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Staying Sane in the Age of Crazed Politics

I scream silently every day. I have struggled to compose coherent frameworks under which to discuss politics and management. The constant barrage of political dramas – which often are non-issues – hit us every day. It’s exhausting and maddening; the majority of them are based on lies, baseless claims, or twisted logic. Clearly, and sadly, if the king yells loud enough and often enough, his believers take his lies as facts.

Indeed, this was foretold by Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” I weep silently every day; I weep that such a monster’s prophecy could be realized, and that so many of my fellow citizens choose to deny his monstrosity.

more clouds

I have taken digital reams of notes on my computer. I have attempted several drafts on various topics…and quickly abandon them because I cannot write fast enough to keep up with the latest outrage; that is, outrage on my part. Most important is that I take pride and caution in my use and choice of language. And I object vehemently that somehow adhering to professional standards is dismissed as “elitist,” and being courteous is to be a “snowflake.” Yet, there have plenty of moments where I feel torn between just blurting out my frustration and disgust and holding on my core belief of being a decent human being. While my daily private language has been horribly corrupted, I ultimately hold that without observing norms in the public discourse, we are no different from our barbaric forefathers, and not that much different from the baboons and chimpanzees with whom we share common ancestors.

Of course, I am referring to Mr. Trump, his defenders and sycophants, including Fox “news.” When opinions, let alone reporting, ignore factual information, the conversations are one-sided. When a person in a leadership position chokes off all dissent as “fake,” that person is deemed dictatorial or authoritarian. In the business world, such a leader might get away with said behavior, as long as she scores good profits…for a while. However, ultimately and eventually, there would be enough of a public outcry that the organization would have to take corrective action. With public figures, the consequences, at times, can be much quicker. Roseanne Barr’s show was cancelled for racist rants and Samantha Bee was admonished for grotesque choice of words.   Not for Mr. Trump, though.

smithrock

If Mr. Trump has one “achievement,” it is in the domain of winning applause for figurative murder, mostly from his base, not just voters but more disgustingly, most GOP officials and public figures. From the perspective that nothing Mr. Trump can say or do is ever wrong – and whoever criticizes him is absolutely wrong – Mr. Trump’s devoted followers are quintessential cult members. “ … the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

But, to admonish the Trump followers who occupy public offices or prominent positions in the society with, “History will not judge you kindly,” is to miss the point: These people are a-historical; they are, and choose to remain, dismissive of history as too distant and immaterial. Like followers of Mao Tse-Dong, Stalin, or Hitler, the people doing Trump’s bidding care only for the present, the opportunity to exploit power to accumulate wealth or wallow in gratification of poking their “enemies.” And presently, they feel as if their up-the-establishment is the revolution that will be recorded as such in history. Like the previous followers of dictators, these people care mostly about upsetting the apple cart; the goals of building a different apple cart are much less important, and that’s adequate excuse for promised goals that are unfulfilled or altered.

Try such approaches in the business world. Ironically, the business world in the States is enjoying some loosened regulations but also has to contend with chaotic national politics and growing hostile international environment.

coast1

The most recent tax cut largely benefits the very rich; that’s ok, the rest get some anyway. (Even though their share of the tax cut, small to begin with, will disappear in a few years. In fact, for many, the minuscule tax relief is about to be consumed by increasing fuel prices.   But it’s the here and now that matters.) As regards immigrants being chased away or frightened into hiding, having their lives upended, the followers apparently cannot grasp the ramifications for industries that rely on immigrants. And when retail price increases hit them, they will find other targets to blame. History means nothing.

Yet, it isn’t right or sustainable to feel outraged all the time. We have to eat; we have to tidy up the house and wash dishes; we have to tend to our children or elderly parents. We still have to go to the grocery store just to get some ketchup; we still have to pay rent or mortgage. So, we oscillate between normalcy and mad sadness (per our predictable reaction at the next mass shooting).

As Dahlia Lithwick captures well our “collective madness:”

We are trapped in a kind of national collective madness, where lies are truth, truth is derided as fake news, corruption is cleansing, and cruelty is good governance. Suddenly the adults are children and the Parkland, Florida, kids are adults, and every time you think it can’t get madder, it just does. It’s a world in which the mere act of declaiming, “This isn’t normal,” or “They’re not telling the truth” is dismissed as hysteria and overreaction. Jokes can hurt feelings, but ripping children from their parents leaves no lasting moral footprint.

And this last point, ripping children from their parents as the administration’s latest immigration policy, Mr. Trump tweeted that it is Democrat’s fault.

