Lauren Hebert, 2023 | 10 min read
Humanity is facing multiple compounding crises at a global scale. That isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a controversial statement, so I won’t belabor the point. If we hope to weather this “metacrisis,” much less come out of it better off, we can do no less than change the world dramatically. (1)
Sometimes our ability to change things is limited by the practicalities of living in a physical reality: we can only grow so much food per unit of land or cross so many tasks off our lists in a day. (2) But just as often, our effectiveness is determined by how we perceive—or fail to perceive—that reality.
Now I’ll say something controversial: the metacrisis has its roots in failures of perception. Practical interventions are indispensable, but if we want them to make more than a small dent, we first have to change the way we see things.
The moment we begin to develop, we begin to develop a worldview. Arguably, development and worldview development are inseparable. We’re born into a continuous relationship with the world around us—we affect it and it, in turn, affects us. This feedback loop allows us to update our mental models about ourselves and the world. (3) It allows us to learn. But the unique way we each see things is more than the sum of our mental models.
With time, an overarching worldview emerges as our beliefs about what the world is, how it works, and how we can show up in it aggregate and integrate. (4) But (ideally) it doesn’t crystallize into a rigid structure. It’s more like a living thing. If mental models are cells, worldview is the multicellular organism. A worldview is a complex, adaptive, self-organizing system of mental models that form the “living lens” through which we see the world.
That lens determines which aspects of reality we can see and which ones we’re blind to, enabling or inhibiting our ability to develop in critical ways. And this is where the trouble begins.
We tend to imagine that we see the world as it actually **********is, and not through a lens at all. In that sense, our worldview is transparent: we can see through it, but we can’t see it. Moreover, because we’re unaware of our own worldview, we’re also unaware of other peoples’. We often see others as wrong—ignorant, irrational, and foolish—to the extent that their worldviews differ from our own. When our worldview collides with one that contrasts it, we tend to bristle, though a range of responses are available, from delight, surprise, confusion, or rage to the vague but pressing discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
When we disagree with someone about the nature of reality, it would be more productive if we could see our worldview clearly, drawing it into the conversation as an object of discussion. But worldview transparency deprives us of the affordances that allow us to “get a grip” on how we see things, instead trapping us in an argument about what we’re looking at. In order to bring our worldviews into the foreground of our conversations, we need to become aware of their shapes and contours. We need a way to make our worldviews more opaque. (5) Ultimately, the point is to talk about reality, but we can’t have a meaningful discussion about it without worldview on the table.
This gets tricky because it’s our worldview itself that determines how easily we can make the shift from transparency to opacity.
When we’re provoked by an encounter with a dissonant worldview, two divergent paths arise: one leads toward expansion, the other contraction. Let’s first consider what happens when we take the path of contraction.
If we experience a new perspective as a threat to our worldview, we enter a profoundly uncomfortable state of uncertainty that triggers “need for closure,” a strong drive to relieve our discomfort and resolve our uncertainty as quickly as possible. From here, the easiest route is to double down on previously-held beliefs or contort new information to fit within them. By meeting uncertainty with closure, we avoid discomfort, but we lose the ability to update our mental models when we encounter dissonance. We lose the ability to learn.
As our worldview contracts, it also stagnates, and we become increasingly out-of-touch with our ever-changing environment, which means we can’t act effectively. When our actions don’t produce the intended results, and we’re unable to learn from our experience, it’s deeply disorienting. How do we resolve the uncertainty and discomfort of disorientation? The only way we know how: with more closure.
As a contracting worldview descends into rigidity and myopia, encounters with other worldviews are more likely to threaten it. (6) This can become a dangerous, vicious cycle of closure. (7)
What does it look like if we instead take the path of expansion?
When we’re able to respond to worldview provocation with curiosity, the experience of uncertainty becomes interesting, even playful and pleasant. (8) Curiosity creates a dynamic tension: it both opens us to new information and drives us to make sense of it. That tension requires us to balance openness and receptivity with healthy skepticism through a cognitive dance called active open mindedness. When we simultaneously expand and integrate our worldview, we stay in touch with reality, even as it changes.