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The Cognitive Psychology of Change

by Mark Peres

March 7,2008

We live in a time of change – at least a desire for it. After two decades of strident partisanship in our national politics, there is a yearning for citizen-based values. We don’t want unconstructive bickering anymore. We don’t want zero-sum game ideology. We don’t want power in the hands of the few. Rather, we want “Change we Can Believe In” and “We Are the Change We Have Been Waiting For.” The desire reflects the general principles of cognitive-change psychology that have gained currency in recent years, and reflects a classic philosophical paradigm shift that would be of use right here in Charlotte.


The Millennial Generation has been largely shaped by a personal empowerment culture. They have grown up being told, and believing, that they can be whoever they want to be and no ambition is out of reach. Aspiration, interdependence and collaboration are guiding principles. Long lasting, global, systemic issues – from poverty to disease to climate destruction – can not only be managed, but solved. The powers of the universe are at their disposal to imagine a new world, and they can manifest new realities at their will.

It is a positive psychology that is in stark contrast to a negative psychology of neurosis, dependence, barriers, blocks and limitations. Negative psychology speaks of loss, confrontation, isolation, identity profiling, handouts, bailouts, defeatism and conspiracies. It is sarcastic, angry and demanding.

Millennials have internalized the language because they have watched the cycle of dependency-empowerment play out on every hour of every self-help talk show that has ever been broadcast over the last 20 years. They have seen it play out in the last 16 years in the administrations of the only presidents they have known. And they are seeing it play out in sharp relief in the campaigns of the leading presidential Democratic candidates.

The movement for “change” is – at its core – an affirmation of a cognitive-psychology that is based on the premise that thoughts manifest reality. If you change your thoughts, you can change your life. And changing your thoughts begins with hope. The embrace of hope is precisely the first step in the cognitive-change process, saying “Yes I can. I can change.” If we change ourselves, we can the world. It’s no accident that Oprah is out front this political season.

Way back when in my “Introduction to Philosophy” course in college, we read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Written in 1962, the essay was a landmark in understanding paradigms and how they shift. Kuhn argued that there are three phases to a paradigm shift. The first phase – called prescience – is the pre-paradigm phase in which often incompatible conceptual frameworks compete. The second is when there is consensus on a world-view in which “normal science” works to enlarge the working paradigm. The failure of a result to conform to the paradigm is seen not as refuting the paradigm, but as the mistake of the researcher. As anomalous results build, science reaches a crisis, at which point a new paradigm, which subsumes the old one, breaks through and is accepted. This is termed revolutionary science. And thus entire ways of perceiving and operating in the world shifts.

A paradigm shift is coming in Charlotte. There has been consensus for a long time in a can-do, public-private partnership city where decisions are made by a few. We lift it up, we praise it in profiles in our newspaper, and accept it – even celebrate it – as the working paradigm. When anomalies arise – when community tension flares up, when top-down initiatives gain little traction, when voices resist the consolidation of power – we explain them away as outliers and keep forcing conventional “solutions.” At some point a crisis will come – and a new paradigm will break through.

My view is that the next paradigm in this city is one in which we shift from the few to the many. It will be an outgrowth of cognitive-psychology that lifts up the intentional power of individual citizens to create change – bypassing dependence on centralized institutions. It will leverage technology and platforms that are interdisciplinary and grassroots driven. Initiatives will be owned by the community. Leadership will be daring and dispersed. And Charlotte will be grounded in a far different dynamism.

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