Mental models for understanding complexity, with Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp


Play episode:

What we think about China depends in large measure on how we think about China. As a nation of 1.4 billion people in the throes of world-historic change, it’s more important than ever to examine our own mental models when it comes to our understanding of China. This week on the Sinica Podcast, Kaiser kicks off an informal series on “thinking about thinking about China” with a conversation with Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, co-authors of the book Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why it Matters. While the book focuses on globalization, in which China has been a central actor, it’s really a book about ways to approach all complex issues — and will equip you with immensely useful ways to conceptualize any number of problems related to China. Kaiser calls the book “an upgrade to [his] mental operating system.” Please enjoy this fascinating discussion with two brilliant scholars.

5:36 – What are the building blocks of a “narrative?”

8:08 – The six main narratives on globalization laid out

26:23 – The challenge of articulating problematic or objectionable narratives in good faith

53:54 – How China fits into the six “Western” narratives on globalization

56:55 – Chinese perspectives on globalization

1:11:58 – Different metaphors for integrative complexity

1:21:01 – Disciplines and training that prepare or predispose people toward complexity

1:24:33 – Name-checking the influences

A transcript of this conversation is available on


Anthea: The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist

Nicolas: The Once and Future Workerby Oren Cass; and the China Trade Monitor website, run by Simon Lester and Huan Zhu.

Kaiser: “China’s Reform Generation Adapts to Life in the Middle Class,” by Peter Hessler

Other Links: This episode mentions a great many books and authors. Here’s a partial list!

Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Slow and Fast

Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice; and his memoir, A Synthesizing Mind

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Paul Blustein, Schism: China, America, and the Fracturing of the Global Trading System

Julia Galef, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think

Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization