Framing Our Perceptions

When I became a mother, how I perceived the whole world changed.  Before that time, I was influenced much as ‘mainstream U.S. culture’ is influenced:  By the media.  I was a typical consumer.  I had notions that what I should do with my life was to work hard to ‘get ahead’ and work hard – play hard.  I lived my life for me, never questioning whom it was that I was trying to get ahead of, or whom it was that I was leaving behind.  Additionally, I did not realize that another way of perceiving my lifestyle was thinking of it as one of over-consumption.  My way of thinking changed as a result of my decision to homeschool my children.

At the time that we decided to be a homeschooling family, my husband, Bill, and I, decided to lighten our work schedules to make time for teaching.  Because of our then limited income, we determined that we would become a little less wasteful, a little more resourceful, and a lot more self-sufficient.  My new reading genres included topics such as thrift, frugality and homesteading.  This lifestyle of teaching our children also led me to my own new learning adventure, including learning a new way of life – a more-with-less lifestyle.

I discovered the more-with-less ideology from a cookbook, The More with Less Cookbook (1976), by Doris Janzen Longacre.  This cookbook contained simple recipes and suggestions on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.  I also read its companion book, Living More with Less (1980), also by Doris Janzen Longacre.  This book offered its readers a pattern for living with less and a wealth of suggestions for simple, sustainable, sane and healthy living.  These books taught me ‘another way’ to frame my thinking.  They opened my eyes, transformed my worldview, my value systems, and my way of life.  This other way is a way of consuming less of the world’s limited resources while at the same time living life more.  The more-with-less books, by Doris Janzen Longacre are about food, consumption, and social justice.  I’ve come to think of the more-with-less concept as a way of creating a world of greater social justice, or rather different way of thinking about getting our ‘just desserts’.

In retrospect, I can see that the dominant culture’s influence had a major impact on my youth, including my opinions, decisions, and actions.  Yet, at that time, I did not recognize that fact.  I lacked knowledge concerning the social realities of ‘others’, and especially of others in what we, in the western world, now label ‘developing countries’.  I did not have a very good understanding of my own situation of extreme privilege in relation to worldwide realities.  It was not until I had a need to learn another way of living for my own personal wellbeing that I became conscious of how little I knew.  I can see now that my knowledge was especially lacking concerning other ways of thinking related to resource scarcity and how people choose to relate to one another, and how they think of personal wellbeing.

In my youth, during the Reagan years, I bought into the political propaganda of that time.  Many people (including myself) loved him for his trickle-down economic policy, which became known as “Reaganomics”.  Reaganomics, by decreasing tax rates, also increased the wealth of the wealthy and it also increased the consumption ability of the not so wealthy.  This increased ability to consume felt like increased wellbeing to me.  Businesses loved Reagan because he deregulated industry.  This helped to keep prices low, and also created notions of wellbeing that I bought into.  His stand against the U.S.S.R., and all things communist, provided the country with an opposition and therefore also a patriotism to root for.  This felt good to me, too.  While Ronald Reagan was president, it seemed that economy prospered and it felt as though I was prospering, too.  I now know that although the country enjoyed high employment rates, and a rather prosperous few years, Reagan also made a lot of decisions that were detrimental in the long term.  In reality, national debt increased, and this is what allowed for the impression of prosperity.  His actions against the air traffic controllers strike acted to dismantle the power of organized labor.  The deregulation of many industries helped business prosper, but at the cost of the environment. His escalation of the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. helped to increase the number of nuclear weapons on the planet.  His new laws for drug offenses increased incarceration rates and the racial disparities in the prison population, while doing nothing to curb illegal drug use. Today, I now know that we live with greater environmental concerns, greater amounts of national debt, a new industry based on incarceration with its new form of slave labor, and we have an income disparity larger than ever before. It is clear to me today that the negative impacts of the economic policies of this skilled actor (that seemed very good at the time) still plague us today.  I can see by my change in worldview in circumstances of politics and social justice that our modes of thinking and perceiving the world are not fixed, but rather, they are influenced and can and do change over time.

