Human progress is marked by the transition from one socio-economic modality to the next, each reflecting man’s principal means of satisfaction. Historians and anthropologists call them ‘ages.’ The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Agrarian Age, Industrial Age, Technology Age and most recently the so-called Information Age. Over the last century or so, during the industrial, technology, and information ages, science and engineering dominated allowing massive industrialization and gains in productivity and wealth. During this period epistemological activity was marked by the scientification of everything. Wealth defined success. The framework of the prevalent modality during any given ‘age’ is manifested in all aspects of human interaction. For example, to wage a credible argument and earn the respect of peers in the academic world since the early twentieth century, one had to be able to identify independent and dependent variables and replicate results, ceteris paribus. This gave rise to a number of new ‘sciences’ including political science, economics, and sociology, which have worn their scientific wardrobe with neither consistent appeal nor comfortable fit.
Today, we are realizing the limits of our science-centric modality, especially as we attempt to navigate our way through current crises. It appears economists have had it mostly wrong most of the time. Political scientists and sociologists are having equal difficulty explaining observed phenomena. The result is that Ideas, Beliefs, and Convictions – the IBCs – are on the rise as a locus of analysis. Not since the period of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when we moved away from the mystical to the rational, has the swing of the pendulum toward empiricism been arrested. This shift back toward IBCs signals a subtle but critical transition in our socio-economic modality from the information age to the cognetic age. What and how are being replaced by why as the central question. Scientific method is being rebalanced with a reconsideration of the arts, philosophy, religion, and history as we attempt to make critical decisions – hopefully in time to save our fragile social order.
As we have both benefited from and endured the scientification of everything, the time has come to rebalance our analytics with an equal or greater consideration of why things are the way they are, not just what and how we do what we do. In my doctoral research, I study why presidents do what they do in foreign policy. I search for the threads of influence and thought that result in decisions that affect millions of lives. In the process, I build cognetic profiles that include the intellectual capital and cognitive disposition of presidents drawn from an historical examination of their education, experiences, socializations, and indoctrinations. What I have found is not earth shattering, but is also nearly universally ignored by scholars in this period of scientific preference. The principal driver in presidential decision-making is not empirical data, logic, or even politics; it is the intellectual capital and cognitive disposition that form a president’s cognetic functionalities. ‘Facts’ only become so by permission—granted by IBCs. Asking why allows us to both explain and predict decisions. It gives us a sense of meaning that empirical data never does, which produces a more coherent model to understand and explain our world.
Shifting our search to why—toward a cognetic age where IBCs matter again—will also impact how we measure success. Wealth, or net worth, may be replaced by net well being as we shift our preferences toward things that have meaning, not just utility. This has profound implications for how we live our lives and form relationships toward people and their organizations. If you have a company focused on what and/or how, you better start thinking about why. If you counsel people about their investments, well being may be a more appropriate framework for quarterly reviews than net worth. If you are charged with the task of defeating terrorism, IBCs may be much more important than economic aid or nation building, and much more effective than frisking grandma at the airport. If you are a teacher, make sure your students also search for meaning while they are identifying, articulating, and calculating the whats and hows. And, if you are President Obama, you had better stick to your why—“Hope & Change”—even in the face of sophomoric ridicule and partisan intransigence. That’s why you were elected.
IBCs matter, perhaps more now than they have in many decades, and may just unlock some powerful solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges.