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Change Readiness and the Nature of Reality

In my next article I am going to address the issue of whether change readiness is a real thing.  Before I can address that issue, however, I need to write about something that is of a philosophical nature.  I need to write about how we know whether anything is true or real.

In 1990 psychologist Jerome Bruner remarked that people understand their reality in two different ways.  The first way he called the ‘paradigmatic mode’, a rather complex term that refers to a scientific understanding of reality.  We know some things in our experience are real because they fit neatly into established scientific paradigms.  For example, we can feel fairly confident about getting into an aeroplane because we know the laws of aerodynamics will be the same today as they were yesterday.  I know that if I jump out of a tall building I will fall to the ground, and I know it will happen because of gravity.  Science is good at giving explanations to some aspects of our experience, and we can be pretty sure that things like the laws of gravity and aerodynamics are real.

However, science is not good at explaining the reality of other parts of our lives.  It can’t tell me why I made some poor choices in the past, and it doesn’t do a great job of explaining why I love my wife, my kids, my dog, or my new laptop.  I can tell you why I love these important aspects of my life, but if I were able to give you a scientific explanation of why I love them, you probably wouldn’t relate to it.  I’m sure that story would involve chemicals with confusing names.  But the main reason you wouldn’t relate to it has little to do with chemicals and more to do with the fact that we understand some aspects of our reality through the stories we tell about it.  The stories don’t fit into established scientific paradigms, but they do fit into the personal paradigms of our experience and the larger story we tell of our lives.  So what I mean when I say I love my new computer is not a reference to chemicals in my brain but to the personal story of how this computer allows me to do all the things I want to do with it.  Bruner called this way of understanding reality the ‘narrative mode’.

Have you ever seen before and after shots?  It may be of someone who has been on a diet, or of a house renovation.  Cameras provide hard evidence that something has changed between the two shots.  This is the paradigmatic mode in operation, and it is convincing (Photoshop aside).   Although it may be easy to provide scientific evidence that something has already changed, how would you provide scientific evidence that someone is ready for change?  I don’t mean ready to change, like a flashing fluorescent tube is ready to blow, but ready for change.  Change readiness is something that happens inside people – it is part of the larger story they tell of their lives.  It cannot be photographed or scanned with an MRI.  It is made up of elements that are measurable, but it is more like taking a Gallup poll than an x-ray.  A clear x-ray can tell you for certain whether you have a broken bone, but most politicians know that you can still lose elections when the opinion polls say you’re in front.  Does this mean that opinion polls measure nothing that is ’real’?  No, but it means stories change and stories are complex, and opinion polls don’t always show the full picture.

The point here is not that scientific ‘facts’ are more real than people’s ‘stories’, but that scientific ‘stories’ are better at telling us things like why the Sydney Harbour Bridge is strong enough to hold up cars and trains, but narrative ‘stories’ are better at telling us why it is painted grey. Both ‘modes’ have their role to play in how we understand and experience reality.  More about how this relates to change readiness later.

Steve Barlow

Published on 11th October 2011

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