My most current knowledge of world affairs no longer comes exclusively from popular culture news sources.  It now comes primarily from a new education.  The combination of homeschooling my children, and learning about alternative (less-consuming) lifestyles had led me to desire a college education (something that I previously did not have the privilege to pursue) at a rather late stage in my life.  This is how my political opinions have been persuaded, by my new education.  Today, I am very glad for my new greater awareness and understanding of the world and my place within it.  In retrospect, I can see that although my youth was very ‘real’ to me, I truly lived in a sort of fantasy world that was based more so on a white-washed history and that of myths than it was on reality.

I also now have a new understanding of wellbeing.  My priorities have changed.  I no longer attach my self-worth to my socioeconomic status or my ability to gain material possessions or to my ability to consume.  I now think of wellbeing in terms of quality time with my family, and how satisfied I am with my overall life outcome.  I now think of my life in relation to the past and the present and also in relation to the experiences of others on a worldwide scale.  I have found that I have become a much more grateful person, realizing the degree of privilege that I possess.

My new awareness allows me greater choice and opportunity than what I had before.  This is mainly because I now have a more expansive view and therefore understanding.  I am able to see from perspectives inclusive of other’s viewpoints.  I am less likely to think in terms of either/or and right or wrong.  I am also beginning to see the world less objectively and more relationally, instead.  The framing of my thoughts is changing according to the new information I am gaining.

One very important change in my awareness is that I now understand that many of my thinking processes, like everyone else’s, may very well be short of being completely rational. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), in his conversation with Richard Layard at the London School of Economics (Thinking Fast and Slow, n.d.) explained how the human mind works in non-rational ways.  He referred to the ‘fast and slow’ thinking as system one, and system two.  System one is a fast, automatic, effortless, intuitive thought process, but it has a weakness in that its intuitive nature is prone to errors.  System two monitors and controls behaviors.  It is slower, more laborious and a more accurate process; yet it is prone to “paralysis by analysis”.  What this means is that our brains “produce mistakes” when they do not have skilled knowledge for the questions they must respond to.  In these types of circumstances, they use the information they do have (including unskilled intuitions and strong emotions) to make a “consistent story” that may be very convincing and compelling, yet prone to error.  The subconscious thinking of system one does a great majority of the brain’s work, and it does it very efficiently, but sometimes at the cost of rationality.

Marketers are aware of this shortcoming in people’s ability to rationalize, and this is why they appeal to people’s emotions rather than rationality when selling products and services to make a profit.  This leads to the reason that a psychology professor was a recipient of a Nobel Prize for economics.  Kahneman questioned standard economic theory that assumes people have consistent and stable preferences and use them to make rational decisions.  Against popular belief, Kahneman proved that people do not always respond to situations rationally.

This new understanding of people’s thinking errors carries implications for the importance of public policy and government regulations.  If people are rational then there is no need to protect them from their own mistakes, but if people are not always rational thinkers, and they are prone to making highly predictable mistakes, then perhaps a degree of policy and regulation is warranted as a means of protection against predators.

Public policy and government regulation are important safeguards against predation by unscrupulous business practices, and so is education.  Kahneman stated that his main reason for writing the book Thinking, Slow and Fast was to “educate gossip” by introducing more sophisticated concepts concerning how people make decisions.  He said that giving people this knowledge along with a terminology and a language to use, would help them in finding and correcting their own thinking errors, in addition to thinking errors of others.  The purpose of his book was to bring awareness of our individual and collective cognitive biases, so that we may protect ourselves against them.

This is, in a way, what the more-with-less books did for me, because they corrected my thinking biases.  I had grown up in a very individualistic culture, and one that is based on economic principles established on a need to compete for limited resources.  The more-with-less books taught me that there are other ways of thinking about resources and economy.  For example, instead of competing for resources, I learned that we could conserve resources.  Likewise, instead of competing with one another, we could work together cooperatively and in collaboration with one anther.  This new way of life, one that I am still attempting to develop, is credited to Doris Janzen Longacre, because she gave me a new language to use, and a new way to frame my thoughts.  Likewise, my education is continuing the process by introducing more sophisticated concepts, terminology, and language such that where my mental processes may fall short, I can be aware of the tendency so that I may safeguard myself, and perhaps others also, against them.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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