Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blinded by our preconceptions

When Hans Rosling taught a global development class comprising some of Sweden's brightest students at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, he was surprised to discover they knew less than he thought they did.

He found that what the medical students knew already - their preconceptions - caused them to make bigger mistakes than if they knew nothing whatsoever about the subject.

When the students were asked to choose between five matched pairs of countries, where one had twice the infant mortality of the other, they got it right just 1.8 times out of five, which is worse than chance. Chimpanzees could have done better.

He also tested his fellow Nobel-prize winning university professors. They performed better than the students, but no better than the chimpanzees.

Rosling uses the Gap Minder software program he developed to illustrate the dramatic improvements in infant survival that have occurred in the past 50 years. With smaller families, even in the developed nations, infant mortality in many countries has declined dramatically.

He goes on to show how social change, including health outcomes, comes first, ahead of economic development contrary to conventional wisdom which considers that economic change comes before social change.

Here's a workshop to explore some of Rosling's findings:

1. Give examples of some pre-conceptions/assumptions that you have made about people/things which were wildly off the mark when you finally found out what was really going on.
2. Give examples of common cultural pre-conceptions/assumptions that people from other countries mistakingly hold about you.
3. Now choose a country about which you know little, e.g. India, China, Indonesia, Brazil. Make some guesses about the differences between your countries, with a focus on lifespan, annual average income, population, climate, main exports, attitides and check Wikipedia to see how much you knew.
4. Brainstorm some surprising facts you know about some countries. e.g.  3.2 million US citizens are incarcerated which would translate into 360,000 Australians instead of just 24,000. One in three Indians is middle class. 92% of Australians regard themselves as middle class, only 42% of Americans feel the same.
5. Choose one fact from Question 4 and describe the consequences. Respond like this Fact: consequences.
6. Here are some changes that are taking place in the world. What might be the consequences? In China, children have no sisters or brothers, aunts or uncles. By 2015 45% of all jobs in the USA will require conversation or negotiation skills, yet schools teach critical thinking as an individual activity.
7. Thinking about an economically under-developed part of the world, including parts of rich countries, what kinds of social changes might "change-the-game" sufficiently to engender new economic development.
8. What fundamental social change could transform your community for the better? And what new economic activities could leverage off that?