Media 100 - No. 88 Howard Gardner: A Satisfied Mind

Howard GardnerHoward Gardner explores how people decide

Ever meet a cognition rock star? Well, you're about to. This is Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a Guggenheim fellow, recipient of honorary degrees from more than 20 universities in at least five countries, and one of the Top 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world, according to Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines in 2005. Nobel winners quote him.

Here's why you should care: Gardner studies how and why people change their minds. In Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business School Press), he identifies the kinds of "minds" we're all going to need as our world gets more wired. We're here to talk about two in particular: the synthesizing mind, which can integrate ideas from different disciplines into a coherent whole and communicate that integration to others, and the creating mind, which has the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena. (The other three are the disciplined, respectful and ethical minds. Another day.)

How could we refine our "creating" and "synthesizing" minds to explore the still-large potential of the Web for better communication and persuasion?
Creating depends on having a small group of people who like one another's minds, who are not redundant with one another, and who get together regularly to brainstorm, to try things out, and to see what seems to work and why. It is helpful if individuals have different, complementary expertise and if they learn readily from one another.
Synthesizing requires wide reading, consulting, talking and listening. This cannot be done passively. The synthesizer has to be organizing and reorganizing all the time - both to see what works for him or her, and, if a communicator, what works for communicating with others.
Synthesizers almost never get it perfect the first time. But with each presentation and feedback, the quality of synthesis should improve. I agree with Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann that the synthesizing mind will be the most valued mind in our century. I suspect that an increasingly larger percentage of educational time will be spent on the development of the synthesizing mind. Any organization that starts to work on this early will have a head start.

Does the election of Barack Obama reflect any of the changes you've observed in the way people think and behave in today's interconnected world?

Barack Obama was light years ahead of others in thinking about the ways [the Internet] could be used not just to reach people and to fundraise but also to develop a community of individuals who felt part of a bigger cause and who were willing to act - not just absorb, vote, and even give some money, but also to go out and register others, monitor voting booths, threaten never to visit their grandparents again if they voted the wrong way, etc.

Now that we have the benefit of some hindsight, how do you think so many people caught on so quickly to using the Web, or cell phones?
When something is truly important to people, and the technology is not complicated, then you have the needed brew for a successful innovation. The mobile phone is easy to explain because being in quick touch with others is a high priority. The speed with which the Web and Internet caught on is a bit more surprising. I think it would not have happened 100 years ago, because at that time, people were less familiar with technological gadgets. The computer might have been a "premature invention," as sometimes happens.

If a marketer wanted to try to replicate that speed of adoption - say, to market solar panels or some other technology - could they use your observations to make it happen?
Two different issues: My work on Changing Minds is most relevant here. Most of us above a certain age are used to dealing with materials without regard to their implications on the broader environment. To get us to focus on sustainability, we need either to have severe financial pressures (like gas at $10 a gallon), or a heightened awareness that failure to act green will doom the planet for those who come after us.
The other issue is: How readily can the new technology be used? If it is too complex, or its importance is not sensed, then wide early adoption is unlikely to happen.

Consumers and marketers today use so many kinds of media. How do you think this affects the way people choose what products and services to use?
The number of media doesn't matter much, and it will matter less and less as the media merge into one another. The trick is to have a manageable number of messages - and that will depend on age, information-processing capacities, etc. - and for the messages to have a revealing relation to one another, either complementary, or, interestingly, at variance with one another. If they are complementary, they are likely to convince us. If they are in contradiction to one another, they are likely to cause us to think - or to declare that we are "undecided."
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