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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 30 August 2013

Cognitive Poverty and Mapping Solutions

What does the cognitive atrophy caused by poverty have to do with a data geek mapping bicycle accidents in response to an incident in which his girlfriend was injured?
Let's start with the cognition part.  If you have average cognitive capacity and I asked you to do some basic financial math - say, a three-digit multiplication question - you could probably work it out in your head without much difficulty.  If, however, I dropped a hammer on your foot, the pain would make the performance of that mental task somewhat more difficult.
Now, if we expand the challenge a bit and I task you with working out your monthly income, average monthly expenses and what would be realistic in terms of allocating what's left over to savings vs. fun spending, you could probably sit down and put something on paper.  If I break your leg and then have you sit down and do the same task, the results will be less than spectacular.
It's pretty well accepted that pain impedes thought and performance.  But what of psychological discomfort?  Picture you have just heard that your parents died in a car crash and then were asked to perform the multiplication question.  It'd be a bit more of a challenge, wouldn't it?  The same applies to task #2 - if you are living under the constant threat of, say, losing your home (or of knowing where you're going to sleep each night) then task #2 becomes more onerous, too.
When it comes to cognitive tasks, psychological discomfort works the same as physical discomfort - it impedes ability.  It's possible to keep at physical tasks (like building widgets) while suffering from psychological distress - for some people, the distraction might even be beneficial.  The more complex
the task is, though, the harder it is to maintain the focus required to do it correctly because a good part of your cognitive processes are fixated on solving the other issue.
People living in poverty, near poverty or dealing with either precarious employment (not sure for how long they will get a paycheque or where their next job will be) or highly stressful employment (constant fear of being berated or threatened if they don't do exactly what the boss wants even when those demands aren't clearly articulated) have a harder time focusing. 
What they have trouble focusing on will shift depending on where the greatest threat appears to be - if you don't know where you're sleeping at night or where your next meal will come from, that becomes your primary focus - like the body fighting a cold, cognitive energy is drawn from other areas to address the biggest threat.  If you are constantly anxious about your work, you might spend all your energy there, to the detriment of your own wellbeing (skipping lunches, working late into the night, etc.)
It's all well and good to get angry at poor people and tell them to just get over themselves and get a job (as a job leads to income which allows for more living security) - I know a lot of hard-core business minded people who say just that.  In practical terms, though, that's just not feasible - just as I can't realistically expect you to do financial planning if you're in physical agony and in the throes of grief, it's not realistic to tell people to get a job without having the basic comforts (let alone training, experience and sales ability) required to get a job.
Not when employers want the perfect match from day one and aren't willing to invest in training or employee transition strategies.
It's a funny thing, that - every single one of the aggressive, profit-oriented people I know are as functionally fixated on increasing the bottom line in the same way that people without homes are focused on where they're going to sleep at night.  Earning money, pushing their employees to bring in more money becomes the tunnel through which they see the world.  Meanwhile, they frit away tens of thousands of dollars in lost opportunity and lost person hours because they don't take the time to develop internal flow processes or train employees. 
We are constantly told that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you have to have a laser-like focus on where you want to be.  Distractions are to be avoided, time is not to be wasted, so on and so forth.  That's true if you're in a race (which the capitalist economy, in essence, is) and the goal is to finish first.
If you build more widgets more quickly, you get the promotion.  If you sell more cars in a quarter than the other guys, you get the bonus.
The problem is, life is not a race, it's a journey.  There is no smooth track, no level playing field that allows everyone to compete on an even keel.  In fact, there are often puzzles along the way that need a bit of contemplation to overcome.
The average person living in poverty can't navigate their way to economic success without support - because the nature of the terrain works to their disadvantage.  The same principle applies to sole-focus oriented manager or functionally-fixed politicians - they are going to find themselves constantly frustrated by the hurdles they face because in their hurry, they have failed to study the terrain.
That's where the accident map comes in.
Adrian Verster wasn't trying to put more money in his pocket, nor was he worrying about how to keep a roof over his head.  His was not an existential or branding challenge that fostered linear, one-hurdle-at-a-time thinking.  Trying to ensure that something was done about bike accidents and motivated by personal impact, Verster was trying to solve a problem.
Problem-solving is a completely different task than function-filling.  It uses different parts of your brain and facilitates a lot of risk-taking - trying one solution to see if it works and if it doesn't, moving on.  Whereas repetitive job interviews or failed business pitches nurture anxiety (they make the functionally fixed destination of meaningful employment or financial success seem further and further out of reach, forcing even more focus), removing non-viable options encourages confidence; eliminating what doesn't work let's you focus on what could.
The more non-traditional experience you can bring the table, the more likely you are to look at problems from different perspectives and find innovative solutions that those functionally fixed on a problem might have a harder time fathoming.
Whereas the only solution an constantly agitated Rob Ford can think of to solve the bicycle question is to remove them from the road entirely, Vertster took his love of data, devised a way to map out accidents and provide a fresh perspective on the geography of the problem, allowing for solutions to be considered from a broader range of angles.
It's a bit like driving - it can be nerve-wracking trying to navigate your way through traffic, one-way streets and all the signs and signals that go with it; put a map in your hand and it becomes an easier task that can be sorted out in advance, facilitating a smoother and more prepared journey.
Let's go back to the cognitively strained poor people.  They are focused on the immediate need of getting around the corner right in front of them - say, paying the rent this month.  They cannot spare the energy to look around the corner.  The pain of their poverty constrains them from looking ahead.
If you provide that person with a map - say, of existing government services, training opportunities, skills-to-job match and you give them some GPS-like assistance (job counsellors, etc.) and you work on smoothing out the terrain for them (the employment equivalent of paved roads being understanding and accommodative employers) you give them the foresight and comfort they need to confidently navigate the terrain and arrive at the desire destination.
Lots of metaphors, lots of analogies - clearly, I'm just writing to further my carpal tunnel.  If I had anything important to say I could synthesize it into a couple bullet points, right?  Busy people don't have the time to digest details.  Give 'em the sugar, the low hanging fruit, and let 'em move on.
So let me connect the dots for you:
- society does a crap job of accommodating cognition at both ends of the spectrum; this is why we have a shrinking middle class and greater anxiety among the poor and greater frustration among the wealthy
- telling poor people to just "get a job" is like telling wealthy people to just "donate more money to charity"; a short-term focus on keeping roofs over heads or keeping shareholders happy negates the cognitive ability to think laterally, systematically.
- narrowing focus, reducing accommodation and increasing time pressure does exactly the opposite of what we want it to do - we don't become more successful, we become more short-sighted.  That's never a good thing in the long run, as we're clearly seeing.
- solving problems (complex math equations, financial planning, figuring out how to get a job or innovating new products for emerging demands) requires a completely different set of motivation and supports than does race-winning.
- environmental assessments - knowing the landscape - makes planning easier.  It enables you to put the right tools in your box before you set out.
- it isn't enough to motivate people to get jobs or to meaningfully hire with carrots and sticks; you have to design-think your way across the gap, which is a two-way effort.
Or, to make it really simple for you - it pays to think ahead and to live consciously.

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