Perhaps our collective madness is tantamount to a collective opioid crisis. We know better, but we cannot help ourselves. We kind of know we are wrong, but we cannot possibly admit our misjudgment to ourselves, let alone to others. For those of us who think we are the sane ones, how do we know that we are not the crazy ones? the ones with the addiction? or, the cult members? Against what do we ascertain reality?

In my last post, by now long ago, I mentioned that exit is often the strategy for coping with an intolerable organization, but not so for an intolerable society or country. In Ms. Lithwick’s piece, she employs a symbol from a fable by which we might learn to identify for each other the sane ones. Perhaps. But then, the next question is: how do we know that the very symbol we use for sanity check isn’t the hallmark of an echo chamber?

bandon 5

In the end, I have to insist on facts, verifiable facts. Opinions based on facts have more legs to stand on, and opinions based on out-of-thin-air assertions are still hogwash. Or, BS. We don’t like political correctness? Then, let’s call bullshit “bullshit.”

I learned, from a recent New Yorker article these principles, by French “thinker and activist,” Simone Weil in her 1933 journal:  “Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” And, “Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie—don’t keep your eyes shut.”

So, after months of gnashing my teeth and feeling too immobilized to write for the public eye, I decided to assert my voice again.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

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Twisting Facts Is Easier Than Straitening Lies…Or, Believing Lies Is Easier Than Understanding Facts

Thomas More said to King Henry VIII, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[from Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions dole out “alternative facts” like casino chips and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction – or, worse, choose to ignore the distinction.  Those of us who value the distinction need to strengthen our voices.

(Note: “Alternative facts” is not to be confused with “alternative reality” a la the social constructed reality in which we each have different interpretations of the same factual experience or event. Simplest example would be: We don’t all see our immediate supervisor in the same way, or our teachers, or our elected representatives, or our country, etc. Yet, each person’s reality is just as valid as the others’…with the facts as the foundation. See my previous posts, here, here, and here, on making such distinctions.)

hoar frost

Ever since I started my blog, I have been trying, sometimes very hard, to stay away from politics, unless I found justifications for tying it to organizations. Yet, the obvious has been staring at me all these years: From a “system” perspective, politics inevitably impacts organizations and vice versa, and individuals involved, which include every one of us, are all players. How can organizations and politics be neatly separated, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars get involved? Why has it taken me so long to admit the obvious? The answer is that it has everything to do with my upbringing: Be modest; be moderate; don’t stir things up; don’t call attention to yourself, etc. And getting into politics is a sure way to draw fire, from all quarters, and these days, people get downright violent in their social media language.

However, I feel compelled to address some political issues, as my internal frustration and despair are mounting. So I will start 2018 full-throttle on politics/systems, still with the attention to organizational/management issues, and I will maintain my civil language.

mt. washington

Two recent developments in our society have convinced me of the need to address political issues: (1) The willy-nilly disregard for facts, conjoined with the failure to separate wheat from chaff, seems to be growing in large sectors of the society. This alarms me and convinces me that we need to emphasize facts and evidence whenever we address policies that would impact a large swath of people, hence the opening quote. I acknowledge the body of research teaching us that emphasizing facts does not sway opinions, at least not in the near term, but I believe that in the long term the facts win out, hopefully before being cruelly reinforced on a battlefield, provided they’re not allowed to be ignored. [The allusion to battlefield is inspired by George Orwell: “…[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue… the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

(2) The recent onslaught of #MeToo stories made me realize that in public, I tend to put myself down…again, the need to be modest and moderate and not make waves always nags me. The saving grace is that whenever the stakes are high, I rise to the occasion and assert myself without the usual provisos. (In private conversations and amongst friends, I am totally comfortable because I know I am safe.) The #MeToo movement (which, unfortunately, touches my own history) finally wiped away those cobwebs in my psyche.

Enough!

3 finger jack

So, in today’s post, I want to establish my intent, and lay down a couple of philosophical thoughts for why facts and evidence should always be our foundation.

Kathryn Schultz states in her “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them(The New Yorker, Nov 6, 2017 issue):

One of the strangest things about the human mind is that it can reason about unreasonable things. [emphasis mine] It is possible, for example, to calculate the speed at which the sleigh would have to travel for Santa Claus to deliver all those gifts on Christmas Eve…And it is possible to decide that a yeti is more likely to exist than a leprechaun, even if you think that the likelihood of either of them existing is precisely zero.”  

What is “real” vs. what could be “real” is the key. However, making such distinction often requires critical thinking. Any theory, conspiracy or not, when it’s proposed on the internet, and especially if it’s picked up by MSM, becomes a legitimate consideration. I don’t know how this has come about, but the practice of bending the facts has been going on for a while (re, Orwell). Most noticeably, of course, is equivocating between Darwin’s scientifically proven “Evolution” theory and the totally bogus “Intelligent Design,” for which to date there has not been any evidence presented that does not even more compellingly support evolution.

