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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

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“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.

redmaple2

Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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

On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.

thistle

The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!

cacuti

When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com