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Concrete Solutions

The model of cognition proposed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget during the 1920's speaks of four stages of cognitive competence. The final is formal operations – the capacity to be seized with issues and possibilities not rooted in personal circumstances or local events. Piaget thought

the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction of logically embedded structures superseding one another by a process of inclusion of lower, less powerful logical means into higher and more powerful ones up to adulthood. Therefore, children's logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults.

What is interesting is the light this model sheds on historical events and modern problems. This possibility occurred to me while reading a paper for a cultural psychology course more years ago than I care to think about. According to this research (whose reference I have unfortunately misplaced) aboriginals do not usually demonstrate formal operations, but always achieve concrete operations.  They are good at solving day-by-day problems, but not much interested in what is going on over the hill or more than a day or two in the future.

According to Jeremy Genovese, this is a fair description of what most of us get up to. The literature abounds with evidence that adolescents and adults fail to exhibit all four reasoning modalities predicted by Piaget. This failure can be found in both academic and non-academic contexts. Capon and Kuhn (1982) in a study of supermarket shoppers found that most could not apply the formal operational skill of proportional reasoning to calculate best buys.

They concluded that formal operations “appears to be the only stage in Piaget’s sequence that is not attained universally”.

Why would Piaget et al have thought so highly of human beings? What if most of us only regurgitate sophisticated notions without understanding what we are saying. Homilies spring to mind: a stitch in time saves nine; do unto others as you would have them treat you; loose lips sink ships ....

Therefore, the question is:  do most human beings really proceed beyond concrete operationalism? What if only a small proportion spontaneously and regularly perceive deep running patterns and implications?

A bunch of things would fall out of this realization. If most of us are concrete operationals and nothing but, then we are sitting ducks with respect to those thinking globally. We may be adept at problem solving but not adept at examining ‘the context of problems' - i.e., where they are coming from.

Hence, we are vulnerable to manipulations from beyond spheres of engagement and awareness.

On this account, politicians, megalomaniacs, executives ... are not cunning bastards. They are  taking advantage of situations, resources and people in ways that reflect their own cognitive endowments and those of target populations.  As was said when Isaac Newton won a mathematical contest against the equally gifted Leibniz, his rival for the invention of the calculus: “A lion is known by its claw”.

Fortunately, not all formal operationals live to take advantage of others.  Cassandras and Chicken Littles occupy themselves pointing out issues and dangers that seem obvious to them and yet somehow seem to escape general attention.

Unfortunately, these intentions seem to almost always come to naught. The dreadful reason may be that such alarms lie beyond ordinary capacity. To be sure, events occasionally cause concrete operationals to attend to more than immediate circumstances.  In the weeks (but not months) following Indonesia’s December 26, 2004 tsunami disaster, global response was heartening . Even as this generosity was being reported however, commentators – including Canada’s Stephen Lewis – grumbled that South Africa’s AIDS-riddled population would have benefitted enormously had even a small percentage of such help been coming their way.

An abbreviated (three stage) Piagetian model suggests that such failures are  not moral issues. Responses to disasters are short-lived because sustained attention requires what have been termed “biologically secondary abilities”. Concrete operationals relapse into personal concerns, or turn to other dramatic events, because “biologically primary” activities are their 'factory settings'.   Since HIV/AIDS problems have been around for decades, Africa’s plight no longer registers on empathic radar screens. Africa is neglected for other reasons as well. Since contracting AIDS often involves 'behaving carelessly',  bystanders readily excuse themselves from responsibility.

On the other hand, natural disasters, political crises, terrorists attacks ... could happen to any of us at any time. In terms of repairing our sense of belonging to a secure global community, it behooves us to spring into action.

Later, when fires or floods have been dealt with, intruders repelled – or when difficulties have prevailed long enough that they become part of the furniture – concrete operationals return to business as usual. Surviving soldiers spend little time repairing the social, economic or spiritual deficits that lead to war.  Exceptions proving the rule include Canada’s Romeo Dallaire and the afore-mentioned Stephen Lewis. Mr. Dallaire has spent years struggling to repair the failures of political and moral will he sees as implicated in the Rwanda massacres. Mr. Lewis has been equally tireless with respect to global failures to engage Africa’s AIDS crisis.

What Lewis and Dallaire fail to grasp is that these difficulties  may not be repairable from podiums. South Africans are unable to resist dangerous sexual practices, in spite of overwhelming evidence that their lives are on the line. This seems perverse, or at least inexplicable, from a formal operational (Lewis and Dallaire) perspective.

For concrete operational males however, sexual urges are all that is required. For women, cultural expectations and economic constraints add further compulsions.

Hence, the fallacy of arguments that more money would solve Africa’s AIDS problem. An abbreviated Piagetian geography also explains indifference to Rwandan-style crises. Difficulties experienced on the other sides of hills do not capture wide or enduring attention – unless such events are sufficiently relevant to political and corporate agendas that executives and politicians spend as much as it takes to generate and sustain public interest.

We appear to understand some of this. Live 8 concerts occurred around the world on the July 1st, 2005 weekend. The plan was to get people thinking about global poverty and disease. The target populations were concrete operationals: Do good and feel good! Then feel good because you have done good! An impressive roster of musicians continue to volunteer time and talent to charitable activities.

They seem blissfully unaware that their interesting lives depend upon the many/few, concrete/formal ratio at the root of much of the misery they sing about.


There are parallels between failures of concern vis-a-vis remote populations and disregard for one's own well-being more than a day or week into the future. Environmental concerns, resource depletion issues ... are on everyone’s lips without appreciable result. North Americans are suffering an epidemic of obesity while thousands of 3rd and 4th worlders starve. In spite of school crossing guards and grief counselors, modern claims of concern for the well-being of children sound increasingly hollow.  The reason is simple: no one can prosper in a catastrophic decline – yet catastrophe is what commentators, climatologists and economists have been predicting since Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798.

We can debate how soon the world will run out of cheap oil or how much pollution human beings can survive, but no thoughtful person believes that an endlessly growing population, infected with insatiable expectations, is sustainable.

This understanding would  be commonplace if most people were intrinsically formal operationals.


A corollary (one alluded to in Philip Wylie’s The Magic Animal) is that formal operational people enjoy such rich inner lives that they have modest interest in wealth and power.

As we have seen however, formal operational people can also harbour insatiable ambitions – and the vantage points from which to pursue them.

However these relationships play out, dividing the human population into (lets say) ninety per cent concrete operationals and ten per cent formal operationals clarifies the way the world has been working.   Something like this proportion appears to have informed social and cultural developments from Homo sapiens sapiens' beginnings 5000 generations or one hundred and fifty thousand years ago.  Sorting populations into leaders and followers occurs in many species, but human leaders and followers ‘create’ one another in subtle ways.

However,  human beings appear to have turned a corner.  With cultural repositories compounding differences between cognitive endowments, we  have done something no other species has ever managed. We have organized our own population into parasites and hosts.

In the year 2000 AD, 500 human beings had as much wealth as the poorest fifty per cent.

In other words, until perhaps three thousand years ago, relationships between parents and children, leaders and followers, formal and concrete operationals ... enhanced general well-being because the benefits of intelligence, success and experience were available to everyone. In North American aboriginal communities, potlatch ceremonies distributed individuals’ assets across communities – a custom that doubtlessly owed much to the perishability of early forms of wealth.. Trading short-lived assets for community standing makes sense – especially when healthy communities result.

A kind of potlatch still occurs when wealthy individuals endow research projects, academic chairs or community swimming pools. The problem is that such distributions do not enhance communities nearly as well as they legitimize the status quo accumulating and parceling out wealth. This is the critical difference between philanthropy and potlatch. Philanthropists hope to establish legacies that will be more reliable monuments to their own excellence than vigorous communities.

Behind these proceedings lies the largely unrecognized reality that cultural resources are preferentially available to formal operationals. Exponentially accumulating knowledge and technology have been adding to factors sorting populations into leaders and followers. As a consequence, the world has become an increasingly poisonous places for most human beings.  In the great cities of history and, a fortiori, of the modern world, the usual person would be better off in virtually any other circumstance.

Formal operationals are positioned to acquire wealth and power and transmit it across generations for another reason. Human beings seem to instinctively subordinate themselves to anyone claiming to know what is required to be done or where advantage lies. With this instinct as a resource, all formal operationals have to do is provide problems in the guise of paid work, reinvest a portion of the results in public and corporate infrastructure – and,  of course, convene wars and athletic competitions.

The ensuing excitement, reward, pain, danger, need for security ... guarantee that the rest of us huddle into nations, cities and towns. We rejoice that our leaders have provided ‘avenues of egress’ so that we are never far from home, never without anxieties – and never quite satisfied.


At first glance, one might think that there would be at least ecological merit in maximizing concrete/formal differences. All else equal, economic and political inequities erode the usual person’s capacity to consume. This is not how rich/poor relationships have been unfolding however.  At least in 1st world nations, concrete operationals – constrained and vaguely anxious because of specialized educations and commercially-goaded expectations – are insatiable. Each increase in material well-being offers only momentary respite before the next must be sought.

This state of affairs should be contrasted with life before cultural repositories changed everything.   During this period – probably one hundred thousand years – there was not enough technological, economic or political leverage for small populations to systematically harm one another. Concrete operationals shared communities with formal operationals who lived virtually identical lives in terms of economic and cultural headstarts. With everyone on a level playing field, the factors sorting people into leaders and followers were age, experience and genetically-driven differences in cognitive endowments – all positive elements for individual and community well-being.


This innocent life is no more.  We are therefore experiencing a crisis that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, globalization, global warming and inequities. Many of these difficulties can be traced to proceedings amplifying the consequences of concrete and formal operational endowments.  For at least two thousand years, formal operationals have regarded the rest of human beings as targets of opportunity. The solidarity that once harnessed resources, including big picture understandings, to general  well-being, has vanished. As custodians and principal beneficiaries of cultural resources, the cognoscenti, the high priests, the wealthy, the clever ... have been acting out a sense of entitlement sanctioning their own progressively preferential treatment.

Arguably as well, racism and ethnocentrism are manifestations of the contempt formal operationals harbour for the rest of us. Whenever skin color, language, cultural differences ...  permit, this contempt emerges into the light of day.  Of course, concrete operationals can be counted on to lend a hand, organize themselves into armies and have at one another.

By definition, concrete operationals are ‘context-driven’.  Fully-fledged bigotries are possible only in individuals able to compare and contrast big pictures.  Concrete operationals have little capacity for systematic discrimination – although fear, dislike, even hatred, of strangers ... are possible.

In other words, systematic, sustained brutality is only possible under the tutelage of formal operationals. To be sure, concretes operationals are essential to such undertakings.  Two hundred millions deaths occurred because  of military activities during the 20th century. Concrete operationals performed reliably as taxpayers, factory workers, consumers and, of course, soldiers.

Until a few hundred years ago, 'great leaders' could occasionally be found leading armies into battle, or encamped on hills near the killing fields. Today – given the size, complexity and logistics of conflicts – battlegrounds are rarely known about in advance, and so the dearth of leaders in or near killing fields is rarely noticed.

There is another reason formal operationals no longer need to show themselves. Because of specialization and urbanization, modern populations can be completely assimilated into national or ethnic proceedings.  With baseline motivation, orientation and commitment a fait accompli, all that is needed is fine tuning.

The names of people attending to this final requirement are as familiar to us as our own.


One of the striking features of conflict in the 21st century is suicidal terrorism. Although 1st worlders find such conduct inexplicable, suicidal terrorists can be understood as an extreme manifestation of concrete/formal relationships. Terrorists invest their lives in ‘fell swoops’  upon culturally-prescribed targets.  The usual concrete operational submits to military conscription, puts himself or herself in harms way, lives dutifully as worker and consumer ... and, in general, passes through life in an unquestioning way.  The difference between terrorists and the rest of us is that we expect to survive from one week to the next.  We are equally content that the benefits gleaned along the way make our commitment worthwhile.

