Saturday, March 11, 2017

Cultures Which Support Good Thinking and Outcomes

I found this article to contain something profoundly simple--that addiction is a symptom rather than the problem. It reminded me of the school study that showed that the only intervention that worked to reduce teen pregnancies was service learning (my recollection from Tim Wilson's Redirect)--the likely conclusion being that what was really at the heart of the teens' issues was a need for deeper connecting, which when satisfied by providing service, didn't have to lead to riskier activities with permanent outcomes.

Similarly, the "housing first" model for helping the homelessness seems very parallel to the Iceland idea: rather than focus on requirements and rules, focusing on satisfying the core need first brings the most likely positive outcomes. Another parallel might be how we see prisons (is it any surprise that our model for prisons doesn't seem to actually help people?), with an equally profound article that has influenced me for years at

There is so much in the Iceland story that makes sense when you think about the role of families, friends, school, and positive activities. And so much to admire when public policy finds a way to transcend typical political discourse.

Two more quick thoughts:

The first part of this is something I've come to deeply believe: that we often try and mandate/punish toward outcomes rather than look to the conditions that naturally lead to the outcomes (the behavioral equivalent of demanding a finished crop without figuring out and working on the steps of planting and cultivating). In particular, when I've been in a position to talk to educators or administrators about this, there's some tremendous clarity that comes from stating the positive outcomes that are desired, and then working together to identify the conditions which lead to those outcomes. In general, quibbles about particular measures of outcome fascinatingly fade when people realize how universal the conditions list tends to be (i.e., people almost always come up with the same core items, which largely revolve around very human interactions), and there's a sudden realization of how backwards many educational initiatives are.

The second part of this topic which intrigues me is how we can cultivate the ability to see life with such balance and clarity as to naturally move to these kind of solutions. It seems like one of the great values of educational, cultural, or religious traditions is their ability to encapsulate this kind of wisdom into perpetuated reflection, conversation, and practice. In particular, it would seem valuable to identify those particular cultures which are able to be both transparent and effective in building cognitively-supportive solutions. Maybe a question that would lead to identifying them would be: in which cultures would the Iceland story make sense to the group members and be talked about productively? Is this the kind of conversation taking place in your school / home / community? 

In particular, a very tangible measure of the strength of the culture might be the ability of the youth or students themselves to be conversant with the ideas and practices, for that would indicate a kind of generative capability to perpetuate the core values.

From the article:
Milkman helped develop the idea that people were addicted to changes in the brain chemistry, rather than the drug itself. “People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever. The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark,” he says. 
This is what spawned another idea: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?” 
By 1992, Milkman’s team in Denver had been granted $1.2 million from the government to fund Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural high alternatives to drugs and various crimes. 
“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes catering to the interests of many teenagers could get the teens excited and provide alterations in their brain chemistry. It would keep them busy for one, but also it would keep them interested and in the learning phase. Being addicted to dance is obviously a much better alternative than being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
At the same time, teens also received life-skills training, which focused on having more positive thoughts about themselves, their lives, and how they were interacting with others. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says.
UPDATE: longer, more detailed article on Iceland program and expansion efforts is HERE.

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