I admit the title of this post is provocative, but it’s true – at least part of the time. And it could prevent you from seeing the obvious.
I’m not exactly sure where this field of study lies, perhaps social psychology. It relates to topics such as the priming, placebo effects, heuristics and even affirmation.
Priming: This received some recent buzz when it was mentioned in Gladwell’s book Blink. He recounted a study where students were “primed” with words such as “old, lonely, gray and wrinkled. Those students too much longer to walk to the next classroom versus the control group. Simply reading these words modified their behavior.
I believe the old self improvement technique of “affirmation” is a form of self-priming. I was never a fan of affirmations. Every time I tried to make those statements about myself, (I am getting better and smarter every day), another voice inside my head would reply: “Based on what evidence?”
Hueristics: This is the short cut process we use to reach a quick decision, often unconsciously. We can’t conduct a thorough study for every decisions, we rely on experience or generally accepted principals. Daniel Kahneman has studied this in depth and it’s included in his Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s amazing how often don’t have a clue in understanding how we actually came to a belief and made a decision.
Quite by accident, I became a victim of a strongly held belief that left me dumbfounded. I’m a big fan of Trader Joe’s. One of my favorites is their corn bread. However, the packaging for banana bread is very similar.
One evening I was preparing a dinner of ham steak, cornbread and beans. I was especially looking forward to the cornbread for two or three days. I grabbed the box from the panty. Trader Joe’s yellow box = cornbread.
In reality, I had a box of banana bread. The boxes are very similar. (I don’t read labels carefully, or instructions.)
Denial of the Evidence
Preparing the mix, I noted the color seemed darker than usual. (Denial #1)
The texture was wrong, I couldn’t see any actual corn bits. (Denial #2)
Removing the bread from the oven, I noted again, the color seemed too dark. (Denial #3)
Taking a bite, (will my brain finally wake up?). Hmmm, this tastes a little different. (Denial #4)
Finally, when I was cleaning up and tossing something in the trash, I noticed the box with a picture of a banana!
What About Work
Looking at the above example from an analytical perspective, all the data was trying to tell me my assumption was wrong. I ignored the data. How might this apply to your work?
Here’s an example I experienced many years ago. I interviewed for a part-time job in college at a photo processing lab. I already had several years of darkroom experience, which was the prerequisite. (This was before digital cameras and Photoshop).
During the interview, I was told that upon accepting the position, I was to “Keep any ideas about improved methods and processes to myself. If I could do that – the job was mine”. He seemed to be firmly entrenched in the idea that a “student” had nothing of value to contribute other than mindlessly cranking out work. He needed a robot. I took the job, but had to ignore any urges for creative solutions. Maybe that was the beginning of my inability to discern cornbread from banana bread.