Terrorists make more dramatic investments and expect correspondingly substantive rewards in the hereafter.

In other words, terrorists are capitalists in a hurry.

Such parallels illustrate the implacable nature of concrete/formal, many/few, follower/leader ... relationships.  In every case, concrete operationals give themselves over to agendas whose designs, motivations and goals come from wiser, smarter, stronger, holier ... people.  In every case,  commitment is involved: a few horrific moments on one hand, a few decades of what Henry David Thoreau referred to as quiet despair on the other.


For most of homo sapiens’ existence, the relationship between formal and concrete operational populations was, if not mutually beneficial, at least survivable. Since the Industrial Revolution the waters have been poisoned.  Many, if not most, of the traditional  ‘concrete operations’ contributions to prosperity  have been automated or outsourced; and formal operationals are vigorously pursuing further  rationalizations.  Words to watch for include globalization, efficiency, out-sourcing, middle-class decline ... and, a recent catchphrase among economists and politicians ... deflation. Each of these straws in the wind signify the emergence of yet another rich/poor epoch.  This era will be different however.  For the first time, most human beings lack a culture self-reliance and opportunities for subsistence activities.

One  possibility remains.  History's Cassandras and Chicken Littles demonstrate that not all formal operationals are manipulative and self-serving.  Modern difficulties may reflect that non-manipulative formal operationals have been making a ‘category mistake’.  They have been assuming that all human beings are able to understand and act upon big picture issues if they are  presented clearly or often enough.

What if this is not true?  What if most human beings are not, and cannot  become, interested in ‘other side of the hill’ issues?

Although this does not seem very promising, it invites two questions. The first is whether the present distribution of concrete and formal individuals accurately reflects genotype potentials – a straightforward rendering of the nature/nurture question.  Cultures emphasizing specialized competencies and economic thralldom are more likely to spawn concrete operational than 'inner-directed’ populations –  to borrow a term from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

In short, the modern world amounts to a formidable impediment to formal operationalism.  Obstacles include

  • centralized economic and political arrangements,
  • specialization,
  • the demoralizing consequences of urban existence,
  • the institutionalization of previously personal responsibilities and prerogatives,
  • waning notions of personal potency and responsibility, following the ought implies can principle.

Identifying problems is useless unless repairs are imagined and then put into practice.  Ramping up the volume or frequency of discussions, books, marches or letters to editors has proven useless.

This means that well-intentioned formal operationals must begin to actualize their understandings, in ways analogous to the resolute business plans of their Machiavellian cousins.

If this is done, it may turn out that the present concrete/formal ratio is not cast in stone.  North America’s frontier era evoked remarkable self-sufficiency and creativity – results that vanished as soon as  traditional concrete/formal relationships resumed.

This means that formal operationals concerned with morality, accountability, sustainability – and alarmed at their own historical record – should invest time and energy nurturing local economic activities.  This was, after all,  how their cunning, greedy, ambitious, entrepreneurial ... cousins recently transformed  millions of villagers and farmers into factory workers, retail clerks and standing armies.

They were not content to announce the need for more production, more consumption, more loyalty, more defense. They invested in infrastructure, institutions and factories on the “if you build it, they will come” maxim. They paid concrete operationals with some of the value they were producing every step of the way.

Rewards every step of the way is what makes concrete operationals run.

If formal operationals seized with wholesome ambitions now  recognize that their benign, empathic ambitions require similar on the ground treatment, success might yet be possible.

Indeed, as such projects bear fruit, it is even possible that a significant number of suppressed individuals might realize their full Piagetian potential.

Finally, our circumstances are full of pain and bleak prognostications.

  • Problems lie thick on the ground.
  • Concrete operationals are good at solving problems.

These facts signify a wonderful opportunity. Should well-intentioned formal operationals begin actualizing that which they have heretofore been content to promulgate, the energy and ingenuity of concrete operationals might do the rest.

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Vernon Molloy