Ever since human beings began to organize for common purposes, politicians have always been known to bend the truth, either for their personal gain or for “the greater good.” (This applies to politics in organizations as well.) But few have blatantly espoused lies out of thin air, boasted about such acts, and blame “fake news” every time they are being called out.

As Hanna Arendt observed decades ago: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

“Fake news” used to be employed as a propaganda tool for disseminating falsehoods. But now, as the President of the United States of America, Mr. Trump has turned the table around, by creating a fountain of lies while labeling what he doesn’t like – especially when his lies are revealed – “fake news.” This has emboldened other politicians, both domestically and internationally, to employ and abuse the term whenever reporters challenge them.

However, the people who abuse “fake news” indiscriminately seemed to accept the predictions of hurricanes Harvey (hitting Texas in 2017) and Irma (hitting Florida right after Harvey) and the descriptions of the horrendous aftermath. But while they accepted that category V hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico hard, they balked at that aftermath narrative and blamed the Puerto Ricans for their plight.

glacier pond

So nowadays, instead of accepting facts, as Hanna Arendt predicted, we have become suspicious of fact- and evidence-based reporting. In other words, we suspect everything. From the perspective of the Russian interference in the US 2016 election, if the Russians’ intent was to get the American people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, our opponents have already won.

I no longer care to try to understand how fact-deniers “think” and their rationales. I no longer worry about how to converse with those who simply refuse facts. “Telling like it is” doesn’t need to be rude, and certainly shouldn’t be devoid of truths. “My [nuclear bomb] button’s bigger than your button” may be satisfying to some, indeed it would be downright laughable if it weren’t so frightfully pointing toward Armageddon. And when people rely on only lies, coupled with rudeness and taunts, their “conversations” become shouting matches, as evidenced in the current Trump-Bannon spat over Michael Wolff’s latest tell-all book on Trump’s White House.  (Google these names and you will have your choices of reading.)

All I can do is to stay on evidence and emphasize the facts, relentlessly.

Isaac Asimov said it well– (1980):

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Linking back to the quote earlier from the Fantastic Beasts, “life” may be magical, that doesn’t mean that we rely on magical thinking to live our daily lives.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

“Fake It Till Make It” – Part II

In “Part I” I focused on “Adopting Power Posture to Feel Powerful”, and never thought I’d revisit the issue again. My previous post was largely based on Amy Cuddy’s research and TED talk in which she posits that a two-minute Wonder Woman’s power posture, hands on hips, would cause a spike in one’s adrenaline to accompany the assertion of confidence, which in turn leads to greater willingness to take risks in subsequent behavior. Many followers of her TED presentation have commented that the power posture really works and has helped them build their confidence. Her paper was published in 2010; her TED talk was in 2012, and her career subsequently soared in the areas of public speaking and consulting all over the world.

Since then, the field of social psychology – Cuddy’s professional base – has gone through a paradigm shift urging new guidelines for methodology that are much more rigorous. The champions of this shift, one of whom went to Princeton with Cuddy, challenged the field’s decades-long research practices for relying too much on convenience and tolerance of personal biases (thinking they are immaterial and wouldn’t affect research outcomes), and profoundly lacking in replication of studies. (Reinforcing this last point, journals have not been welcoming of “replication” articles.) These reformers suspected that most studies confirmed researchers’ hypotheses – false positive — and were insufficiently subjected to follow-up studies that would support or refute these confirmations.

This was a huge warning to the field of social psychology (and likely other branches of social sciences). The initial hostile reactions to the reformers’ challenge became louder and messy dynamics ensued. Dr. Cuddy’s work got ensnared in the back-and-forth. While there have been a few other prominent scholars whose studies have been questioned, none seemed to have suffered the same degree of browbeating and crashing of a promising career as Dr. Cuddy has. She has since withdrawn her tenure submission from the Harvard Business School.

The crux of the criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s initial work, the research on power pose, was: (1) the sample size of 42, 21 pairs of power pose and non-power pose, was too small, (2) the measurement of testosterone and cortisol levels was imprecise and/or inaccurate, (3) the danger of false positive results was not adequately addressed, and (4) at least one replication study done by a different researcher demonstrated that Dr. Cuddy’s power pose conclusion was weak at best.

My initial reaction to Dr. Cuddy’s power pose study was a sense of disquiet – for instance, can such a surge in confidence be sustained long enough to be beneficial? It was largely based on some philosophical considerations (see my previous post on the topic). The methodological issue is much more consequential; yet, the ensuing quarrels in the field have largely taken on philosophical, attitudinal, or social dimensions, and even touched on professional etiquette, far-removed from what a “simple” technical forum would entail. Personally, I think this reflects the messy nature of most social topics (consider the current storm regarding sexual assaults and harassments…or more mundane stuff like “performance evaluation”). I still think there is a lot of validity in the semi-jest term “physics envy” for describing social sciences.

