What the OECD Findings on Students’ Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills Tell Us … And What Not

PISA-CPS-Girls-vs-BoysCongratulations, Singapore!

As one of the pioneers that have championed Problem-Based learning (PBL) in Singapore, I was delighted to see Singapore on the No.1 spot in collaborative problem-solving when the OECD (OECD, 2017) presented its results on November 21, 2017. Many years of hard work by consultants like myself and government investment into a more student-centered pedagogy have, obviously, paid off.  Still, we need to be prudent on how to interpret the results since there is much more implied in the study than meets the eye.

Lesson No.1: Collaborate problem-solving is the exception to the rule, even among top performers

Graphs, like the one above, seldom tell us the overall picture. One remarkable key-finding of the study was  that (highlights by me) ‘(…) on average across OECD countries, not even one in ten students can handle problem-solving tasks that require them to maintain awareness of group dynamics, take initiative to overcome obstacles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts.’ (OECD, page 5). The study points out that even for top-performer Singapore only one in five students attain a high level among the cited criteria, while three-quarters of students are able to address problems of medium difficulty and can integrate diverse social perspectives. Collaboration as a key competence of the knowledge society (Moshman & Geil, 1998) appears rudimentary in practically all developed nations. The results reveal that there is much room for improvement across the board.

The unexplained gender gap

One of the central graphics and headline presented to the media by the OECD organisation (above) suggests that girls categorically outperform boys in collaborative problem-solving skills, which is not the case. Similarly, in a previous study, boys were found to outperform girls in individual problem-solving. Gender differences are statistically significant, but as in all statistics, this means that in reality there is still a large overlap between the better performing boys and the not so well performing girls (or vice versa, when looking at individual problem-solving skills). The authors of the study do no try to explain the international gender gap. They speculate that girls might simply be more receptive to interpreting nonverbal cues (Hall & Matsumoto, 2004; Rosip & Hall, 2004) since the gender gap cannot be explained sufficiently even after accounting for better reading literacy among girls.

Another reason might be found in different age-related competencies between boys and girls. Girls tend to mature faster than boys. This is how longitudinal analyses would be in a better position to explain underlying developmental factors. Judging from my experience with adolescent students, the gender gap diminishes as student populations grow older. In support of this hypothesis, the earlier maturation in girls has been associated with different neurological development (Lim et al., 2015). If varying neurological development could be identified to impact collaborative skills, the gender gap might not qualify as a solid predictor of collaborative skills in adulthood as data may suggest at first sight (see Figure V.4.4 below).

Looking at top-performers Singapore, Japan and Korea, the cultural influence on collaborative skills in interdependent Asian societies (Fiske et al., 1998) who also assign a high social value to education would be another worthwhile topic of investigation. As can be concluded from data, girls do slightly better than boys while some cultures do notably better than others. However, cultural differences clearly outweigh gender differences.

by gender

The big question: Is learning still enjoyable?

To facilitate lifelong learning, learning itself should be an enjoyable, motivating and insightful process. Learning should take place within a positive social environment and it needs to develop students’ personal resources. Although the significant effect of positive social relations for collaborative skills has been emphasised in the OECD study, there is no explicit connection drawn to problem-solving made in the classroom.

The generally stricter and more rigid learning environments in Singapore classrooms do not compare, by a wide stretch, to the more explorative and intrinsic motivation-based classrooms in Finland. This is how, to me, the psychological winner of the OECD study is Finland. Finland demonstrates that a nation can be a leader in collaborative problem-solving while advocating a student-centred, active learning pedagogy at the same time. This fact leads to another scientific blind spot, which is the issue of developing a sustainable intrinsic motivation to solve professional and personal problems throughout the lifetime. In the meantime, the successful alternative approach in Finland has been recognized in Singapore on a ministerial level (Sinnakruppan, 2017).

Lesson No.2: Problem-solvers are not necessarily innovators and entrepreneurs

With the promotion of collaborative problem-solving skills, Singapore had hoped to create an innovation hub reminiscent of an SE-Asian version of Silicon Valley. Although Singapore students fare well in problem-solving, innovation and entrepreneurship did not materialize to the extent it was anticipated by the government. Some factors inhibiting innovation appear to be the cultural habit of relying on a centralized administration, the unwillingness to take risks and to exchange ideas (Wan et al., 2005).

Although I am an ardent supporter of PBL myself, I had to learn over the years that problem-solving and entrepreneurship require different skillsets. Entrepreneurs display a high degree of frustration tolerance and are willing to take above-average risks. Entrepreneurs learn from failures, evolve advanced mental abilities to simulate future scenarios and develop high motivational levels in support of personal perseverance – all qualities that collaborative group processes do not necessarily imply. Innovators need to be brave: The truth is that more innovative ideas have also a higher probability of failure.


One of the key takeaways from the latest OECD study was that collaborative problem-solving is still in its infant stages, even among the top performers. Averages do not represent the stunning underdevelopment among practically all nations. We can agree with the authors of the OECD study that collaborating students only mature within collaborative schools. Beyond the mere measure of cognitive competencies, the development of personal resources and social skills seem to pave the way to succeed in the emerging knowledge societies.



Fiske, A. P., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 915-981). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hall J.A. & Matsumoto D. (2004), Gender differences in judgments of multiple emotions from facial expressions, Emotion, Vol. 4/2, pp. 201-206, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.4.2.201.Lim

Lim S., Han C.E., Uhlhaas P.J. & Kaiser M. (2015). Preferential Detachment During Human Brain Development: Age- and Sex-Specific Structural Connectivity in Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) Data, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 25, Issue 6, 1 June 2015, Pages 1477–1489, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bht333

Moshman D. & Geil M. (1998), Collaborative reasoning: Evidence for collective rationality, Thinking and Reasoning, Vol. 4/3, 10. pp. 231-248, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/135467898394148

OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Rosip J.C. & Hall J.A. (2004). Knowledge of nonverbal cues, gender, and nonverbal decoding accuracy, Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, Vol. 28/4, pp. 267-286, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-004-4159-6.

Sinnakaruppan S. (Nov 26, 2017). Why Singapore’s education system needs an overhaul. In: Todayonline. Retrieved from: http://www.todayonline.com/daily-focus/education/why-spores-education-system-needs-overhaul

Wan D., Ong C.H. & Lee F. (2005). Determinants of firm innovation in Singapore, In: Technovation, Volume 25, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 261-268, ISSN 0166-4972. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0166-4972(03)00096-8.

About the Methodology of Social Change


The emergence of cooperative research

The Problem of Traditional Research Cycles

The biggest challenge to social sciences is the alienation between research and application. In social sciences and education, few empirical findings find their way back into improving everyday life and not everything that is being researched is of relevance in real-world settings. The gap between theory and application, between expert cultures and social actors, is grounded in traditional belief models.

Typically, it is assumed that a social problem, which is identified by researchers and decision makers, requires quantitative analysis to be objectively addressed. The tool of choice is empirical studies that reveal the causal, correlational and conditional relations of a social problem, e.g., by employing statistical methods such as regression models or structural equation models. At the bottom of the scientific hierarchy, we find smaller single-case studies, followed by correlational research, quasi-experimental studies and on the top meta-analyses and Randomized Controlled Field Trials (RCT/ RCFT). The latter is highly structured for the quality of reporting ‘enabling readers to understand a trial’s design, conduct, analysis and interpretation, and to assess the validity of its results.’ (CONSORT, 2010).

A problem that science despite all rigour, however, cannot reflect is the roles of involved decision-makers who interpret and apply scientific studies on behalf of their employees, staff as well as their users. A good example was the PISA studies that had a major political influence on educational governance across Europe. Local school principals, teachers, parents and students could only watch in disbelief how politicians surrendered to a merely economized view of education based on the measurement of few scant competencies. The top-down approach of monopolized research implies a number of problems when looking at developing sustainable social solutions. The most prominent critique is that social actors are degraded to mere data sources, for example via survey-based research, but they are not included as actively contributing rational agents.

This imposes four fundamental limitations to improving social systems:

(1) CONSTRUCT COMPLEXITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL VALIDITY: The complex nature of people’s lifeworld (their needs, interests, perspectives, motivations, ideas and wishes) is excluded in traditional research. The traditional objectifying approach, e.g., by limiting questions and potential answers of social actors to Likert Scales, imposes a reductionist perspective right at the beginning of the research process.

Traditional research implies a number of conceptual assumptions that may not coincide with the context in situ. Quantitative studies work well in settings where a problem can be clearly defined beforehand, such as medical problems with experimental- and control groups, but they necessarily fail in the case of social solutions development that depends on the active and adaptive contributions of social actors. In this case, the relation between research and research subjects is of an entirely different nature – one is descriptive while the other is participatory.

(2) DISEMPOWERMENT: This argument states that social actors are denied ownership of the problem at hand. By circumventing the perspectives of affected parties, participants of social transformation are excluded from the discourse to improve their environment. As a result, frustration and resentment may set in as participants are degraded to passive onlookers on the implementation of top-down policies. In addition, research and policy-making lose individual and collective meaning which otherwise would have emerged via active participation.

