much. Poetic-symbolic thinkers tend to appreciate more ethereal flavors and nuance that are difficult to visualize. Auditory-verbal thinkers instinctively search for terminology-driven concepts. Episodic thinkers habitually see the world as strings of events or stories to tell, whose meaning lies in their interconnectedness.

People who tend to be concept creators excel at assembling experience and observations into bundles or packets. Concepts organize experience and prioritize perceptions. They are like non-physical symbols that have to be constructed. They aren't readily observable in any single experience, but are instead made of flocks of fragmentary, often silent, unnameable experiences.

Concepts can stand as surrogates for other, more complicated situations. The power of a concept depends by how accurately it can replace the complexity of what can be directly perceived but not easily described.

Tight, frictionless concepts can be thoroughly contagious, and can travel quickly through a culture, or even across cultures, in unexpected ways.

"Visual" thought, the miraculous fruit of instantaneous thinkers who size up a complex situation in a single whack, is inspired by immediate situations in everyday life. Visual thought may also be conceptual, especially in visual thinkers who are also educated or especially curious. Visual thinkers have an advantage in an environment where quick decisions have to be made based on limited information.

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Some people look for differences, others for similarities. People who look for ever finer shades of difference sometimes have difficulty seeing how things resemble each other. A person who is a close friend or relative of twins may not see them as looking alike, while outsiders may have trouble telling them apart. Difference and similarity -- levels of contrast -- are really a matter of how we adjust the settings on our perceptions.

That difference in emphasis on differences leads to contrasting styles of mind: the metaphorical mindstyle is quick to grasp similarities, no matter how remote, while the analytical mindstyle delights in finding tiny grains of distinction.

Metaphorical people often do poorer on standardized math exams because they tend to confound aspects of problems, seeing false similarities. On the other hand, highly analytical people think accurately in rigorous problem-solving situations but are often quite flat and insipid when it comes to unstructured imaginativeness.

In general, metaphor-oriented people may think more slowly and ponderously than distinguishers do. Perhaps because the real world is so variegated, seeing differences takes less time than erecting bridges to link disparate facts. Crucially, the metaphorical mindstyle can more easily be swayed by inaccurate but appealing ideas, whereas distinction-oriented people have an inborn skepticism and are reluctant to be seduced by any argument.

Some minds tend to be more inertial, more reluctant to change direction or alight on a different point of view. Other minds change so easily that they have no gravity or persistence. High-inertia minds are more stable and can be committedly optimistic when combined with a sanguine personality. Such people are harder to budge from their positive outlook when difficulties arise.

Low-inertia minds are more labile, and when accompanied by a broad education, can be more versatile. However, if a person with this mindstyle also has a diffident personality, the person may grow pessimistic after experiencing disappointments or complications. Such people may also be less risk-tolerant. In fact, most people have a mindstyle that is a mixture of many others. Those mentioned here are only examples of polices toward which mental styles often tend.

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Perhaps the characteristic that most clearly distinguishes humans from other animals is the astounding plasticity of the human mind. That, more than syntactic language (which apes can also learn), or mathematical thinking (which pigeons also have in a rudimentary way), or musicality (which birds and whales also excel at) is what sets humans apart qualitatively. That extraordinary plasticity allows humans to acquire, accumulate, and transmit culture. Culture, in turn, is the proprietary "brain software" that gives humans their advantage in manipulating their environment.

Human behavior is so supremely complex that culture, which is a system of behavioral adaptations to an environment, is so intricate and dynamic that the culture itself becomes an environment to which an individual must adapt.

The process of adapting to environments within environments folds into further nestedness as subcultures also emerge within any given dominant culture, and cliques emerge within subcultures, and so on. The outermost context, or frame, driving adaptation is the physical environment itself. To a large extent, the basic factors shaping a culture derive from the ways that people make their living. As the means of livelihood change, cultures also change.

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While an individual's mental style may largely be determined by genetics, societies also tend to have mindstyles. We can interpret a mindstyle as being the imprint left by culture on a person's mind. In urban societies of the West, the most pervasive mindstyle involves defining situations in terms of problems and solutions, seeking solutions by transforming variation into uniform categories, then managing those categories systematically using defined procedures.

The systematic mindstyle is so thoroughly infused with patterns of thinking in the West that it is barely noticeable. It leads naturally to (among other things) industrialization, standardization, and the supra-ethnic nation-state. The systematic mindstyle arguably reached its greatest intensity during the late 1950s, particularly in Soviet Russia. Since that time it has continued to dominate and even to expand its reach, although it has been increasingly challenged by other, newer mindstyles.

A new mindstyle will significantly change social and political habits, and has already begun its ascent. The new mindstyle is interesting because it emphasizes adaptivity itself. It thrives in situations that are too changeable or complex to be systematized. In a sense, it means making a living through adaptation. In a society where this mindstyle dominates, habits and ideas that lead to rapid and dramatic adaptation would be the ones that would lead to greatest success.

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The implacable ascendancy of the adaptivity mindstyle, along with the gradual evanescence of the systematic mindstyle, will lead to cultural tensions in societies where those two mindstyles exist side by side. The next few decades may be marked by such tensions. Whereas economies influenced by the systematic mindstyle favor people who quickly understand and excel at working within procedures, especially multifaceted procedures, the economies influenced by the adaptivity mindstyle will favor people who can function with minimal or ambiguous procedures.

Education under the current regime has involved training young minds to analyze and apply procedures. Those who excel in a "systematic" society tend to be people who score high on standardized tests, which largely measure how rapidly a person can discover and procedures and apply them. Such tests favor quick thinking over deep pondering. The kinds of ability they measure also correlate with success in school, and subsequently with success in a corporate work setting.

Corporations have sharply tuned mechanisms for selecting only those people who have a certain range of mindstyles. Generally, today's corporations tend to select advanced procedural and analytical thinkers. Organizations a couple decades from now will likely favor a more synthetic mindstyle over an analytical, procedural one.

Societies under the influence of the adaptivity mindstyle will be driven by routine upheaval. The accelerating pace of change during the 19th and 20th centuries was of course largely driven by technology, which in turn was the result of systematic thinking. Advances in technology produce tools that support the discovery and development of yet more advanced technology, and so on in a well-known spiral.

Meanwhile, technology shapes culture, and culture shapes minds: people who live and work in the wake of an explosion in technology learn to adapt and thrive in the environment of dramatic churning induced by its impact.

Of course, not everyone will be prepared for this shift. Many people cannot think or work outside an environment of clearly defined procedures. They will resist and resent the tumultuous conditions that will increasingly prevail. Ironically, the patterns of thought and behavior that are evoked by the adaptivity mindshape actually lead to a kind of dynamic consistency.

Whereas the systematic mindstyle breaks down as a result of too many irregularities and discontinuities, the adaptivity mindstyle creates connections between those irregularities without having to fall back on prior procedures or systems of classification. The systematic mentality proves too rigid, whereas the adaptivity mentality bends and shifts homeostatically, creating a virtual constancy in the midst of chaos. Dynamic homeostasis is of course the strategy adopted by biological systems, because otherwise living things would be too brittle to survive.

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The fact that many people will not be able to make this leap will likely mean that populist politicians will take advantage of fears and frustrations. A recent example is the trend toward legislating against offshoring, where jobs (in particular, high-paying service sector jobs in contrast to lower-paying manufacturing jobs) in the domestic economy are replaced by services imported from other countries where the cost of labor is lower. In the end, legislation against offshoring will prove futile, for the same reasons that a hot cup of tea inevitably cools as its heat escapes to its surroundings.

No reasonable principle entitles North Americans or Germans to have higher wages than Indonesians. At the same time, newly industrializing nations must be held to the same environmental and workplace standards as older nations. We need institutions in place to enforce those standards.

We should ask whether there are limits to how much change people can adapt to. Some people will be better disposed than others to changing conditions, because of different types of temperament if for no other reason. It's often thought that the harmful, health-threatening stress felt by fast-paced city-dwellers is a result of too much change too quickly. That may not be true. Stress may be due more to social isolation than to pace of change.

People who maintain close social and familial relationships evidently experience much less stress in rapidly changing circumstances than do people living without those networks. When an adequate social and emotional support network is in place, rapid change can be stimulating and enjoyably exciting, rather than a cause of dread.

A significant source of stress is that for many people the sort of relationship they have with their co-workers is often a surrogate for tribal or clan relationships. However, whereas tribal or clan relationships are often based on blood, or some other immutable characteristic, relationships in the workplace are purely economic and therefore less trustworthy. A likely trend as the adaptivity mindstyle eclipses the systematic one will be that people will return to living in clans and extended families, an eternal human practice which industrialization dismantled, although those clans may not be based on heredity.

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One technology, in particular, that is likely to bring about a great deal of change quite quickly, is an approach to computer engineering called genetic algorithms (GA).

In many ways, this approach may change labor and the economy in (post-)industrialized countries more than the desktop computer has done. Using genetic algorithms, computer systems can "evolve" solutions to problems by producing scads of possibilities, picking those that come closest, allowing them to reproduce, then choosing from their offspring, and so on. Over time, a solution begins to emerge.

Until now, the main effect of computers has been to accelerate workflow, since what computers do is automate small, mindless tasks that would otherwise add up to a lot of time. Computers are robots made of software. Software is a stream of symbols with a set of associated rules. The software plays itself out predictably.

To some extent, genetic algorithms proceed in directions that are impossible to predict, since each generation may include a random factor. Even without the random factor, the explosion of branches and combinations make prediction impossible even with supercomputers. The outcomes of genetic algorithms are for all practical purposes unique and unpredictable. We can imagine a time when people who now work as problem solvers will be the human assistants to the GA systems.

Rather than attempting to come up with original solutions on their own, the GA systems will provide close approximations or interesting suggestions. The human engineers will supply the GA systems with raw material and will provide the crucial element of common sense. Technologies such as GA systems will again feed back into the cognitive and cultural loops, causing some mindstyles to be given more value and others given less. One effect might be to reduce the preeminence of the analytical mindstyle in science and engineering and increase that of the metaphorical mindstyle.