A good portion of the ugliness in the criticism of Cuddy’s work came in the form of blogs and other social media. The three reformer-researcher-authors have their own blog, http://www.datacolada.org, that focuses on methodological and statistical issues, of which Cuddy’s work was one entry that has attracted readers across different disciplines. I understand and appreciate anyone who, in today’s internet-centric world, desiring more direct feedback and generating more discussion, takes it to blog format; however, there is a tendency for relaxed decorum in such a format. As one professor points out, “Because of social media and how it travels – you get pile-ons when the critique comes out, and 50 people share it in the view of thousands. That’s horrifying for anyone who’s critiqued, even if it’s legitimate.” (from New York Times Magazine article) Even one of the three authors for data colada, Joseph Simmons, who attended Princeton with Amy Cuddy, thought the treatment and criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s power-pose research has been unfair; after all, “the original study wasn’t particularly egregious. It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this [the subsequent methodological revolution].”

It is difficult to objectively assess why Cuddy’s work was made to be the “poster child” for the criticism, especially without a rigorous study to survey professional reactions to Dr. Cuddy’s work and to compare the treatments of other top researchers’ pre-revolution studies. Even if we could do such a study, can we replicate it?! Sarcasm aside, I personally find the pile-on treatment particularly troubling. It is understandable that we all would defend our data, our methods, and our findings, for as long as possible; however, if enough subsequent evidence ultimately leads to a contradictory conclusion, no matter how uncomfortable for us personally, we learn to yield and move on. (This is the core of the scientific method and indeed the entire Scientific Revolution: We learn to accept the conclusions demanded by evidence.) Dr. Cuddy has grudgingly acknowledged her initial study’s flaws and tried to move on, so, why the personal attacks? Perhaps for social scientists themselves, it is not so easy to separate the work from personality, and for critics of social science, it’s much more fun to not even try?

While I was not a big fan of the power-pose study, it was intriguing. Now that I understand how weak the results are, I am fine with using the study as a springboard for further discussions. I simply do not understand why there is, and I emphatically deny any need for, adolescent rudeness and an infantile lack of decorum on social media in critiquing/attacking others’ work. Academics who would otherwise observe professional courtesy and standards in writing for journal publications become brutal, arrogant, and almost bullying on Facebook, Twitter, blog (personal or professional), or whatever form du jour.

It’s understandable that Cuddy’s research got the lion’s share of scrutiny – the bigger the reputation, the bigger the target – yet, it’s ironic that the very movement that tries to steer away personal bias seems driven by personal bias (why did they choose Cuddy’s work to focus on? Was it purely based on the hyperbolic reception of the work rather than the offending execution of the work?). It’s easier to target the most noticeable mistake, rather than the most egregious. So, these critics just threw their darts at an obvious target (TED talk has that effect, especially when it’s the second most popular one) rather than first making systematic assessment, say of other previous well-known studies. Isn’t that the very definition of selecting data based on convenience?

After finishing reading New York Times’ expose of this whole saga, all I can think of is: We sure like to scapegoat others for the very attribute for which we can be just as flawed. Shakespeare’s Hamlet scolds his mother for this: “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks.”

I used to feel apologetic for ending an article in a negative tone, and especially so close to our end-of-year holiday seasons. Times have changed…

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

White Lie, Black Lie, Blue Lie: So…lies are not all equal

I knew if I waited long enough, I’d come across more articles informing me about our lying behavior. Ahem…right. I kind of just lied…well, it’s more of a justification for my procrastination, or stretching the truth, or telling a white lie. I could have come up with more elaborate “reasons” for why I waited till now to post an article based on what I read about “blue lies” in mid March, two months ago. Indeed, I might have done so, without thinking, had I not been primed by my reading on lying. It turns out, we lie easily, quite often, and not always with remorse.

Blue lies—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group.”

As a student of intergroup dynamics, I admit that I have not encountered the term, blue lie, until recently. And it seems that most of the popular press that has picked up the term all cite the same source, a blog article in Scientific American published 3/24/2017.

The author of the article further stresses that the person who tells the blue lies has only his self-interest in mind, but knows that his lies will benefit his “group members.” I would add that a perpetrator having only has his own interests in mind may not always know, or care, what is/are the group(s) that will benefit from his lie. So, I guess one can further differentiate among liars: the truly self-absorbed narcissist, and the “well-intentioned” loyalist who wants to help her particular group in addition to her own benefit. Actually, I would put the narcissist’s lies squarely in the camp of black lies, the outright lie for self interest only. Not very comforting either way.

In this light, politicians do not monopolize the use of blue lies; I can imagine members of sports teams (or their coaches: When two opposing teams’ coaches exhort “We’re going to win” at least one of them is lying), or among different professional groups within an organization (say, between researchers and marketing reps, school administrators and teachers, etc.) all employ this tactic…all done without necessarily being conscious of lying. So while not very comforting in concept, we accept it as a matter of course in reality.

In fact, we humans lie easily, readily, more often than we are aware of doing, and often without apology. According to the latest issue of National Geographic –with the title “Why We Lie” that inspired me to finish this article – “We all lie, but not all lies are the same. People lie and tell the truth to achieve a goal: ‘We lie if honest won’t work.’” The most common reason for our lies is “personal transgression,” to hide our mistakes or misbehaviors, and the second most common is to gain “economic advantage,” followed closely by “personal advantage” separate from financial concerns.

And we learn to lie at an early age. For instance, children learn early that white lies are sometimes necessary, for whatever purposes — not wanting to hurt others’ feelings, needing to break a bad news at a better time, or covering someone’s embarrassing mistake that didn’t hurt anyone, etc. They also learn to accept blue lies in various team sports and projects. Older children are more willing to go along with blue lies than younger ones. It doesn’t have to be monumental lies; just glossing over some small rule-breaking behaviors or covering for members’ short absence, etc.

Adults’ lies are often more elaborate and consequences are more weighty, with the intent hidden beneath the consciousness and therefore making the exposing of it that much harder. I now wonder if the cyclist, Lance Armstrong, internalized his repeated lies at the Tour de France tournament as in the nature of “blue lies” serving his own self-interest while benefiting the team?

As adults we have come to recognize, and accept albeit grudgingly for some, that intelligence agencies lie in order to protect the greater good of the country’s geopolitical position. But regarding top management’s lies for the “greater good” of the organization of which we are a part: We tend to be less accepting of these lies. One possible explanation for such different reactions to different entities perhaps resides in our sense of “membership.” Most of us feel a stronger affinity toward our country, culture, or tribe than toward corporate entities that would show no qualms about kicking us out in a heartbeat “if they had to.” Actually, organizations may not always be, and may not always have been, heartless and soulless. But it appears that as they get bigger, face fiercer competition, take on greater environmental and regulatory challenges concomitant with larger territory served and organizational growth, they lose compassion for their employees – and, paradoxically, their customers. United Airlines, anyone?

So, why do we take in the lies as if they are facts and truths? Because as it is natural for humans to lie, it’s also part of our makeup to need to trust…trusting those who inform us throughout our lives. Without such trust, we would have to negotiate every step we take every waking moment in our daily life. We’d collapse from exhaustion in no time. The challenge is why we often hold onto our beliefs in the face of evidence disproving our worldview? (Some items are easier to toss out, like, admitting the movie we just saw wasn’t quite as good as we espoused it to be, or the suit I bought for $1,000 really made me look lumpy…only if I could wear the “Armani” label outside.)

Further, why are some people, some groups, more prone to taking in lies despite knowing that they might be duped? (Among other examples, Harold Camping’s predictions of the Rapture for 1994 then May 2011 then October 2011 come to mind.) After all, when was the last time you changed your mind immediately upon being presented evidence that is 180 degrees different from what you had believed in? We rarely, if at all, change our minds in the fashion of flash of a bang. (Camping’s radio ministry apparently still has subscribers.) For the most part, by the time we realize that we have changed our minds, it’s been in the works for quite some time and the seeds of change are no longer easily identified.

Still, this doesn’t address my disquiet sense that some people are more stubborn than others. Perhaps we are born and wired differently, transcending decades of quality education? And perhaps there are no ready-made answers? In fact, research has demonstrated that in the face of being shown how wrong we have been, we hold onto the wrong notions even stronger. So, how do we change our own minds? Let alone others’ minds? The typical teaching points of how to persuade others to change their beliefs, feel pedestrian. “Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately” is much harder done than said. And we always know that “the other side” doesn’t listen well.

At the end of the NG article, its answer to how to counter the onslaught of untruths and downright lies in the 21st century, hastened and magnified by the social media and technologies, is unnerving. “Technology has opened up a new frontier for deceit, adding a 21st-century twist to the age-old conflict between our lying and trusting selves.”

For the moment, I can only make myself much more aware of the need to verify the information I receive. As for convincing others to change their views? I am at an infant stage in that arena.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Fact, Truth, Reality…which one is debatable?

  • Author’s note: Since our move to the northwest, I have been busy setting up the new household. Our lives have been full yet relaxing. We haven’t quite completely immersed in the local community, but that’s just a matter of time. Neither have I resumed my painting, but that too, will be part of my daily routine in due course. In the meantime, I have had the urge to comment on some aspects of the development of our society, which intertwines closely with organizational life.

 


 

A child asks mom, “what is that man doing?” Mom says, “He’s entertaining.” Child, “No, what is he doing?” Mom, “He’s performing.” Child gasped, “But what is he doing?” Mom tries again, “He’s making people smile.” Child continues, “But what is he doing?” Mom finally adopts the conventional definition, “He’s juggling.” Child responds, “But what is juggling?” and on we go.

Which version of the mother’s responses is real is beyond debate. All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment. If Mom happens to be fresh out of work, she might answer, “He’s making a living.” Of course, there is also the issue of the “audience.” So, the child’s curiosity may finally be addressed by another different response, “He’s having fun!”

The above example is an illustration of socially constructed reality. The fact is: A man is tossing balls, or juggling pins, or cones, in the air, catching a few before tossing them up again, while catching the other few. There are also the facts that a child is asking a question, and the mother is trying to ascertain how to answer the child satisfactorily. The truth is that an engaging parent would utilize interactions with his child to offer answers, lessons, ideas, etc. But at no point will the parent ever engage in offering “alternative fact,” which is a lie. No parents, with sane minds, would deliberately tell their child that the juggler is fishing or farming, nor that a dog is a “pig,” the sun a “lollipop” or a stone is “bread.”

When I first heard the term “alternative fact,” I gasped. Granted all politicians prevaricate and “spin,” but to engage in downright lies, to espouse random accusations without a shred of fact, or to formulate policy based on an opinion pulled out of thin air, it makes me wonder, “Might this be what living in the days of [one of the most seditious Roman emperors] Caligula felt like?” Good God. I heard of one apologist’s defense of “alternative fact,” that it is used as a means to stay defiant. Defiant against what? Establishment? Do facts now only exist in the “establishment”? Or, using facts is now considered “elite”?

Back in NM

Back in NM

Then, I began to question myself about one of the fundamental pillars of my being a social scientist: socially constructed reality. I asked myself: How do I make it clear to others who aren’t familiar with this term, the difference between socially constructed reality and lies? We recognize there are multiple realities, which could be called alternative realities, per the opening example and explored further below, but by definition there can be no “alternative facts,” not even as euphemism.

We go through our daily lives, taking “reality” for granted. We don’t even think about our mutually agreed norms, rituals, salutations…etc. We drive on the right side of the road in this country; we apologize when we accidentally bump into each other; we discuss topics using tacitly agreed rules and norms. (Well, we used to.) The socially constructed reality is a perspective for social scientists in their pursuit of generating knowledge. As a social scientist, it is my professional interest as well as responsibility to observe the different realities that people bring into their work, organizational life, and various social situations. And I try to ascertain the core from which different perspectives emanate.

Nuclear physicists and engineers rely on detailed facts to build nuclear facilities. How nuclear energy should be used would be in the realm of socially constructed reality. It may be to the chagrin of the scientists and engineers, having spent lifetimes figuring out how nuclear energy can be used, but that’s our social reality, partly because scientists are also human beings with all human foibles and emotions in making judgment, with which utilization of scientific discoveries happens – or doesn’t. Architects and contractors build hospitals, but when, where and for how much, and how the space is designed and used, often get politicized, i.e. socially constructed reality. Issues such as, who gets the corner office, which wings should house the patients (but somehow admin always gets the nicest wing), or where the bathrooms be located (read “Fix the woman” for the quarrels about access to bathroom; here & here) get decided and resolved through social interactions.

A manager’s view of an employee’s “being late” is different from the said employee’s own reality. The employee arriving late at work might be due to a car accident on the way to work. Or, her child woke up with a fever and she had to make a last-minute arrangement. It is within the manager’s right to say, “She still has to perform work professionally and diligently.” However, a little understanding can go a long way toward building trust, understanding, and workforce morale. Yes, the quality of the employee’s work could become delinquent and shoddy, but is one day’s work performance determinant of the employee’s worth?

If we normalize the use of “alternative fact,” it will eventually trickle down into the fabric of society, including corporations and organizations. I can imagine scenarios where a manager can easily tell a direct report, “Sorry, Joan, I cannot give you any promotion or raise this year because your recent work for project Y was sloppy. I have an alternative fact; I’m declaring that Mary actually saved the project.” Even though Joan had been working overdrive to push for project Y to be done on time. (Perhaps Mary and the manager have been besties for months?) If Joan complains to senior managers, she’s unlikely to be heard objectively since Joan’s manager couldn’t have carried out such “alternative fact” approach without the collusion of higher management. Chances are the higher the managerial ladder reaches, the more often the managers are tempted to use the “alternative facts.” It’s a perfect tool to seize and abuse power.

