Thursday, January 20, 2011

Negative Capability and Cognitive Bias

A response by Richard Foreman to this year's question on the Edge World Question Center reminded me of Keat's famous concept of Negative Capbility. As an English Literature Honours graduate who had Romanticism as one of my special papers, this was a concept I had read about in some detail in those days. I am just surprised that it had slipped so far back into my subconscious as to be virtually forgotten.

Anyhow, the point is when I re-read the crux of the concept, I was amazed at its applicability to our current times. Let me quote what Keat's said:

...I mean NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason...~ John Keats

"The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems."

In his 1818 sonnet To Homer, Keats captures the ambiguity that is an essence of life:

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is a budding morrow in midnight,
There is a triple sight in blindness keen. . . .

I find a strange relevance of this poem to the world of work and learning today.

Isn't this what we have to learn to do? Given that our world is in a state of constant flux or perpetual beta--use whichever phrase you like--our endeavour is learn to fight the need for closure, accept dichotomy and ambiguity.

Andy Hunt, when speaking about Cognitive Biases, in Why Johnny Can’t Be Agile writes: I think the most significant cognitive bias that affects agile methods in particular is our Need for Closure. In general, people are not comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—so much so that we’ll go to great lengths to resolve open issues and to remove uncertainty and reach closure. In other words, our default wiring says it’s better to make the wrong decision now instead of waiting and making a better decision later.

There is an almost uncanny resemblance between the words of the Romantic poet and the Agile guru.


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