“Since we are equipped for action, not comprehensive understanding, our brain seeks significance, not specific bits of information,” wrote Robert Ornstein in The Evolution of Consciousness—The Origins of the Way We Think. (p.126)

What is significance?

The word “significance” refers to the importance or meaning of something. It can refer to the impact or relevance of an event, action, or phenomenon in a particular context or on a larger scale. Something that is significant has a meaningful or noteworthy impact or consequence.

For example, the significance of a scientific study you post might be the new insights it provides into a particular topic or the way it contributes to the broader field of knowledge. The significance of a historical event might be the way it shaped the course of history or the lessons it can teach us about the past.

Significance refers to the weight or value that something holds, whether in a specific context or in the larger scheme of things.


Why does our brain seek significance?

It is not entirely clear why the human brain seeks significance, but there are a few theories that may help to explain this tendency. One possibility is that looking for significance is a fundamental aspect of our nature that has evolved to help us survive and thrive in our environment. By understanding the significance of events and information, we can make better decisions and take appropriate actions to protect ourselves and achieve our goals.

Another possibility is that it is a way for the brain to make sense of the world and to find patterns and meaning in the vast amount of information that we encounter. Our brains are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and by seeking significance, we can filter out what is important and relevant and ignore what is not. This helps us to focus our attention and make more efficient use of our cognitive resources.

Ornstein speaks of “Producing a semblance is a way around the zillions of possible combinations of things we would otherwise have to learn. For the brain works in layers, storing signals from one layer and eventually creating more abstract representations. Otherwise we couldn’t even recognize a cup from different angles.”

There may also be cultural and social factors that influence our tendency to seek significance. For example, some research suggests that people in collectivistic cultures, where the needs and goals of the group are emphasized, may be more likely to seek significance in their interactions and relationships with others. Similarly, people who are more religious or spiritual may be more likely to seek significance in their beliefs and practices.


What about significance in professional communications?

Now, why should a professional communicator in development cooperation always aim for significance as opposed to explaining the entire breadth of factors responsible for a situation, for example?

As a communicator in development cooperation, it is important for you to focus on significance because it helps convey the most important and relevant information to your audience. In development cooperation, there are often many complex and interrelated factors that contribute to a given situation. While it may be tempting to try to explain all of these factors in detail, it is usually more effective to focus on the most significant factors and to provide a clear and concise overview of the situation.

By aiming for significance, you can help your audience to better understand the key issues and challenges that are relevant to the development cooperation context, and you can more effectively convey the importance and impact of your work. This can help to engage your audience and to ensure that your main message is understood and remembered. People want to be able to do something with what they learn. Theoretically at least.

Furthermore, focusing on significance can help you to better communicate your message to a diverse audience that may have different levels of knowledge and understanding about development cooperation. By highlighting the most important and relevant information, you can ensure that your message is accessible and meaningful to a wide range of audiences. The point is very relevant since development cooperation tends to distinguish its audiences only to then communicate with same messages to all of them.

Significance in science

In science, significance refers to the probability that a result or relationship is not due to chance. When scientists conduct experiments or observe relationships in data, they want to know whether the results are reliable and unlikely to have occurred by chance alone. To determine this, they often use statistical tests to calculate the probability that the results could have occurred by chance. If the probability is low, the results are considered to be statistically significant and are considered to be reliable evidence for the hypothesis being tested.

Nota bene: significant can mean very different things

In everyday language, the word “significant” usually means important or noteworthy. For example, someone might say that a particular event is “significant” because it had a big impact or because it was a turning point in some way.

In science, the word “significant” has a specific statistical meaning. It refers to the probability that a result or relationship is not due to chance. In other words, when scientists use the word “significant,” they are talking about whether the results of an experiment or study are reliable and unlikely to have occurred by chance alone.

To determine whether a result is statistically significant, scientists often use a statistical test to calculate the probability (p-value) of obtaining the result by chance. If the p-value is below a predetermined level of significance (often 0.05), the result is considered statistically significant and is considered to be reliable evidence for the hypothesis being tested. If the p-value is higher than the level of significance, the result is not considered statistically significant.

So while the everyday use of the word “significant” refers to something being important or noteworthy, the scientific use of the word refers to the probability that a result is reliable and not due to chance.

When communications pros edit an article drafted up by someone with a strong scientific background, it is good idea to watch out for the word “significant” as the different meanings can get confused.

© Corbecoms