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Jerome Bruner: Possible Worlds

By Shlomo Maital


Jerome Bruner just passed away. He was 100 years old.

Bruner changed forever the way we see the world and the way we understand human thinking. As a pioneer cognitive psychologist, he helped us rethink the mind as what he calls a “hypothesis generator” – the human can envision “possible worlds” (the title of one of his most famous books.  

   As a child he recalls being influenced by one of his teachers, Ms McNamara, who taught him that “the world is an open question”. And that is how Bruner viewed psychology.   If you deal only with what exists, he noted, then psychology has nothing to do with life.   In giving advice to young psychologists, he urged them, “get out of your office and get into the real world.”  

   His older sister Alice influenced him strongly. She was smarter than me, he recalls, and asked him, “why are you always guessing?”   But Bruner saw the mind as a “hypothesis generator” – as something that asks questions, rather than spews out answers.

     He had a lifelong love of sailing. Sailing for him was a metaphor of life. You sail in an unpredictable environment, when the wind can change at any moment, and you have the illusion of control,   adjusting the sails, etc., but it’s only an illusion.

     I personally embrace Bruner’s landmark article The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), because I’ve come to believe, as Bruner showed, that we understand reality by telling ourselves stories – about ourselves, about others, about how things work. And some of those stories are fiction, made-up, “possible worlds”, this is called creativity and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make up a possible world and then make it happen.

   My colleague Arie Ruttenberg defines creativity as “widening the range of choices”. That is,   imaging new possibilities, possible worlds. Bruner supports this.

       From childhood, Bruner had limited vision. But it never hampered him.   He brought common sense and a spirit of rebellion to his discipline, and embraced all other disciplines that he felt were related.   We will miss him.

Stories and Feelings: Powerful Tools for Creative Thinking

By Shlomo Maital

Feelings in History

 My last blog was posted nearly two months ago, on March 30. Shortly after, I left for China, for teaching and lecturing. WordPress was not accessible in China. Then, on returning home, I somehow found it hard to restart the blog machine. I deeply regret this, because knowing I have blog readers keeps my eyes and ears open for ideas….   So, this is a ‘restart’, hopefully with no more long regrettable silences…

       Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Shiller (Yale) wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times, Jan 22, 2016, “How stories drive the stock market”. Shiller is the author of a fine book, Finance and the Good Society, about how finance could be (but alas, sometimes is not) part of the solution, not part of the problem.

      In his NYT piece, Shiller refers to psychologist Jerome Bruner, who showed how popular narratives (human interest stories) are “fundamental drivers of motivation”.

Shiller discusses the sharp decline in the U.S. stock market since early January, and describes the ‘stories’ that explain it. First, the slowdown in the Chinese economy – “gross exaggeration” of its importance for the U.S. Second story: “record for poor performance of the stock market in the first week of the year”… Third story: low oil prices.   Fourth: tripling of the US stock market from 2009-14, and its “unwinding this year”. Many missed the big tripling, owing to pessimism and fear after the 2008 crash.   This created heightened sensibility about a possible fall, after such a surprising precipitous rise.

     Shiller cites a fine book by fellow Yale professor Ransay MacMullen,   Feelings in History: Ancient and Modern, (2003), in which he writes, “History is feeling. It is feelings that make us do what we do. And feelings can in fact be read. But the reading of them requires writers and readers to join their minds in ways that have long been out of fashion among students of history”.

     History, financial markets, consumer spending, virtually everything in our economy is driven by feelings. And feelings are evoked by stories about people, challenges, conflicts, crises and how they deal with them.

       Conclusion?   When you invest, try to analyze the prevailing ‘narrative’ or story that is driving human behavior, including the emotions underlying it. Is it valid? Is it evidence-based? Or is it superstition and empty guesswork?   If the narrative is groundless, sooner or later (it might well be much later!), the story will change and reverse.  Consider a contrarian (buy when everyone is selling) strategy.

       What is the TRUE story? The real narrative?   How do you know? What stories are people telling themselves?  

         In your startup business – what is YOUR underlying story, the story about how you create value for your clients?   Is it powerful? What emotion does it evoke?

       Feelings drive behavior. If you’re investing, a buyer, analyze which feelings are at work, and why, by identifying the dominant stories. If you’re an entrepreneur, a seller, shape your stories, by identifying clearly the motion you want to create with your innovation, then build everything you do around it, with a powerful narrative.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital