Blinded to the Facts

Like many, I have been interested in the circumstances in Ferguson, MO. Like most, I could not take an oath about what really happened, because everything I know about it, is at least second hand. Yet it seems that an enormous number of people seem to believe they do know the whole truth of the matter. And although their belief may not be grounded in fact, they seem to be convinced their version of the story is correct.

Ferguson has become somewhat of a powder keg. One of the most frequent themes I have heard goes something like this. “After hearing the reported evidence which was reviewed by the Grand Jury, how could anyone not agree with their decision? Don’t the dissenters care about the facts?”

Rather than be one more who is examining the various agendas being pursued as a result of this incident, I instead, wanted to remind you on how people (including ourselves), can easily believe something other than what appears to be grounded in fact. As leaders, we need to be aware of this and its impact on how we influence others.

Several years ago, there was a landmark book written by Thomas Kuhn, entitled “The Structure of Scientific Revolution.” I do not remember everything from it, but there was one piece of research which I have never forgotten. Kuhn stated something to the effect that, sometimes scientists got so caught up in their own hypotheses, that they were unable to see evidence which was contrary to what they were trying to prove. They were blinded to the facts. The popular term for this became paradigm paralysis – which virtually was described as becoming so ingrained in a point of view, that one literally cannot see or hear, let alone consider, evidence pointing to a different perspective.

If this happens in science, with observers trained in objectivity and logic, what hope is there for the rest of us mere mortals, loaded with subjectivity and emotions?

Hand in glove with Paradigm Paralysis is another force known as Congeniality Bias. Loosely defined, this means that once people get a strong point of view they will look for evidence supporting their view at twice (or three times) the rate they will entertain opposing or alternate views.

Now, reflect on these two concepts for a moment. In both cases, perception becomes much more selective.  These concepts also tell us that people are prone to look most for what they want to see, and according to Kuhn, may actually be physically blinded to information that does not fit in with or contribute to that desired end.

A colorful example of this might be the teenager who remains “stupid in love,” with someone whom friends, parents and siblings all agree is bad news. I have also seen managers get so enamored with one or two aspects of a new recruit, that they become oblivious to the many clear signals indicating potential future disaster. . Not surprising, this blindness or paralyzing biases, happen most frequently when an individual has a high degree of emotional attachment to a specific outcome or position. And there certainly seems to be a huge amount of emotional attachments by many in the Ferguson situation.

My guess is when you look at any major issue which is loaded with emotion, you will see examples of people, who are deeply invested in one perspective, and for all intents and purposes are unable to take in data that does not coincide with this view. Whether it is a disputed shooting in a Midwestern city, or the questionable reasons for a corporate downsizing, subconscious biases are alive and well in all of us, whether we care to acknowledge them or not.

There is another factor at play in the Ferguson case, which may also be impacting one’s receptivity to additional information. Today, we find ourselves in a social media driven world, with instant communications, virtually anywhere on the planet. Regarding Ferguson, my guess is that many became emotionally tied to a version of the truth, within minutes or hearing or reading about it. How remarkable that news can travel so quickly. How frightening that fast news does not necessary mean accurate news.

Because of its new-found visibility and popularity, social media has the appearance of being a credible source of information. Therefore, the natural assumption is to believe that what is read or heard is factual, when it may not be. Since this information is believed to be accurate, people immediately start formulating their view of the truth, and quickly become attached to it. When new and conflicting data start coming forth, you can begin to sense what happens. This information simply cannot penetrate the force field people have already set up to insulate and protect the original position they have already taken. No one wants to be duped or made to look foolish, especially on a stand they have publicly taken. It just becomes easier to close off any avenue of potential conflicting information which can lead to the chance of looking like an idiot.

Let me offer one thought which might be of help in the highly charged situations you will face in the future.   Always be aware that you have biases, and those biases may make it impossible for you to see what in fact, may be the truth about a situation. But rather than merely shrugging that off as inevitable, seek out people whom you trust that have a different perspective. Ask them to help you see and understand the different or opposing view. Remember to listen closely and not spend all your time defending your position. You do not have to change your mind, but decisions which are based more on truth and reality are usually much better than those based mostly on emotion and speculation.

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