We live in a complex world where sometimes it is difficult to connect our actions to their ultimate impact. This is especially true when the behavior involves many people, distance between causes and effects, a time delay or other complicating features.
“We walk around and see certain kinds of patterns and relationships, but our attention is constrained in each of these instances,” says Tina Grotzer, associate professor of education at Harvard’s graduate school of education and director of the Understandings of Consequence Project. “We don’t necessarily see the connections between causes and effects when they are spread out, or happen over time, or are distributed among lots of different people.”
One example she uses to illustrate this involves the quintessential scene in the school cafeteria where many children are eating lunch and trying to talk to their friends. Their voices keep getting louder as they try to be heard above the voices of others. “There is a de-centralized agency spread across all of the children that organically results in too much noise--it is a form of emergent causality,” she says.
The pattern is an escalating one, with all of the kids contributing, and it finally draws the attention of those responsible for keeping order. The children are chastised, and punished.
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