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What are the cultural qualities that promote innovation? How can the worth of innovation be measured, when often the innovation requires a new set of circumstances in order to have value?

Innovation doesn't occur in isolation, but rather as part of a supporting system that gives it value. Many of the poorest people, in terms of participation in a cash economy, live in rural communities whose culture has never been fully subsumed by the systematic mindstyle. Further, when the rural poor move to cities, their lack of native familiarity with the systematic mindstyle puts them at a severe disadvantage in the labor market.

Many of the poorest urban communities are made up either of immigrants from rural communities or of people who have descended from such immigrants so recently that their culture is still marked by those characteristics. The systematic mindstyle is constitutionally foreign to the urban poor and the rural poor from whom the urban poor have descended. Poverty is often the result of a mindstyle clash between that of the dominant systematic economy and that of poorer sub-communities.

In less industrialized nations, sometimes minority cultures under the influence of the systematic mindstyle will play dominant economic roles in the larger society, as for example the Parsis in India or the Germans in Latin America.

This clash of mindstyles has at times been mistaken for racism. In the United States, for example, some people have immediate cultural roots in rural communities where the systematic mindstyle is foreign. When people of color migrate to cities, they may find it difficult or undesirable to assimilate into the dominant, systematic-mindstyle culture. If they do not assimilate, however, their mental habits may not be in demand in a hyper-systematic urban economy, whereas those same mental habits might have been essential in the rural South.

Since mindstyle is more fundamental than culture, people with different cultures can share a mindstyle. People who have different languages and customs, but whose sub-cultures are both based on the systematic mindstyle, have more in common with each other economically than they would with someone who had the same language and similar customs but whose mindstyle was not systematic.

Interestingly, people who have lived most of their lives in cultures based on the systematic mindstyle will find themselves in the same situation with the adaptivity mindstyle as sharecroppers do with the systematic mindstyle. Without any guidelines or procedures to follow, industrial-age people will feel lost in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, and will always be susceptible to the next wave of offshoring or automation. Those who have lived successfully in industrial economies will often become the new poor in the adaptive economies of the future.

What to do about this? Western nations will have to invest much more of their present wealth in education and research if they are to stay ahead of rivals such as China and India. Those two large, rapidly industrializing countries are already making comparable progress to Western nations in developing promising basic technologies for the future, such as so-called nanotechnology and even quantum computing. The assumption that the West will easily bring in the next wave technological innovation is actually quite specious.

In other words, even while China and India are catching up in the technology service sector, they're also growing into yet more formidable rivals for the future. This is a natural and desirable process. Why should the West take its technological supremacy for granted?

In fact, the West has for decades welcomed students from nations such as India and China into the best university graduate programs. Students trained in the West will contribute to developing the technologies that will see non-Western countries rival or even eclipse the West.

The only claim workers in the West have to higher incomes is an ability to innovate and bring new products systematically to market. If they lose that advantage, their income will stop growing relative to incomes in India, China, and other nations. The United States, in particular, is set to lose its edge, as excessive emphasis on short-term profit has meant scaling back on the fundamental research that pushed it to the front of scientific and technological development during the 20th century.

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The Future had a better reputation at the beginning of the 20th century than it does today. In fact, for much of that century most people probably thought of the future as being brighter, healthier, and happier than the present or past despite technologically-powered social and political upheavals. On many measures, broad swathes of the world's population finished the last century better off than at the beginning.

Having said that, we also have much cause for disappointment. We could have done much better. Some of the more hopeful promises of technology were poorly unexploited. Television, to give a simple example, has been mostly used to impoverish rather than nourish the spirit. The accumulated wisdom from past mistakes have often been ignored.

Humanity has all the engineering insight necessary to end malnutrition, environmental destruction, and violent conflict, and to provide education and create meaningful employment to all. The problems facing today's world seem to stem from a stubborn inability to put into practice what we know we ought to do. Practical solutions are within reach, but our collective laziness, narrowness, and addictions keep us from putting those solutions into place.

The last century began with every reason for optimism. The Victorian Age had seen the invention of much of what made the modern world, including electricity, telegraphy, and ubiquitous railway systems. No problem could resist the march of progress. Then came the world wars, economic collapse, totalitarianism, and global environmental degradation.

By the end of the century, the more technologically advanced parts of the world had fallen into "wow" weariness, a quiet sense of fatigue or dread coming from the realization that technology always unleashes a darker side along with its promise, and that the more awe-inspiring the technology, the more virulent its unintended consequences.

Despite the fact that the future has fallen out of fashion, the future still arrives. We have to yield to change in order to thrive in its company. English-speaking people often quaintly refer to the present year in its full form, as "two thousand and four", just as people at the beginning of the 20th century said "nineteen hundred and four" rather than "nineteen-oh-four".

Soon the first group of people not to remember the 20th century will reach adulthood. They will be turned fully toward the middle of this century, rather than toward the end of the last. Maybe then the future will be back in fashion.

Michael Webb, 2004

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