Cognitive Barriers and Rethinking Assumptions

To really think clearly, it’s important to clear away cognitive barriers.  Pesky assumptions that prevent us from seeing the truth.

These assumptions can be big or small.  The big ones prevent us from seeing what’s coming, acting on the opportunities presented and taking precaution against potential threats.

In our current situation, one of most prevalent current cognitive barriers is our reliance on economic logic.  People apply it to everything.  This wouldn’t be bad if the logic of economics was universally applicable — across all times, scales, and places in human history — but that’s far from truth. Economics, particularly Capitalist macro-economics, is not only a modern construct, its applicability is almost completely restricted to the modern world.

This means that if you clearly want to see what comes next, it will require a rethinking of assumptions, even if they are central to economic logic.   In fact, an inability to understand the logic of economics was an insurmountable cognitive barrier to the last group to rule the world, and it cost them everything.

Up until the ~1600′s, the world’s “political economy” was a largely variation on a Feudal theme.   Yet it was a system that didn’t operate according to economics in any meaningful way.  The bulk of “economic” production was agricultural.  Almost everyone farmed.  The remainder were focused on mastering the skills of war.  In this system, ownership of land was hereditary and aristocratic.  The dominant way to view the world was through a logic of blood, traditions, and relationships, from the loftiest ruler all the way down to the peasant working the field.

Maneuvering for success in this system was largely finding a way to marry well or fighting wars that provided generous honor/spoils.  Commercial activity, when it did occur, only represented a small part of the overall economy.  When it did, it was normally in terms of the small amount of surplus agricultural output available (beyond what was needed to feed the peasants and local nobility).

This logic was so successful, it took over the world.  It also prevented the aristocracy from seeing the rise of Capitalism.  At the time, it made sense.  To them, Capitalism wasn’t anything new.  It had been around for thousands of years and represented little threat.  In contrast, a loose hierarchy based on blood ties, honor, and violence was eternal.

What they didn’t see was that the Capitalism of the 1600′s was different.  It wasn’t just the buying and selling of baubles or the short term financing that made wars easier to wage.  It was something fundamentally new.

This Capitalism was being fueled by new approach to science and technology (the application of scientific insight to real world problems).  Due to a unique confluence of conditions that occurred in Western Europe during the 1500′s, this science and technology got better over time.  It built on itself, and Capitalist economics was an effective catalyst.

Fueled in this way, this modern Capitalism was a real threat and it growing logic, its economic logic, gained followers with each passing day.  It soon bankrupted, bought out, or beheaded the dominant aristocracies, long before they began to understand what was happening.

That’s exactly what a cognitive barrier can do on a global scale.

It can prevent you from seeing the obvious, even when it is going on all around you, up until the point you find you and your way of life is obsolete.


PS:  I’m not sure I’ll include this in the book I’m writing online, but I thought I’d share it with you anyway.  Like always, if you want to make sure you don’t miss something good, sign up below.




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Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Michael January 31, 2014 on 9:36 pm

    This is a great topic. I think adding something along the lines of how to challenge one’s own assumptions.

    Something like writing down your assumptions. Identifying the words you are using and redefining the words. Examine your qualifiers. Test negative statements, cross-validate your assumptions, hypothesize without your assumptions, hypothesize with different assumptions, ask questions about your assumptions, and really use the 5 why’s methods on each of your assumptions.

    Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson has some great research in the field of challenging your assumptions.

    • John Robb Michael February 4, 2014 on 10:37 am


      Thanks. Can you point to his best work? You can use to find academic papers.


  • Burgundy February 1, 2014 on 8:43 am

    We can certainly see a cognitive barrier in people as we crossed the threshold from one climate state into another more chaotic one.

    For example; in the UK the infrastructure is failing due to unprecedented volumes of rain and severe flooding is resulting. The infrastructure has never before had to cope with such record breaking weather. Yet the response from people is “dredge the rivers” as if that was a cure for the extremes generated by a new climate state.

    It is as if resurrecting a passed technique, which used to work in the prior climate regime, was the answer to their problems in the new regime. People are floundering in a world that looks the same, but, is somehow acting differently in ways they fail to fully understand. Rain is still rain, but now incomprehensibly, it floods them out of their homes and inundates farmland for weeks on end. Something it never used to do.

    I guess the same will happen as technological progress sidelines people and heads off on a trajectory they fail to comprehend.

    An interesting aside is that many people who correctly predicted the effects of climate change (albeit not as fast as it happened) are now backing away from it. As if they’ve hit their own cognitive barrier and are trying to deny the reality they themselves foresaw.

    Maybe we go through a Kübler-Ross like model (ie. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) before we can attune to a new reality. Many people are perhaps now at the bargaining stage, trying somehow to postpone or delay the inevitable that they refuse to acknowledge.

    • Burgundy Burgundy February 1, 2014 on 9:14 am

      Just an interesting little snippet on the Thames Barrier, which is raised to protect London from flooding in emergencies.

      The Thames Barrier has been raised 141 times since it became operational in 1982. During its operation It was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 100 times since 2000.

      And during the single month of January 2014 it has been closed 13 times.

    • John Robb Burgundy February 4, 2014 on 10:32 am

      The bigger the change, the harder it is to see.

  • Steve February 1, 2014 on 2:11 pm


    As a frequent reader of your tweets it was dissapointing to see that as of 2-1-14, your tweets have been “protected” from the public. Say it aint so!

    • John Robb Steve February 3, 2014 on 7:43 pm


      Yes. Wanted to focus on the people in the community right now rather than people walking in the door. Might open in future.


  • Burgundy February 2, 2014 on 10:16 am

    ‘ChewBacca’ Trojan steals thousands of credit card details across the globe

    • John Robb Burgundy February 4, 2014 on 10:27 am

      Thanks B. JR

  • Dan Lynch February 2, 2014 on 10:43 am

    With respect to higher education, the problem is cultural as much as economic or practical. To get a job as a waitress these days appears to require an undergraduate degree of some kind. College is the prerequisite for a low-paying gig with no future—a credential that costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in return for minimum wage.

    The change necessary is cultural: look through various job postings for a variety of fields and you will see employers routinely asking for the moon—and often getting it—in return for a lump of coal. Colleges and universities have, so far, not lost their sheen to employers.

    If today we could mint a bunch of internet-credentialed people, I am not convinced they’d be received well by most employers, deluded into thinking that college experience makes for better burger flippers.

    On the other hand, if the real goal is meaningful education, the internet-based educational system would lend itself for people who are entrepreneurial. This is limiting, though: only particularly self-starting, tenacious people can benefit.

    Are we really all fated to be self-starting business types demanding the freedom and risks of full autonomy?

    • John Robb Dan Lynch February 4, 2014 on 10:27 am

      Are we really all fated to be self-starting business types demanding the freedom and risks of full autonomy?

      Yes. At least those of us that do well. A little over a hundred years ago, nearly everyone lived life this way. Its much easier to do now and the success level is potentially much higher.