To what extent can we change behaviour by changing what we think?

Included here is the discussion of norms and beliefs that are also part of culture.


For this I am relying mainly on these sources;  Capra and Luisi, Ch12   Damasio and  Hands Ch24

It appears that there are several levels of consciousness

  • Cognition is the sense of detecting the environment and taking things from it (nutrients) to enable the organism to maintain itself is ubiquitous.
  • Core Consciousness is the ability to sense the environment; a simple biological phenomenon that provides the animal with a sense of self at one particular moment in one particular place
  • Reflective Consciousness which I call self-consciousness; at some point in evolution our consciousness passed a threshold, we no longer just sensed and reacted to the environment but also had a continuing sense of self through time. This is not limited to humans but reaches a peak in humans when augmented by language and writing.

Rational (abstract) thought

Why attach any importance to rational thought? Well it is this process that enables us to invent mathematics, philosophy and science. The processes that, supplemented by writing, allows their transmission through time, starts and then sustains the build up of human knowledge.

We may debate how much free will exists in the sense that our agency is always constrained by circumstances (what went before) as well as our natures, physiology, culture and beliefs. In management this notion is often referred to as room to manoeuvre, when a manager works out just what can be altered and what must be accepted and mitigated. What I am certain of is that through the power of thought we can imagine lots of things that are not predictable, our imaginations are freer than our agency. This is the essence of describing something as utopian, we can imagine it but know we could not live up to it. Holistic Political Economy addresses this directly see the discussions in Part 2 Assess - Vision, especially Vision for Realists and Part 3 Consider - On Power and On Change.


If the build up of knowledge and its pursuit through mathematics, philosophy science is the product of rational abstract thought we may include ethics, i.e. the question of what is or makes for a good life.

Values and Norms, and beliefs

However it is hard to put values, norms and beliefs in the same category. These can almost be regarded as matters of choice in the sense that they are the product of abstract self-conscious thought. The though may be less than rational and some of it may not be easy to control  Kahneman To stress this consider that even when these beliefs are deeply culturally embedded there are always dissenters.

A widely citied problem with our historic culture is the deep seated belief (now being challenged by systems thinking and integrative knowledge) that we are separate from nature and have a right (god given instruction in the Judea-Christian culture) to exploit it. Recently this took a more secular and aggressive turn. In modern aggressive capitalism we see a set of reinforcing beliefs and behaviours that are very dysfunctional and destructive. They emphasise individualism and diminish all aspects of life that are not economically transactional and so become inherently destructive of the environment because they rely on mass consumerism, and growth. This fetishises instant gratification. We kid ourselves that the sum total of collective greed will have the emergent property of public good.

This may have been OK when there were not many of us; we could and often did run away to start over, the world is full this option is no longer available. Now these beliefs are outdated and dangerous. On a crowded planet we have only three choices (collaborate, deceive or fight) as I discuss on Part 4 Strategy, Principle of Action - see principle 3. Because our culture itself is an artefact (i.e. we made it) so it isn't just a thing we have to live, we can change it.