(3) SOCIAL INPUT AND DEVELOPMENT: Traditional empirical research rests on a number of unreflected assumptions. For example, which should be the desired effects of an intervention from the perspective of social actors, which noticeable criteria can measure these effects and which local resources are available to accommodate improvements? It is one perspective to abide by professional standards, such as promoting the acquisition of competencies or to develop individual autonomy, and another to empower social actors to work on solutions taking their unique cultural tools, personal motivation and local resources into account.

(4) SUSTAINABLE OUTCOMES: Social models that are created in cooperation naturally develop areas of corresponding responsibilities. Systems, where policies are imposed onto populations externally, suffer from the drawback that nobody feels in charge of managing them due to the lack of ownership. People assume responsibility for the systems they create.

The development of participatory models

We may take schools as an example. How a school deals with diversity, heterogeneity, its psychological climate, social support networks or mechanisms for continuous improvement is entirely based on the coordinated effort of the administration, teachers, students, their parents and the social context at large.

Due to the need for consensus, social problems and their consequences need to be set in relation qualitatively (Which is the meaning of problems to the individual and which are their social impacts ?) as well as quantitatively (How do problems scale in the social sphere?). Typically, such questions are more adequately addressed in mixed study designs. Mixed-study designs, unlike large quantitative studies, recognize the complexity of social transformations but still fall short of the criteria of democratic empowerment and cooperative local development. New innovative scientific approaches that are based on the input from social actors will be discussed in Part 2 of this essay.

From a data perspective

From a data perspective, we could state that in traditional research a fixed statistical method, based on collected data sets, is employed to determine the significance of effects or the causal interdependencies of factors within a construct. By contrast, in cooperative research, we need to design logical operators (methods) in such a way that we derive at a measurable, computable result. The traditional statistical method is fixed by its choice of initial study design, while cooperative efforts are based on the premise of performing adaptive process changes (competitive prototyping) in regards to achieving desired outcomes.



The Creative Mind: Kant, Hegel and the Complexity of Life in the 21st Century

Artwork: Through spirit’s gaze by Andrew James Campbell. Acrylic on torn paper. A4 1982. With kind permission of the artist. The source of the title is “The Spirit shall look out through matters gaze, and matter shall reveal the Spirits face” Sri Aurobindo

Kant and Hegel, 2.0

When Kant postulated in a Cartesian manner that we are the children of two distinct worlds, the cognitive and the empirical, and that we can derive clear-cut conclusions from there, he was rightfully criticized by Hegel that things may not be as easy as they seem. Assuming that we do not live in a dualist, but in a coherent material reality where the biological-cognitive domain emerges from physical groundings (despite enjoying distinct supervenient-symbolic sets of freedom), such a view entails an organic, rather than a Kantian-categorical model of how our mind, the world and others relate. As history progresses, Hegel’s subject-object evolves and expands through cultural evolution. For Hegel, subject and object constitute each other reciprocally. The concept of such a ‘subject-object information field‘ was also introduced as a scientific paradigm by Eleanor Rosch for the domain of cognitive psychology.

When it comes to creativity, it is not only the artists who create, but scientists, engineers, business-groups, culture, society and the world at large. Generally speaking, all life that is self-sustaining and self-regulating requires creativity, the development of future-oriented, open developmental paths in order to persevere and to evolve. Without it, we would perish or our minds would devolve into repetitive, self-congruent fractal patterns. Once environmental conditions stall, so does evolution. Once environmental conditions become more dynamic, creative evolution starts to get busy.

For Hegel, intuition and concept were just different aspects of the same subject-object unity within a common reality. Kant excelled in his insight that the freedom to reason about our world is a distinct mental property which might be explained by, but not reduced to neurological processes. On the other hand, we can spin Hegel’s argument regarding Kant further: Not only is humanity a mean within itself which cannot (and should not) be instrumentalized, but the same argument extends to the material conditions that safeguard our integrity as rational agents. Examples are the access to education, the availability of creative tools and stimulating environments to develop one’s faculties, the integrity of body, the malleability and adequate development of the brain, the practical autonomy as a person and so on and so forth.

The freedom of our mind matters as much as the material conditions that enable it. The extended Hegelian argument goes as follows: If there is in principle only one physical reality (nature, also following Spinoza’s path here), then the laws of self-governed freedom must apply to all; not only content and form but also the physical grounds that allow conceptual form and mental content to emerge.

The creative mind works from both ends, from the conceptual-cognitive as much as from the intuitive-emotive. Modern psychology and neuroscience have dismissed the mechanical idea of people as thinking machines; or ‘thinking animals’ as Descartes described himself in his Meditations. Without emotion, we could not think, an argument elaborated upon by neurologist António Damásio in his book ‘Descartes’ Error’. Without the empirical reality of our embodied minds, our needs, desires and vulnerabilities, we would have no motivation and no grounding to come up with a single thought. From a Hegelian perspective, environment and mind, intuition and concept, object and subject constitute each other reciprocally as a function of environmental interaction. We may mention Kurt Lewin’s equation B = ƒ(PE), namely that behaviour is a function of the person and the environment. This approach makes more sense than postulating ad hoc metaphysical ideas about life and reality since reciprocality (bi-directional, mutually constituting causality) can be measured and verified scientifically as a phenomenon of our common and shared reality.

Creativity as a Vulnerable State of Mind

Being able to talk about things constitutes us as human beings that can marvel, play, discuss, react and ponder about the world and others. Verbal, non-verbal language and action act as the glue between empirical and mental domains, whereby empirical conditions become the material placeholders for mental content and processes. As such, the mental is folded inside the empirical conditions that surround it. From a phenomenological perspective, we could call this the empirical bracketing of mental content. Creativity, as a bracketed process, evolves in the gentle, protected space where empirical conditions are not too tight to suffocate or destroy creative freedom and not too loose that the mind has only a paucity of environmental stimuli to fall back upon.

Creativity finds itself among adjacent human faculties. According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, the creative intelligence is complemented by analytical and practical intelligence. His choice of categories is peculiar as it echoes the underlying matrix of the information field; this is that the polarized object-subject field collapses between its two poles (the creative and the analytic) and concludes in social action and individual behaviour (Sternberg’s practical intelligence).

The creative action reveals itself always a collapse, a judgment call, a point where subject and object, mind and physical conditions unite. Subjective and objective information is woven into a coherent fabric by the loom of life in which we appear as finite beings within a practically infinite process. It is in our actions (inclusive of speech-acts and electronic interaction) that we constitute ourselves as rational beings. Spinoza might have added that those who dedicate their intellect to the search of such truth are blessed. Truth-searchers are enlightened as they recognize humbly their necessary incompleteness and fallibility. They remain mindful as they position themselves as responsible, autonomous beings. Like a glass of water, the fluidity of the water serves as a metaphor for creativity while the composedness of a rational mind, the function of the glass, holds potentials together. Creative processes need ratio as its guiding vector while ratio depends on creative processes as its source of inspiration, its ground for innovation and renewal.

Dimensions of Creativity

Regarding the dimensionality of creativity, much depends on our point of view. On the level of object-materiality, the creative mind recombines objects and shapes them within information hierarchies. We extract features, recognize patterns, chain and cluster, copy and paste, recombine and sort, analyse and synthesise, create interactive building blocks, define a system’s syntax (such as computer languages) to serve an instrumental purpose and so on. Object-materiality also engages our senses and emotions to which it guides our decision-making. The latter not only serves to create more pleasing outcomes but, in combination with our mental faculties, to create sustainable outcomes that are beneficial to all. This is the level of material design and hypothetical imperatives.

On the level of subject-object and inter-subjectivity, semantics appear on the horizon and we are dealing with what the Philosophy of Mind has defined as qualia. The creative mind takes semantics and qualia into consideration to create new forms, to morph, to evaluate, to restructure typology, to diversify in order for creations to serve and reflect the plethora of the human lifeworld and experience. As life’s paths are developmental open, so must creations serve the openness towards our shared future. As we need information and data to process semantics and qualia, we could call this type of creative processes ‘In-formations’ (to put into a form) since they address the development of ideas based on facts (idea), the meaningful creation of typologies (typos) in order to relate ideas to concepts and the need to change the overall form of structures (morphe) to suit human needs. On this second level, we design not only artefacts but systems. In system design, empathy is critical. The rational grounding of empathy lies firstly in the Kantian recognition that all individuals regardless of particulars are categorical representatives of mankind and secondly in the notion that no single man-made system stands in isolation of another. Hence, our emotional interest in the plight of other stakeholders is a ‘rational emotion’ (from a Kantian perspective). In endorsing empathy, we recognize the state of the rational grounding of others. We not only accept other’s dignity, but we also respect the systems they engage to make sense of the world. Ideally, we co-create systems.

Finally, on the level of environmental interaction, creativity transcends the subject-object. We interpret, re-define, constitute our social Selves, embed our lives in cultural memory, make gutsy lifetime decisions and undertake deep emotional investments, develop concepts, get inspired by intuitions and think critically about the relationships between ourselves and our future possibilities in the context of the environment. Since we are dealing with a global and holistic view of the subject-object phenomenon and its continuing transformations, we could name this type of creative processes ‘Transcendations’. It defines all processes that transcend their self-congruent borders and reformulate a system’s local particulars in view of global development and emergence. From a psychological perspective, cognitive dissonance and cognitive restructuring are the keywords.

From a scientific perspective, looking through our mental lens, we just defined different levels of detail and interaction, whereby each point of view enjoys its particular merit. All three levels of engagement challenge our individual and collective competencies, in particular with regard to increasing system complexity.

To conclude, creativity is not an arbitrary subjective faculty that escapes objective measure. This would be both the wrong perception as well as the wrong underlying question. The whole point of intact (flowing and exchanging) information fields is not to infer a preferred view within the object-subject (e.g., a spiritualized mind over matter belief or big data manipulating personal integrity) but to realize that the creative process requires a formal scaffolding and modes of creative processing in order to inform qualitative and quantitative aspects of research and investigation. To this extent, creativity is perhaps also the deepest political force of all, more profound than any ideology ever could, as we find our new historical role as designers of globally compatible and beneficial systems. Measuring our aspirations against real-world outcomes, the openness towards critique and ongoing improvement becomes our most precious virtue. The higher our standards, the stricter our self-critique.

The Creative Reasoning of Actors

But who are the drivers of change? The material grounding of good design is stakeholders, not shareholders or onlookers. It is only when participants can bring their genuine interests, intuitions, perspectives, sufferings and passions to the table that we can complement those original requests by mindful conceptualizing, not by automated technocratic processes. Kant delivers the deciding argument here and I shall extend his proposition a bit. Only by critical reasoning as well as making our creative reasoning a matter of public discourse for the sake of a better lifeworld design, we can evade the pitfalls of dehumanizing our environment to the point where autonomy and freedom slip off our hands. The argument is that once the conditions for open systems creation become means to a purpose and surrender to hypothetical imperatives (such as e.g., by commercialisation or the maintenance of privilege at the expense of others), spaces for sensible negotiations and co-creations between stakeholders deteriorate or vanish. Creativity in the 21st century has never had so many options and has never been in so much peril of being instrumentalised. We need to work hard, stay open-minded, be patient, listen to our hearts and take uncomfortable risks for mind to matter.

Special thanks to Andrew James Campbell for all our conversations inspiring this script.

Metacognition (Part 2): What Makes Us Truly Human? A Literature Review

original robot picTo learn is to create: Educational robotics are a very recent trend that requires children and adolescents to plan, reason, experiment, create, play and learn from failure. In the process, they acquire and apply new knowledge. As in most such technology-based scenarios, students learn in teams. Photograph by Alain Herzog, 2015

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.

John Dewey

What makes us truly human? Part 1 of this series (‘What or how we think is not quite as important as how we can govern ourselves’) outlined the significance of metacognition on the individual and social level. It was concluded that the freedom to develop alternative solutions to a problem and to become self-aware of one’s own as well as others intentions, perspectives, feelings and interests constitute key competencies of the human condition. Without such freedom, our mind would simply follow environmental stimuli or tradition and we would barely be capable of developing a more complex and rewarding lifeworld.

The following review investigates the deeper structure of metacognition. It is divided into two sections. Section 1 provides an overview of leading concepts that investigate individual and social metacognition (ISM). Section 2 reviews the suitability of various theoretical frameworks in order to propose a unifying approach of how to measure metacognition in the context of autonomous (intrinsic) versus heteronomous (extrinsic) regulation.

1. The dimensionality of individual and social metacognition

Individual Metacognition: Self-Knowledge and Behavioral Control

The first formal model of individual metacognition was developed by John Flavell (Flavell, 1979, 1981) who was influenced by the constructivist psychology of Jean Piaget (Flavell, 1963). Flavell (1979) defined metacognition broadly as a person’s self-knowledge and regulation over her own cognition, an overarching concept that is shared in literature (Brown, 1987; Flavell, 1976, 1979; Kuhn & Dean, 2004; Martinez, 2006; Paris & Winograd, 1990; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006).  Metacognition is accompanied by metacognitive experiences such as the feeling of difficulty (or ease of learning), the experience of self-efficacy, affective states dealing with uncertainty and task motivation (Efklides, 2006, 2009, 2014; Flavell, 1981; Kleitman & Moscrop, 2010; Schneider, 2008; Zimmerman, 2008). Metacognitive experiences have been identified to play a critical role in self-enhancement motivation (Jiang & Kleitman, 2015) to support self-regulated learning (Boekaerts & Corno, 2005; Boekaerts & Niemivirta, 2000; Dweck, 1998).

Metacognitive knowledge generally refers to the reflective knowledge that people have about their information processing skills which entail the knowledge of tasks, task complexity and the knowledge of strategies on how to cope with tasks. Corresponding metacognitive regulation describes the related executive skills of cognitive monitoring and self-regulation associated with metacognitive knowledge (Schraw et al., 2006; Schneider, 2008). Flavell’s original blueprint has since been extended considerably by other researchers.

Adding to the definition of metacognitive knowledge, several authors (Cross & Paris, 1988; Kuhn & Dean, 2004; Schraw et al., 2006) have identified declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge as its central components. Declarative knowledge refers to a learner’s self-knowledge of resources and abilities. Procedural knowledge refers to the knowledge of the purpose and the processes involved to solve problems and to self-regulate tasks (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Nelson, 1994, 1996) while conditional knowledge refers to knowing the conditions under which knowledge can be generated, transferred and applied (Schraw & Dennison, 1994).

The concept of metacognitive regulation has likewise been expanded upon and includes the planning and critical evaluation of cognitive tasks and goals (Brown, 1987; Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2009; Cross & Paris, 1988; Martinez, 2006; Paris &Winograd, 1990; Schraw et al., 2006; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Whitebread et al., 2009). Metacognitive planning entails the abilities of forethought (Pintrich, 2000), for example by goal setting and resource allocation, while Schraw & Moshman (1995) and Schraw & Dennison (1994) added debugging strategies to correct for comprehension and performance errors, information management strategies to process information more efficiently and comprehension monitoring to allow for the self-assessment of one’s learning.

Metacognitive regulation has been further segmented into (a) Cognitive monitoring, which refers to making self-aware judgments about one’s learning. (b) Metacognitive planning which, as outlined above, refers to the evaluation and employment of most efficient resources and strategies (Cross & Paris, 1988; Li et al., 2015; Schraw et al., 2006; Whitebread et al., 2009) and (c) Metacognitive evaluation, which refers to the ability of making metacognitive judgments and formulating monitored interpretations (Dunlosky& Metcalfe, 2009; Pintrich, 2000; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Wang, 2014).

Formulating a more holistic approach, Pressley, Borkowski, and Schneider (1989) have proposed the ‘Good Information Processing Model’ which also takes into consideration the elements of prior knowledge about the world, motivational orientation and the ease of employing successful strategies automatically. This model was later extended to include metacognitive self-regulation skills (Efklides, 2001; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1998, Schneider, 2008). The level of prior knowledge plays a large role in pedagogy as it defines the scope of a learner’s inner resources such as coherent concepts and internalised ideas.

Much of current research on metacognition deals predominantly with empowering student learners such as in literacy, reading and comprehension (Baker, 2008; Israel et al., 2005; Leopold & Leutner, 2015), developing self-efficacy (Aydin, 2006), improving problem-solving (Cornoldi et al, 2015; Wismath & Orr, 2015), essay writing (Surat et al., 2014) and mathematics (Desoete & Veenman, 2006; Özcan & Erktin, 2015; Kleden, 2015). Other studies have focused on peripheral topics such as linking metacognition to worrying and sleep (Thielsch, Andor, &Ehring, 2015; Thielsch et al., 2015) or consumer knowledge discrimination (Pillai et al., 2015). Not much research has been conducted in areas such as the workplace, organisational decision-making, culture or politics.


Picture (MIT): Prof. Tommi Jaakkola during a class in AI “Introduction to Machine Learning”. The more complex a society, the more relevant becomes cognitive and metacognitive regulation

As part of self-regulated learning, metacognition has also been linked to critical thinking skills (Bowell & Kemp, 2010; Dwyer et al., 2014; Felton & Kuhn, 2007; Halpern, 1998; Ku & Ho, 2010; Kuhn, 1999; Magno, 2010; Mayer & Goodchild, 1990; Olson & Astington, 1993; Schroyens, 2005) since metacognition is self-correcting and refers to the epistemological question ‘What do I know and how do I know it?’ (Kuhn, 1999, p. 18).Critical thinking skills involve executive functions for difficult cognitive tasks, such as recognizing assumptions, making inferences and deductions, formulating interpretations and evaluating arguments (Magno, 2010). Despite general agreement on the overall construct of metacognition, Kuhn & Dean (2004) pointed out that there is e.g., a large divide between psychological researchers, emphasizing on objective standards, and practitioners who expect students to be empowered to contribute to a democratic society. Both standpoints beg reconciliation. An overview of the general taxonomy of individual metacognition is summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Systematic overview on the concept of  individual metacognition by the author (click to enlarge)

Social Metacognition: The Awareness of Others

No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The official advent of social metacognition in social psychology was marked by a publication of an edited volume on metacognition by Dardenne, Lories & Yzerbyt (1998) which connected topics that are of particular interest to social psychologists, such as relating feeling-of-knowing judgments and theories about the social influence on memory with topics such as stereotyping, prejudice and social bias correction.  Since then, social metacognition has been established as an essential topic in social psychology (Bless & Forgas, 2000; Mischel, 1998).

One of the key issues has been, ever since, differentiating social metacognition from individual metacognition. Briñol (2012) argued that metacognition is primarily defined as thinking about one’s own (vs. others’) thinking, since primary thought is causally more efficient if it appears in one’s own head. Social metacognition is represented for Briñol in many ways, for example as an individual’s mentalizing about social objects (e.g., the perception of family and relationships), thoughts shared by a community (thoughts about others’ thoughts) or thoughts communicated to others.

Briñol rejected the proposal by Jost and colleagues (1998) who called for an expansionist approach of social metacognition on the grounds that the true agent of mentalization is still the individual subject. In this proposal the authors called for the inclusion of (a) mentalizing about other people’s cognition, (b) momentary convictions, such as ‘the feeling of knowing’ (Nelson & Nahrens, 1994) and (c) descriptive general beliefs of how the mind works, such as beliefs about intelligence (Dweck, 2013) as well as normative beliefs of how the mind should or should not work, such as deferring to make stereotype judgments about others (Yzerbyt et al., 1994).

Jost and colleagues (1998,  p. 140) argued, with experimental evidence from studies on familiarity heuristics, that ‘fleeting feelings’ are often guided by metacognitive states (Banaji & Greenwald, 1995; Begg, Armour & Kerr, 1985; Jacoby et al., 1989; Metcalfe; Strack & Bless, 1994). The authors argued that self-concepts such as beliefs about self-efficacy (Bandura, 1991; Ferrari, 1996) or the nature of intelligence (Dweck, 2013) are modelled via social learning processes and thus need to be included in social metacognition.

The opposing positions of Briñol et al. (2012) and Jost et al. (1998) can be reconciled by putting into perspective that social metacognition plays out on a gradient scale between implicit, automated processes and explicit, reflected mental processes. In this light, Schraw & Moshman (1995) proposed a taxonomy defining (a) tacit (b) explicit-informal and (c) explicit-formal metacognitive theories. Tacit theories (a) are acquired, constructed and applied without one’s knowledge. For example, a teacher’s epistemological assumption of how adults learn describes his tacit, implicit theory about students’ learning and decision-making (Kagan, 1992; Sternberg & Caruso, 1985). Explicit-informal theories (b) imply a subject’s awareness and knowledge of some of the mental content, while the rudimentary framework still lacks conscious justification of beliefs and their underlying assumptions.   On the level of explicit-informal theories people reflect purposefully and systematically on their actions and modify their future thinking and performance (Kuhn et al., 1992), differentiating between empirical and formal content (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1993). Finally, in explicit-formal theories (c) people become fully aware of their mental states as demonstrated, e.g., in Problem-based Learning where tutors facilitate metacognitive reasoning by asking group-members to provide arguments for their assumptions, beliefs and propositions (Barrows, 1992; Barrows & Wee, 2007).

Another approach to frame the multi-dimensionality of social metacognition, to pick up on Briñol’s argument of personal mental efficacy, is to differentiate how social metacognition is causally evoked by individual, social and environmental input. Kim and colleagues (2013) asked about the eliciting source of metacognition and propose a dual-agent (individual and social) organization of social metacognition. The authors argued that a single individualistic or social perspective by itself cannot sufficiently explain e.g., how learners with weak metacognitive skills can overcome temporary failures (Kim et al., 2013). Based on the concept of socially shared metacognition (Iiskala et al., 2011) and regulation within groups (Vauras et al., 2003) they concluded that the social level acts as an integrated agent in the form of consensual, participatory goal setting and collective planning. The learning environment evokes, as a separate layer, social metacognition by framing problems of different task complexity and conceptual demand. Individual metacognitive reasoning is for the authors causally defined as ‘due to oneself’ while social-level reasoning is defined ‘due to others’ (Kim et al., 2013, p. 388).

A neglected field of research is the relationship between empathy and social metacognition. The underlying question is how can we be motivated to take the plight of others into perspective if there is no prior emotional identification with the other, this is if we cannot recognize the other as an equal human being despite particular differences. The central role of empathy in combination with social metacognition is however fully recognized in Clinical Science (Eichbaum, 2014: Stansfield et al., 2015).

2. The suitability of theoretical frameworks to measure psychological motivations

If the goal of the research is to measure the entire spectrum of autonomous versus (competing) heteronomous types of regulation, few psychological frameworks offer a useful conceptual base. For example, the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991, 2002) works under the assumption of individual, goal-directed behavior based on a person’s attitude, subjective norm, perceived behavioral control and individual intentionality. Like most rational-choice theories, the approach does not take into consideration heteronomous factors such as the influence of social habits, social milieu and interaction effects involving cultural context, social norms or group influence (Manstead, 2011).

On the other end of the spectrum, Social Identity Theory (SIT) (Taifel & Turner, 1979) works under the assumption that it is one’s group association that creates a sense of belonging and creates self-esteem, honour, pride and identity. SIT defines the subsequent processes that create social identity as (a) social categorization, where people categorize and define themselves and others in relation to each other, (b) social identification, where people adopt the identity of their new ingroup and (c) social comparison, where one’s ingroup is compared against outgroups, evoking judgments about the other groups’ worthiness as well as one’s own. SIT does conceptually not account for individual reasoning to transcend identities beyond group affiliation.

Self-determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 2012; Ryan et al., 2012), by comparison, takes as a motivational theory the entire spectrum of intrinsic and extrinsic types of motivation into account. It is argued that high-quality forms of motivation support the human needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan, 1995) while social context and cultural factors may even undermine motivation and volition. SDT is empirically well supported across disciplines (Deci et al., 1999; Chircov et al., 2003; Guntert, 2015; Hagger et al., 2015; Masden et al., 2014; Ng et al., 2012; Ryan et al., 2006; Van Berghe et al., 2014; Webb et al., 2013) and has demonstrated cross-cultural validity and reliability (Gagné et al., 2014; Grouzet et al., 2005; Sheldon et al., 2009; Soenens, 2012; Vlachopoulos et al., 2013; Zhou & Deci, 2009). SDT differentiates between five basic types of self-regulation (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 221-223) which shall be briefly described in relation to sociocultural context.

(1) Externally motivated and control-dependent behavior is characterized by the regulation by external rewards and punishments (Skinner, 1953) which exclude the Self. Beyond physical conditioning, rewards and punishments are also represented by peoples’ weighing between payoffs versus costs for complying with social norms (Sherif, 1935; Asch, 1951; Milgram, 1963). Hedonic adaptation (Diener et al., 2009; Kahneman et al., 1999), for example, can be regarded as a result of external motivation.

(2) Introjected regulation includes mental models that have been partially internalized by the self. In this case, the motivation for behavior is governed by the avoidance of shame and guilt or providing for socialized self-esteem rewards (Beer, 2014; James & Amato, 2013; Walker & Bright, 2009) such as in the honor cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle-East.  Introjected regulation is also facilitated by inferences provided by common sense – (Heider, 2013) and folk psychology (Hutto & Ratcliffe, 2007; Kelley, 1992; Kruglanski et al. 2010) which largely supports culturally-shared, naïve assumptions “how people think they think about the social world” (Wegner & Vallacher, 1981, p. 226). On the other hand, loss of honor is typically followed by feelings of shame, feeling disrespected, disempowered and can be responded with aggression and violence.

(3) Identified regulation (social norm regulation) entails that people identify with their enactment of behavior and assume responsibility for their actions and they relate internalized social norms and values to reflected personal consequences for enacting them. Underlying social norms function on this level as injunctive norms (Cialdini and Trost, 2011), an intricate system of reciprocal expectations that society formulates towards the individual and, in return, expectations of the individual to how others should behave (Bicchieri, 2006).

(4) External integrated regulation describes a type of motivation where people do not only reflect upon personal and social norms, values and identifications, but they bring into congruence the claims and perspectives of others as the basis for cooperation. The causation of such reflective thought due to others is a hallmark of social metacognition (Kim et al., 2013).

(5) Intrinsic motivation implies that a person acts according to his or her personal aspirations. Behavior is initiated because it is experienced as personally enriching and engaging, independent of external stimuli. Intrinsic motivation entails the ability to resist habitual responding and to base decision-making on motivating values which are not a function of anxiety, defense and conditioned response. People seek to proactively develop positive social relations, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, personal growth, autonomy and purpose in life (Ryff, 1989; Kállay & Rus, 2014; Li, 2014) by free personal choice (Deci, 1971, 1975).

To this extent, intrinsic motivation is linked to individual metacognition for developing goal-directed behavior via mental strategies (Coutinho & Neuman, 2008; Ee et al., 2009; Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998), while monitoring and controlling for adverse environmental influences that may frustrate, inhibit or prevent individual development (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013).

From the perspective of SDT, ISM can be conclusively understood as forms of external integrated and intrinsic regulation. Heteronomous forms of regulation, by contrast, are usually encoded as folk- and cultural beliefs (introjected regulation), social norms and conventions (identified regulation) as well as hedonic well-being (both on an individual and social level with others). This conceptual approach entails a less polarized concept since in everyday life peoples’ lives are ruled by more complex types of motivation that combine individual and collective motives. As Chirkov and colleagues noted, “Because autonomy concerns volition, persons who are strongly connected with others often function with those others’ interests in mind. Put differently, if others are integrated within oneself doing for or conforming with those others could be fully volitional.” (Chirkov et al., 2003, p.103).


Picture: Instead of looking for solutions by respecting and integrating the perspective of others, modern societies often behave like tribes. Photo from an indigenous protest in Brazil during the UN Rio+20 summit. Source: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA / Rex Features

Conclusion: What makes us truly human?

In terms of research approaches, what appears of interest are not necessarily all possible forms of human motivation but those that are most relevant to generate specific outcomes. Since we are interested to empower human agency on all levels, we need to be aware of motivations compromising individual and social freedom and autonomy. In this light, the institutional embeddedness of metacognitive practices is of particular interest here, both in terms of the internal democratic management of organisations as well as developing socially inclusive services and sustainable design for clients. As pointed out in Part I of this series, the connection between empathy, social metacognition and the development of ethical concepts has not yet been fully investigated and lacks empirical research.

Self-awareness, self-regulation, forethought, logical reasoning, creativity, empathy, perspective-taking and the mindfulness of others are some of the key features that make us truly human. We have just begun to grasp the basic grammar of human agency.


Due to the long list, all references to Part 1 and Part 2 of this series are listed as PDF here Literature Review, References Joana Kompa.

Metacognition (Part1): What or How We Think is Not Quite as Important as How We Can Govern Our Reasoning


Photograph: Al Gore explaining data findings on global warming for his documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (Picture Credit: The Hollywood Reporter)

Reason in a creature is a faculty of widening the rules and purposes of the use of all its powers far beyond natural instinct; it acknowledges no limits to its projects. Reason itself does not work instinctively but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order to progress gradually from one level of insight to another.

Immanuel Kant

In contemporary social and cognitive psychology, the problem of human empowerment remains one of the overarching topics of debate. Discourse encompasses the question to which extent human cognition and behaviour is regulated heteronomous, based on an external locus of control, or autonomously, based on an internal locus of control (Rotter, 1966). Applied psychology attempts to foster and develop what Bandura (2006) has identified as the core properties of human agency, which are intentionality, forethought, self-regulation, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. According to Bandura, people are not merely ‘onlookers of their behaviour’ (Bandura, p. 164), but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.

Similar to Bandura’s recent call for an ‘Agentic Psychology’ which is advocating self-directed human agency, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposes a related model of human empowerment based on a theory of motivation, differentiating between various forms of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971, 1975; Ryan et al., 2012). The underlying assumption of SDT states that motivations are driven by the intrinsic human needs for social relations, the development of competence and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2012).

Historically, the concept of heteronomy versus autonomy and regarding people as autonomous, responsible and rational agents leads back to the Age of Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant advocated in his famous paper titled ’What is Enlightenment?’ from 1784, to not only use one’s own private understanding but also to make public use of one’s reasoning to free ourselves from self-incurred immaturity (Kant & Beck, 1959).

The Overarching Structure of Metacognition

Analogously in psychology, the reflected private and public use of reason (cognition) are known as metacognition. Individual metacognition is broadly defined as one’s ‘thinking about thinking’ (Flavell, 1979), the ability to reflect critically about one’s own reasoning, due to oneself, while social metacognition is defined to reflect about one’s own cognition as it is motivated by others (Kim, Park, Moore & Varma, 2013).

For example, the statement ‘I think of my options first before I start making plans’ is perceived ‘due to myself’, representing individual metacognition. By comparison, the proposition ‘I first think about the consequences for others before I make a decision’ is set causally implied ‘due to others’ as a social object, subsequently representing social metacognition.

Metacognition comprises of cognitive knowledge (knowledge about knowledge) as well as cognitive regulation (Brown, 1987; Flavell, 1976, 1979; Martinez, 2006; Paris & Winograd, 1990; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006).

Cognitive regulation is further segmented into (a) cognitive monitoring, referring to making self-aware judgments about one’s learning. This entails metacognitive experiences, such as the awareness of task complexity (Efklides, 2006) and self-enhancement motivation (Jiang & Kleitman, 2015), (b) cognitive planning, referring to the evaluation and employment of most efficient resources and strategies (Cross & Paris, 1988; Li et al., 2015; Schraw et al., 2006; Whitebread et al., 2009) and (c) cognitive evaluation, referring to the ability of making metacognitive judgments and formulating monitored interpretations (Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2009; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Wang, 2014).

Several authors (Beran, 2013, Carruthers, 2012; Chambon et al., 2014; Peña-Ayala, 2015; Proust, 2014; Kloo, & Rohwer, 2012; Metcalfe et al., 2013; Schraw and Moshman; 1995) have emphasized the role of metacognition for human agency. For the authors, agency emerges not only on the level of efficient mental information processing such as information storage and retrieval (Nelson & Nahrens, 1990) but on the level of regulation, monitoring, interpretation and evaluation of thoughts.

Metacognition is often described in research as being part of a dual system that complements automated and habitual cognition. Daniel Kahneman (2013), citing Stanowich and West (2000), conceptualizes a dual blueprint of human cognition. He proposed an efficient first-order system that facilitates intuitive decision-making, driven by impulses and conditioned responses, while a second-order system operates self-aware, deliberate and effortful. The latter is enabled by executive functions (Banich, 2009; Chan et al., 2008; Miller & Cohen, 2001). Most importantly, self-regulation enables the second-order system to correct for cognitive bias (Kahneman et al., 1982; Kahneman, 2011; Martin & Staple, 1998; Petty et al., 2007). A limitation of the individual-based dual system conceptualization is that it does not take into consideration external heteronomous factors that influence people, such as folk theories, group pressure or social norms.

In conclusion, metacognitive regulation is a reliable indicator of autonomous regulation. It is only when individuals are able to defer habitual, automated judgment, to critically reflect upon their thoughts and to be able to analyse and correct internalized mental content and strategies that they assume independent, autonomous agency. Vierkant (2013) argued in support of this notion that our self-reflective abilities enable the human mind to go offline, directing it away from environmental stimuli and towards itself, unlike routinized minds.

The Social Efficacy of Metacognition

The dichotomy of heteronomous versus autonomous regulation exists, to illustrate its dimensionality with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), on various social levels as follows:

(a) On an individual level, a lack of reflected cognitive regulation is correlated with numerous mental disorders, which is why metacognitive approaches play a central role in counselling and psychotherapy (Dimaggio et al., 2015; Thakur & Roy, 2015; Van Donkergoed et al., 2014; Wells, 2000). Approaches to psychotherapy, such as REBT (Ellis & MacLaren, 2005) or CBT (Feltham & Horton, 2012), are based on self-aware cognitive restructuring. Metacognitive skills are also positively related to mastering difficult life transitions and relationship issues (Varmecky, 2012). Regarding education, a great number of empirical studies on individual metacognition focus on the effectiveness of students’ learning (Aydin, 2016; Cornoldi et al., 2015; Hudesman et al., 2013; Leopold & Leutner, 2015; Zepeda et al., 2015).

(b) On the level of small groups, metacognition is a prerequisite for collaborative, evidence-based problem-solving and teamwork (Frith, 2012; Nansubuga et al., 2015; Nonose et al., 2014; Wismath, & Orr, 2015). A good example would be the constructivist pedagogy of Problem-based Learning (PBL) which started in medical education (Barrows, 1992) and has since then extended to numerous academic faculties (Amador et al., 2006; Duch et al., 2001). PBL is explicitly encouraging metacognitive reasoning (Barrows & Wee, 2007; Downing et al., 2009) within tutor-based groups to research, evaluate and develop competing interpretations and multiple solutions to a problem. By contrast, a lack of metacognitive competence can lead to social effects such as groupthink (Janis, 1982), blind conformity and compliance (Asch, 1956; Levitan & Verhulst, 2015; Mugny, 1984), compromising both democratic decision-making as well as individual critical reasoning (Comstock, 2015; Kuhn, 1991).

(c) On the level of large groups, group conflicts in collective and individualist cultures are intensely debated in cross-cultural psychology. The role of metacognition within social conflicts has however not yet been deeply investigated. Boroş and colleagues (2010), confirming similar findings by Earley &Mosakowski (2000), for example, concluded that horizontal collectivism and individualism (groups where members regard themselves as equal) are more likely to adopt cooperative conflict resolution styles. Examples for heteronomous social regulation in this light are conflicts evoked by outgroup-avoidant and socially exclusive cognitive beliefs, such as traditional belief systems and ideologies (De Juan, 2015; Hahn et al., 2015; Thagard, 2015).

The examples suggest that although individual- and social metacognition (ISM) may originate as higher order thinking skills neurologically and functionally in the same mid frontal brain regions (Shimamura, 2009), the plethora of issues that ISM involves extend over the entire continuum of social spheres. On an (a) individual level, metacognition supports, maintains and develops personal and occupational functioning. On the level of (b) small groups, metacognition advances the ability to collaborate successfully with others, while on the level of (c) large groups, metacognition relates to the regulation of argument-based societal discourse and behavioral changes in the face of global challenges.

Metacognition and Culture

Culture is another Terra Incognita from a metacognitive point of view. Despite intense research such as in the educational sector, little is known about cultural differences in individual and social metacognition (ISM) across social contexts, in particular, contrasted against non-metacognitive, heteronomous modes of regulation. Most studies that compare, for example, differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures have focussed on comparing psychological concepts such as, e.g., self-esteem, well-being and emotion, attribution styles, social obligations, communication styles or negotiation and conflict resolution styles, as outlined in the meta-analyses by Oyserman and colleagues (2002), but not explicitly ISM.

Since collectivist cultures, unlike individualist cultures, are defined in contemporary research by group identities regulating individual cognition (Hofstede 1984, 2001; Triandis 1995, 2004), the question arises how cognitive and metacognitive regulation in collectivist cultures is structured differently from individualist cultures. The knowledge of such structure or pattern would e.g., not only allow for a more unbiased cross-cultural psychological perspective in terms of fully recognizing individual as well as collective agency, insights would be furthermore beneficial to inform the design of educational strategies to promote more efficient learner-centered education systems across cultures (Händel, Artelt & Weinert, 2013).

Last but not least, a very neglected area of scientific research is art. As artists continuously evaluate, assess and experiment with their works, the question arises if and how self-guided intuition and playful self-development prestructure metacognition. The importance of art, theatre and music education for the early scaffolding of ISM in this respect cannot be underestimated. Creativity is the watchword, such as involving children in higher order thinking skills, fostering self-worth and self-esteem, encouraging them to experiment and express new ideas and offering children mentors when it comes to developing creative approaches (Craft, 2001).

Scientific Prospects and Dangers of Technological Misuse

As a prerequisite to promote ISM, researchers will need to be able to measure the prevalence of its various forms and subtypes, contrasted against heteronomous modes of regulation in order to derive a causal motivational model. Besides improving systems for human development there is always the possibility of abuse as well. Once we can measure reliably the most relevant heteronomous motivations within individuals and groups, we can predict fairly accurately the types of attitudes, perspective-taking preferences and problem-solving strategies that social players bring into their negotiations and planning scenarios. The more decision-making is based on heteronomous motivations, the more accurately we can make predictions. This is a fascinating as much as a scary scenario. Given the recent capacity of Big Data Analysis and its integration into machine learning (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014; Siegel, 2016), continuing commercialization favours the management of predictable consumer and voter behavior within the logical prospect of conditioning large and more homogeneously motivated populations.

The opposite analysis can be made too. The stability of democratic consensus could, e.g., be measured by the growing or declining influence of heteronomous motivations on evidence-based strategies and reason-based agreements.

Truly free from prediction are only those who can reflect openly and critically upon their own and others’ thinking and can suspend judgment. Given that heteronomous types of motivation usually evolve convergently, suggesting quick, intuitive and simple answers, rational agents qualify, in the face of contradicting and overwhelming impulses, through their ability to self-correct their thinking while not losing account of the balance of arguments at hand (Kuhn, 1991).



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In a World of Global Turmoil, Which Hills Shall We Run For and Which Tribes Should We Join?

The following article is a thank-you to all followers and visitors of my Blog. Approaching 90,000 views, this entry is a reflection on how global and local policy making is intrinsically linked to social psychology issues of social empowerment and cooperative problem-solving.

The Awareness of Crisis

Our world has entered a stage where we fight for ecological survival and depend on deep societal change on a global scale to make this happen. Rising inequality and the decline of middle classes in developed nations pose the question who, if not educated middle classes, should lead progress. The additional obstacles set out by populist movements, from Brexit to the dysfunctional governance of Donald Trump, have cast shadows over the ability of the Western civilisation to solve the pressing problems of our time. Unlike the US, Europe is geographically exposed to the turmoils created in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. If for example, climate change continues at its current rate, hundreds of millions of climate refugees might knock on Fortress Europe instead of the currently few million trying to escape the terror of war in Syria.

Many European politicians have understood that solving this conundrum is only possible by developing our primary and secondary neighbours. This translates into fostering political and economic stability and setting the prospect of moderate wealth for the populations of Africa and the Middle-East. The age of nationalistic ‘Me first’ politics is counterproductive in a world where wealth has become an interdependent factor. In a world where everybody is looking for the best deal, everybody loses. Access to education and decent public health care are key prerequisites in the process of distributed and sustainable wealth-creation.

For starters, education and health care never work on a neoliberal market-based scheme of demand and supply. If a person has cancer, cancer cannot be exchanged for a cheaper illness. We can neither return a pre-existing condition because we don’t like its potential ramifications nor can we make our grandparents younger. If we need to provide higher education to our children, they cannot be adopted by a wealthier family to pay for costly tuition fees. Young people cannot pay for education with money that their parents don’t have. The easy way out of student loans translates into debilitating debts where each new opportunity is tied to an added obstacle to future growth. In order to ensure fair public access, the future of health care and education emerges therefore not by market forces but from supranational government-initiated networks. Intellectual elites, for the sake of not undermining their own legitimacy, share the responsibility to contribute to democratic global development.

The recent G20 summit in Hamburg served as an example of maximum investment in bringing world leaders together while yielding minimum outcomes. A community of economic self- interest representation stalls global development and does not facilitate significant cooperative projects that do not only benefit particular investors but global societal development. The lack of democratic legitimization of the world economy has never been more visible. But instead of learning from the lessons of emerging populism, world leaders continue to propagate neoliberal policies.

The Forces Within the Crisis

We see the transformation of capitalism represented by two dominating attitudes. The first is a progressive stand, represented by civil rights groups, NGOs, WHO- and UN-initiatives, attempt to transform and empower communities by bridging systemic ecological, social and biographic divides. The second, diametric aspect is resistance to change. By defending traditional cultural practices, privilege, shareholder interests and protecting monopolies, powerful groups maintain their dominance and influence. Caught in a cycle of self-preservation, they disconnect from social immersion and stall innovation by drafting policies that maintain corporate deregulation. Needless to mention that unilateral stakeholder defensiveness works diametral to an already volatile social contract.

The effects of populism, as I have experienced first hand in Thailand, are toxic not only to the extent of polarising populations during their reign, but to leave populations divided for generations after. Rifts about the ideology of political leadership run deep within the workplace, families and even personal relationships. The long-term effect of populism is the emergence of salient and socially exclusive group identities that undermine social contracts which are already threatened by the particularity of stakeholder interests that puts money before people.

Image: Sponsors of the American Diabetes Association: Obvious conflict of interest violations are not an issue in neoliberal philosophy. Screenshot from the documentary ‘What the Health’ (Anderson & Kuhn, 2017).


The perhaps biggest paradigm shift over the past decades is represented by the fact that the current Economy 3.0 model, which is based on democratic consensus among competing stakeholders, turns into a self-defeating system once the finite resources for maintaining exclusive stakeholderships become apparent. There is a widespread scientific consensus, backed by collective experiences of environmental disasters, that the ecological and social costs of doing business cannot be outsourced at the expense of society and our ecosphere indefinitely. The latter development is a negative feedback loop which is disruptive to businesses and communities alike. Popular examples are the emission scandals of Volkswagen and other carmakers, the pollution of oceans by microplastic and the harmful side-effects of a highly industrialised agriculture, in particular promoting monocultures, intensive livestock breeding and its associated high meat consumption. The alliance of food industries (to make people ill) and big pharma (to keep them this way as a stable source of income) is no coincidence. As shady property developers in Germany that prey on refinancing run-down housing estates occupied by social welfare recipients demonstrate, the crisis and misery of many have become a lucrative business for a few. Hiding in offshore accounts or in the darknet, authorities stall preventing criminals from targeting vulnerable populations and eroding their fragile social networks. In other cases, multinational corporations promote harmful products and services. Forces at work are certainly not in favour of progressive initiatives that face powerful adversaries.

Challenges to Transition

By contrast, the Economy 4.0 model promotes cooperation between the Civil Society, Government and Economy. Although the sustainable approach of Economy 4.0 is backed by more transparent collaborative accounts, the question arises how a transition from Economy 3.0 to 4.0 can be facilitated. The frictions created by populist policies and the limitations of stakeholder consensus have already been sketched out, which is how conflicts within the concurrent global transformation emerge. Political agendas that served nations well in the past are increasingly unable to inform new conceptual directions needed within a global environment. Borders to future growth are not only based on the limitation of available resources but also to the degree that social resources can be instrumentalized and exploited. It is not only that resources have a quantitative limit to availability, but that people rightfully expect a decent quality of life.

Supported by media discourse, international exchange and educational initiatives, awareness has emerged that people’s lives are compromised by the same protective stakeholder attitudes which decades ago still served as a guarantor of wealth. The defiant stance of workers in traditional industries, such as the coal- and steel industries, is a symptomatic expression of the dilemma that people are driven into when corporate decision makers fail to provide future prospects for their employees who have thoroughly internalised the limited perspective of their employer’s libertarian ideology. Replacing old ideologies by revolutionary new ones renders likewise futile since the question of the accountability of social change leadership persists. In our particular historical situation, we share the ownership of globalised problems, if we agree or not, which is a significant shift from a single stakeholder perspective that only follows individual business interests.

Image: Solar panels in India. Picture credit UK Department for International Development

Lastly, the dynamics and cascading nature of global problems force all participants to a fast and efficient prototyping of solutions. To avoid prolonged ill-design of policies, problem-solving and social re-design cycles require distributed multi-perspective assessment systems. The philosophy of reflecting cooperation is a huge shift from political parties designing and sugar-coating their particular group-agendas (assuming the mandate of active decision-makers) and presenting it to their voters (assuming the mandate of passive decision-takers). A more proactive, collaborative democratic approach represents, to this extent, not only a framework to substantiate social fairness but it serves as a framework for sustainable social problem-solving and design. Many NGOs and civil initiatives will likewise have to transform themselves to multi-stakeholder initiatives if they seek to initiate sustainable social change.

Running for the Hills: The Emergence of Social Design Initiatives versus Populism

Escaping from impending doom, we run for the nearest hills. Remarkably, it is the local contexts that provide the matrix and ground upon which cooperative social change emerges. The predominance of neoliberal market mechanisms over localised human concerns has already paralysed large parts of society. In the transition from Economy 3.0 to Economy 4.0, we ask questions such as:

Where can people with a medium income still find decent housing in big cities? How can children from lower socio-economic background participate in higher education? How can working parents find qualified care facilities for their children? How can people move socially upward by their honest effort and merit rather than by inheriting wealth? How can the segment of lower-skilled jobs be re-humanized? How can the entire population become enrolled in lifelong learning? How can people find meaning in their jobs and how can they find support in social networks and culture beyond their jobs? How can shared values evolve that benefit all members of society, not only a privileged few? How can local and regional economies switch to sustainable modes of production? How can inequality be diminished? How can countries reduce their national debt? How can cooperative change on a wide societal level be initiated? How can the poorest countries be woven into the vertical creation of wealth and turn into stable democratic societies?

To develop pragmatic solutions to such questions, Economy 4.0 requires grassroots social design initiatives that can respond more efficiently to local challenges as compared to traditional party politics. Much of the frustration and anger against ‘elites’ and traditional political parties stems from the inefficacy of public policy-making in addressing local concerns and issues, a weakness that populists keep exploiting. Populism obscures shared responsibilities by polarising the public view. Populism sanctions any actions by ‘us’ (the people) against ‘them’(the blamed elites) when in fact civil action ubiquitously requires adaptive political and legal frameworks in order for norms to take effect. In this light, populism evades the responsibility that people inherently share for each other.

In regressing to polarising group-mindsets that preceded the level of stakeholdership consensus, populists support the tragedy of the commons: if I can fully blame an external party for my group’s misery, I also abandon the shared ownership of the problem at hand by disconnecting systemic cause and effect. Finding scapegoats is always easier than managing integrative processes between people. The externalising and internalising psychology of populists resembles juvenile psychology which correlates with a diminished set of problem-solving skills.

Capital in the 21st Century and the Definition of Progress

Given the need for local social transformation, the future of complex societies lies not only in more socially-aware programs of political parties, but the grassroots empowerment of local communities to democratise the organisation of local administrations and businesses from within. An additional layer of social design initiatives is needed as a glue between the public sphere and traditional political parties. To demonstrate the efficacy of such integrating and transforming (multi-stakeholder) initiatives is one of our generation’s most pressing challenges.

Progress and prosperity do not come like a bolt of lightning from the top but depend on our personal initiative and ability to develop local contexts. Political frameworks will take on the new role to facilitate such initiatives, rather than fostering top-down social hierarchies guided by single-minded propositions. As many business models depend on taking advantage of disempowered groups, the question emerges how powerful exclusive groups can be motivated to change their modus operandi. This problem is even exacerbated when we consider spillover effects which are hard to quantify. While affluent nations consume most of the planetary resources and contribute to most of the per capita pollution, poorer nations pay the price by being subjected to foreign capital related corruption, floods, droughts and environmental degradation.

Image: Trash collectors in Cambodia. Picture credit Getty Images

Another limit to cooperative small-group social design initiatives lies in addressing large accumulations of capital as described in Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ which require being dealt with by political means. The philosophical and economic question is how super-wealthy elites monopolise resources at the expense of everybody else. As Piketty writes in his opus magnum “It is important to understand that a tax is always more than just a tax: it is also a way of defining norms and categories and imposing a legal framework on economic activity.” (Piketty 2014, p. 520). A normative understanding of socio-economic action that is based on people’s more tangible options for developing autonomy, supportive networks and competencies could replace the current model of Economy 3.0.

For the sake of maintaining the social contract, economic activity should serve the long-term ecological and socio-economic benefit of all, which defines the social-utilitarian aspect of Economy 4.0. The individual effort of activity needs to be rewarded and moderated in terms to how it proves to be of service to others, which describes the libertarian-meritocratic (client- and service-based) aspect of economic activity. As an example, recent discussions in Germany, where typical executive pay exceeds more than 50 times the salaries of ordinary workers, begs the question how excessive pay and bonuses are justified within a client-based context where elites should serve as a role model for the public good. How can people represent their group when they have disconnected themselves economically and socially from it in a significant manner and when they have widely abandoned sharing collective risks, liabilities and consequences? The international bailing out of failing banks by taxpayer’s money is a prominent example. Albert Bandura’s latest work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), which investigates mechanisms of moral disassociation from systemic responsibilities, deserves to become a standard litmus test for monitoring corporate responsibility and accountability.

On the other hand, the oversimplified schemata of ‘capitalism versus socialism’ cannot regulate instances where the complexity of systems include multiple and competing types of nested social motivations. After all, consensus, by cooperation or by negotiation, implies legitimisation by internal audit (to serve ingroup fairness) as well as external responsibilities (to facilitate intergroup agreements). As we define the world differently with such an extended set of criteria to adjust to changed environmental conditions so changes our interpretation of progress. If we cannot make significant global progress happen within the next decades, nobody will.

Image below: G20 protesters in Hamburg, Germany


Anderson, K., & Kuhn, K. (2017).‘What the Health’ [documentary], A.U.M. Films & Media

Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York, NY: Worth Publishers

Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Women in IT: Where are the disconnects?

cs-womenPicture credit: Harvey Mudd College

While the emerging knowledge- and service industries of the 21st-century is a continuing discussion topic of public discourse, the minuscule percentage of women embarking on careers in IT is deeply troubling. The IT industry struggles to find enough applicants to fill open positions as women are losing out on a personal and societal level by not embarking on beneficial career paths, effectively excluding themselves from Economy 4.0.

Problem Definition

Across Western cultures, very few women choose careers in IT. According to a recent study conducted by COMPTIA (2017), girl’s consideration of IT jobs wanes with age. While in Middle School 27% of girls still consider a career in IT, this number dwindles to a meagre 18% in High School. Only 7% of girls consider a career as a programmer (versus 25% of boys) and only 3% imagine a career as a software developer (versus 23% of boys). In Germany, only 17,4% of new job applications in IT are women according to a recent study ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’. Among the top 1000 IT companies in Germany, this number comes down to 13,2% of female applicants, constituting IT as a highly male-dominated industry.

The cited reasons for the low uptake are manifold. Early childhood socialisation favours boys to be associated with technology as compared to girls. As a result of this stereotypical expectation which is supported by many parents, boys are more encouraged to explore technology and science as compared to girls. Many women also feel uncomfortable to work as a minority in an already male-dominated field. In the social sphere, there are too few female role models available to guide and mentor younger girls. Many schools offer only rudimentary IT classes that do not inform and prepare students adequately for a future career. At the workplace, reports of unequal pay, unequal career development options and widespread gender bias within IT companies keep many women from joining. On top, very little useful information appears to be provided to young women about the diversity of careers in IT in general. We cannot dream about things that we don’t know about.

Although the general ‘acupuncture points‘ to why women do not take up jobs in IT have been identified in numerous international surveys, obstacles have not yet been specified by more thorough empirical research including validated models. What specifically keeps girls and women from embarking on careers in IT? How do factors interact? Can we draw inferences across cultural contexts? To dig deeper and go beyond generalised gender statements, we need to take a look at some of the leading theoretical frameworks in educational sociology and psychology.

Approaches in Educational Sociology

Raymond Boudon’s approach follows, as an external methodology, a rational choice approach based on an individual and situated cost-benefit calculus. In our case, young girls and their parents evaluate the costs, payoffs and likeliness of succeeding in careers in IT. The question is if and how young women from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds make different educational decisions after finishing school or college as compared to women from academic- and well-off families. The data gained from studies on the more fragile joints of education systems can inform interventions and communication strategies based on the attitudes and ways of life within a specific social milieu or class. Rational choice theories such as Boudon’s are good at examining the joints of educational trajectories such as transitions from secondary to tertiary and from tertiary to university- or polytechnic education.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Deprivation Theory, by comparison, looks at the ‘habitus‘, internalised patterns of socialisation, dispositions, daily routines and the in situ constitution of life-planning. His complementary concept of ‘doxa’ refers to the attempt of social members to bring subjective cognitive convictions into congruence with given (objective) social settings. In psychology, Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger, 1957) deals with similar conflicts of cognitive non-congruence and scenarios where issues such as forced compliance behaviour, decision-making and effort play a central role. In our case, we are interested to find out how habitus and doxa affect the motivation of young women to engage in IT.

Psychological Approaches

Regarding observational learning and learning from social role models, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can inform our problem. What are the characteristics of role models in IT that inform and motivate young women? Which are the key predictors provided by role models for a behavioural engagement in IT?

As a motivational theory, Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012) offers a useful framework to identify the levels of personal autonomy, competencies and social relations in IT careers. As a motivational theory, SDT differentiates between extrinsic motivation (which is e.g., reward dependent) and intrinsic motivation which is self-sustaining. Analogously to Bourdieu’s notion of internalised life practice, it would be illuminating to examine to which extent life-planning, given a specific socioeconomic background, is constructed by more intrinsic or extrinsic types of motivation. There is an interesting conflict here: given that IT careers are based on the prerequisite of lifelong learning skills, an entirely extrinsic motivation orientation (e.g., a focus on above-average salaries and material benefits) that may prompt some women into taking up IT careers might not be the same motivation that is needed to sustain long-term growth within the field.

As in rational choice theories in sociology, we find similar approaches in psychology. Well-supported rational choice theories such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) examine attitudes towards planned behaviour, normative beliefs and perceived behavioural control analogous to Boudon’s framework. The theory’s assumption is that actors make rational, individual decisions in favour of personal benefit and estimate their chances at achieving payoffs.

Badura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 2002) focusses, by contrast, on the social context at hand and it researches the interplay between social modelling (such as by role-models and tutors), individual outcome expectations and the development of Self-Efficacy. The relevance of the latter for women’s interest in IT has been confirmed by previous studies. Social Cognitive Theory and Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) may also explain how the discrimination of women in IT, as illustrated by a recent example of open gender discrimination at Google, (a ten-page manifesto, by a software engineer, circulated internally and ranting against women’s capability in IT) discourages women to take up technology jobs. Why should women work in an environment psychologically hostile to them, objectively pays women less than men and progresses men faster than women in their careers, as claimed by many Google employees? Social Identity Theory can explain stereotype formation by the subsequent processes of social categorization (such as gender-based categorization), social identification (such as traits identified as distinctively male or female) and social comparison (such as concluding males more capable than women).

Strong Empirical Support

There appears to be solid empirical support for Cultural Deprivation Theory as well as the cited psychological theories, especially SDT and Social Cognitive Theory. Boys have earlier profound computer experiences, such as e.g., through computer games (Oosterwegel, Littleton, & Light, 2004) and display a more autonomous acquisition of technology as compared to girls. Fathers are reported to be stronger roles models for both male and female students (Turner et al., 2002). Girls tend to rate their computer skills generally far lower than boys (Young, 2000; McCoy & Heafner, 2004). Girls attend fewer computer classes and display lower self-confidence in the use of computers (Beyer et al., 2002; Durndell & Haag, 2002; Lee, 2003). Regarding the cultural value underlying IT, women in Applied IT “rated helping others as an important reason for choosing an IT major more often than did any other group.” (Organ et al., 2005, pg.20), suggesting a different set of underlying motivations for engaging in IT as compared to boys. Most of the recent studies such as COMPTIA (2017) and ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’ confirm findings of these earlier studies.

Graphic: Top Barriers identified by ISACA Study (2016). Workplace disadvantages have a significant negative correlation to IT enrollment by women. 

Defining the Acupuncture Points for Potential Studies

From a psychological perspective, there are at least three areas of interest that we could preliminarily define as a 3-factor model, following Bandura’s Triadic reciprocal causation model, consisting of the independent variables of  (a) social predictors, (b) workplace predictors and (c) intrapersonal predictors on the dependent variable of women to enroll in IT careers. As we know from the studies cited above, all of these factors influence women’s motivation to enrol in IT jobs. Under factor (a) items of interest are measures such as the availability of female mentors, female role models, early childhood socialisation towards technology and social milieu. Under factor (b) fall items such as gender bias/ gender fairness in the workplace, the perception of equal growth opportunities, equal pay as well as the prospect to work with other women and not only men. Under factor (c) items of interest might be tried-and-tested psychological variables such as the prevalence of traditional gender role beliefs, goal orientation (extrinsic versus intrinsic goal-orientation), control beliefs and attitudes towards IT. A working hypothesis as the basis for an Exploratory and Confirmatory Factor Analysis is sketched out below (Fig.1)

SEM Concept

Figure 1: The supervening working hypothesis for the factors predicting women’s enrollment in IT. We assume that social scaffolding, workplace support and intrapersonal competencies have an equal influence on women enrolling in IT jobs. Factor loadings of items would reveal in greater detail the more significant predictors.

More informative, from a social psychology perspective, would be multi group comparisons, e.g. between male and female students prior to applying for IT jobs (Study Design Option I – Differences between male and female profiles predicting engagement in IT careers) or between undecided female students and young women who have already embarked on a career in IT (Study Design Option II – Differences between female IT professionals and average female student population: Which factors predict enrollment in IT ?) in order to gain deeper insights on the most significant factors that keep women from joining careers in IT.

Another unresolved issue is if and how IT has been influenced by predominantly male concepts and values (Study Design Option III – Relation between IT, male constructs and values: Are IT constructs excluding female values and perspectives?). For example, current enrollment data suggests that women are more attracted to IT jobs that involve the motif of caring such as in biomedical research, environmental- or socioeconomic development. Which cultural values does IT represent and how is it related to gender constructs? Has IT been conceptualized, as suggested by Clegg (2001), as an obsessively masculine construct that lacks appeal to women? Ideological gender constructs of computing technology are no trivial matter. Clegg points out that most action-packed and competitive games have been designed and marketed by men for men. Computing has been widely associated in public discourse and media with military technology, cyber warriors and a competitive display of power – a technological machismo that few women find appealing and are able to identify with. Women, by contrast, have been marginalized in IT as secretaries, low-paid administerial workers or staff in online call-centers. New domains, such as in computerised lifelong learning, however, may offer a more fitting identification for many women.

Lastly, retaining female IT personnel and offering women long-term prospects in IT would be another relevant area of research (Study Design Option IV: How can employers retain female IT staff?). The outcomes of gender-based IT studies are useful for designing more efficient information campaigns, communication strategies, e-platforms, school- and college-initiatives as well as developing institutional policies for employers to motivate young women to join IT-related careers.


As Economy 4.0 embraces collaboration and cooperation, it opens the female notion of caring which appeared as a strong motif in all of the studies. From a caring female perspective, IT can be reformulated as a means to re-establish our connections to nature, to others and our future potentials. It is not so much that women have an issue with IT, but that IT has been widely cultivated and advertised as a predominantly male domain. New developments such as in online learning, computer science or AI development offer new role identification opportunities for young women.

The illustrated working hypothesis suggests that multiple factors predict the involvement of women in IT rather than a single argument. In addition, media images and stereotype clichées of the lonely nerd or socially deprived hacker are not helpful to any gender since IT relies heavily on the ability to work in teams. Instead, it would be more productive to develop cooperative spaces within IT where gender domination does not obscure the love for creating technology that is beneficial to all.



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