Now in OR

Now in OR

I used to think “true fact” is a silly redundant expression…well, it still is.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” about the life of Thomas More under Henry VIII, in which Thomas More said, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[*] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions are declaring alternative facts and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction. Those of us who can need to keep the lights on.

Who knew? My signature mantra seems to be even more pertinent these days,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

 

[*] Taken from the text of the play, available via Amazon. Even more poignant is this quote from Bolt’s Preface to the text of the play (Bolt, 1960):

“A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, and when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee… Of course, it is much less effective now … we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity…”

 

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words Aren’t Really Innocent

…you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.” — Daniel Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

This “priming” effect can take place in words, ideas, emotions, or behavior. If we are hungry or just ate, the word EAT is likely to prime us to fill SO_P with U and make it “soup.” However, if we see WASH, we are likely to fill the blank with A and make it “soap.”

This isn’t just about word association; it goes deeper than we realize. If we happened to eat at a restaurant where the setting was stuffy and warm, we might remember the food as kind of stale. If we just recovered from a cold, we might see in our mind’s eye “soap and wash” with more scrubbing than we normally might feel.

In a study that has made the “Florida effect” well-known in the academic world, college students

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp "prime" me to think of snowy winter!

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp “prime” me to think of snowy winter!

were asked (or, primed) to construct 4-word sentences from a set of five words. Half of the students were given words associated with ageing, such as, “Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle.” The measurement of effect came afterwards when the students were asked to walk the length of a hallway. The students primed by the old-age related words walked significantly slower than those primed by non-age related words. None of the students were aware of the impact.

The effect may be opposite if you happen to dislike old people. In that case, you are likely to walk faster. Not only words can impact your behavior, your subsequent behavior may affect your thoughts. In other words, those words that lead you to act old may in turn make you think of old age and feel slightly older than you would otherwise. But not to worry; this effect isn’t long lasting, unless some diabolic politicians want to design programs to mess with your mind.

Unfortunately, some politicians do try to employ priming effects…whether or not knowing the term. A study showed that for issues of school funding, voters tended to favor school funding when the polling station was at school than when it was at a nearby non-school building. Such an effect might not be huge, but were it a close election, that difference may be enough to tip the outcome.

Money-primed studies are particularly depressing. When participants were primed by money-related words –therefore thinking they were better-off than others – they tended to be more independent/individualistic, less willing to engage with or help others, and more selfish. In one study, a research assistant walked by the participants and dropped a bunch of pencils; the money-primed students picked up far fewer pencils than students without such priming. In another setting, money-primed participants would choose to sit much farther away from someone else in a meeting than participants without such priming. (I am not sure if these studies took into account introversion/extroversion.)

As Kahneman reminds us, “The evidence of priming studies suggests that reminding people of their mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas, which may become reassuring in the context of the terror of death.” In other words, words matter. Now I wish I wasn’t so testy whenever my mother said, “Be careful,” before each of my trips.

little-red

Of course we all like to believe that we are in firm control of our thoughts and behavior, and that we are rational beings who would not do silly things from “simple” suggestion. The priming principle doesn’t negate this belief; it just reminds us that we aren’t always in control. So, I embrace Kahneman’s admonition, “The idea…is that disbelief [of priming effect] is not an option.”

One more fascinating study, and I’ll stop. At a UK university’s break room where coffee and tea were available and suggested prices were listed, purely on honor system, people left money in a collection box. One day, without any notification, a poster showing a pair of eyes went up right above the counter where tea and coffee, and the collection box, were placed. A week later, a different poster showing flowers replaced the previous one. No one paid much attention to this little addition and alteration. The posters were basically two types, one with a pair of eyes and the other with flowers; various posters of these two themes alternated in the break room. This went on for 10 weeks, and yes, this was a study.

Researchers tabulated the amount of money left in the collection box. Whenever the poster with eyes was up, the contribution shot up and whenever the flowers poster was up, the contribution went down. Of course, the ups and downs were not of the exact same amount or magnitude, but the differences were striking. Not surprisingly, the largest difference was marked between the first week, a pair of eyes, and the second week, flowers. Remember, people didn’t realize what was going on, and somehow the difference between 9th and 10th, the final week, was profoundly sizable as well. Visualize a zig-zag line, side by side with eyes-flowers in alternate order for 10 weeks. (I’d offer an image but it’d take too long to get copyright permission to use the figure in the book, so I invite you to create your own image.)

structure

When big brothers and sisters watch you…

This is also why “fake it till you make it” works. Priming yourself with a smile, e.g. holding a pencil horizontally with your teeth for a few minutes, does get you in a more relaxed mode. When our minds are less strained, we think more clearly. So,

 

Stay Sane, and Charge Ahead

Direct Contac: taso100@gmail.com

Quick To Judge, But Slow(er) To Understand The Reasons

In case you haven’t heard of the Invisible Gorilla short film… The authors of the film, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, also wrote a book with the same title. The film was a study tool. In the film, there are two teams, one wearing white shirts and the other black, passing basketball to each other within the team. In the study, the participants were asked to count the number of passes for only the white team. It’s a task demanding a high level of focus. Half way into the film, an actor in a gorilla suit came on the court, stared straight at the camera, and thumped her chest…for 9 seconds. Upon finishing the film and the task of counting the passes of the ball, the researchers asked participants: Did you see the gorilla?

Only half of the thousands of participants in the study saw the gorilla. The ones who missed it couldn’t believe that they would miss something so in-your-face obvious. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate of economics, states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

(The unanswered questions are: How accurately did the participants who noticed the gorilla count the passes? How did the accuracy of the counting compare between the ones who noticed the gorilla and those who didn’t see the gorilla?)

Some things are slow by nature...

Some things are slow by nature…

I am sure you have experienced many times in your life when you are deeply involved in a task, a conversation, a book, or any other activities, that you block out most noises from your environment. Kahneman in his Fast & Slow book introduces the principles underlying this phenomenon: system 1 and system 2 in our ways of thinking.

System 1 is based on our involuntary senses where we can operate instinctively, like driving in the “right” lane where Brits would drive in their “left” lane. Or, turning our heads toward a startled cry. Or, knowing 1×2 is 2 without a pause. If we live in generalities, system 1 would be terrific. However, when it comes to dealing with specifics, system 1 can be unreliable. For example, all women should be hysterical after being raped; so, one — even when she is your friend — who is calm or even giggling must be suspicious.

System 2 is based on our voluntary senses, once the reaction from system 1 requires more information. So, upon turning toward that startled cry, system 2 kicks in to assess if the source is in distress or is sounding a warning for others; if the former, we further evaluate to see if our assistance is called for, if the latter, we decide whether to run away from the danger or toward it to thwart the danger. Or, when you drive your hired car out of a garage while vacationing in UK, your system 2 kicks in to remind you to do it “right.” System 2 is about self-control, a way to check system 1.

For the most part, our system 1 allows us to go through our days fairly confidently with few hiccups. Yet, if we rarely check with system 2, we can let our biases dictate our emotions and behaviors. On the other hand, constantly checking minutiae with our system 2 results in hardly getting anything done. The trick, as always, lies in the how; how do we decide when to check with system 2? There is no 12-step program to guide us. However, as Kahneman says, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” so we keep learning. And hopefully, we can learn from others’ mistakes to shore up our system 1’s accuracy, increase our awareness, and better recognize when to invoke system 2 for better judgment.

Other things allow you to be fast…

What Peggy, Marie’s foster mother, did in the “Anatomy of Doubt” of This American Life – divulging her doubt to the detective of Marie’s rape case – was jumping to conclusion. As Kahneman explains, “Jumping to conclusion is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable…[It’s otherwise] risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information.” Uncertainty and doubt really belong to system 2, and that’s why I asserted in my last post, that when Peggy called the detective, she had already erased her doubt. And since system 1 is guided by experience, and further, since the detective working Marie’s case had had about two or three rape cases prior to Marie’s, his system 1 would be at infant stage on working with rape victims. As a result, he relied on Peggy’s knowing Marie well, and assumed Marie was being untruthful in her rape account.

When we attach our emotional response to the first impression, of a person or a situation, and interpret the subsequent evidence based on our first impression, we are committing to the “halo effect.” We are likely to consider someone we just met, who has a nice smile and soft voice, to be “kind and generous.” In job interviews, confirmed in social science studies, taller people are regarded to have more managerial potential than shorter people. And not surprisingly, extroverts get more positive reactions than introverts. In reality, none of these first impressions offer any valid clues to what a person is or is not.

We use halo effect on organizations as well. Eron was the darling…till it collapsed. Companies that have shown wide swings in performance still get high ratings on leadership, strategies, or execution if they established a good impression years ago, even though these very same companies have been using the same strategies, under the same leadership, and behaving pretty much the same over the years.

We are humans; we are fallible; we have biases; we have blind spots. We get it right most of the time, but we also get it wrong more often than we realize or are willing to admit. So, back to that “humility” that I often extol…

Labor Day weekend is coming up. I wish you a fantastic weekend, and please be safe if travel is involved. I’ll be back in this space after 9/11. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com