Trends vs. Human Perception

Written 2001

Formatted 2009


When we are in the midst of change we rarely recognize the changes of part of longer term trends. The purpose of this page is to promote research into past long-term trends, so that we may understand current trends better.

For the following discussion an economic analogy will be used. However, the concepts apply to anything that changes slowly, economies, climates, cultures, epidemics, biological systems, etc.


Supposing we all live through an economic crisis which follows the standard course as shown to the right. At what point will people recognize that a recovery has started?

Few people will acknowledge the recovery until point C, the point where the an upward trend has clearly been sustained.

But look at the whole curve. At what point can we conclude that change has actually occurred? At point B our trend has clearly changed from downward to upward. But who has the courage to refer to the lowest point as the turnaround? The lowest point is where we are most frustrated.

Now let's use a mathematical trick from calculus - the derivative, or measure of change.

On this plot we can see that the downward slide has clearly slowed down by Point A. At this point, things are not getting better yet, but the are getting worse at a slower pace. This must happen before improvement occurs. It is the first step in the turn upward. But who has the courage to call this the start of the turn around?

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  Where do we apply this learning? Think of things where change occurred. As soon as Reagan took office economic changes occurred. As soon as Clinton took office economic changes occurred. Did these presidents cause change or inherit change? One way to find out is to plot the trends, and determine when the change occurred.

Some changes start slowly, but pick up suddenly. In the plot to the right, no change is evident until Point E. However, the plot was generated with the formula: y = a+bx. Since it was generated from one monotonic formula, the trend exists from the very start (point D.) It just doesn't become apparent until point E.

Many things in nature will follow this form. In culture, things that effect children may not become evident until those children reach puberty or even adulthood. That means the pattern becomes apparent (Point E) 13 to 20 years after the trend has started. Can we find places where this is evident?

One researcher believes that the recent drop in crime is a result of Roe vs. Wade - that is 13 to 20 years later there are less neglected and abused children growing into troubled adults. Pick any significant event in history. How did the children of that event fare? What impact did the trauma of the World War produce in the children of its victims - the baby boomers? Where are the children of the Great Society now? What are the children of the space shuttle challenger disaster feeling now?

Slow responses are the material of economics. In the early 1920s tax cuts were given to the rich to promote the economy. By 1929, there was so much debt in stocks and farms that the whole system crashed. Did the tax cuts create the bubble that led to the crash in 1929? Similar, changes in banking law have occurred over the last 20 years. Do the economic graphs look similar to those of the 1920s?

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Think of profound changes occurring in other realms, such as global warming, or the ozone hole? When did it start? How do we know?

Failure to recognize trends is studied in great detail in Dorner's "The Logic of Failure." He presents the results of many simulations performed in psychological laboratories. He compares these results to actual human and environmental disasters. This is a good resource for starting study in large scale problem-solving.


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