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Shaking up the communal songsheet

Organisations need injections of fresh thinking for their health and long-term survival. It's knowing how to do it that's the trick.

Organisations need injections of fresh thinking for their health and long-term survival. It's knowing how to do it that's the trick.

Mike HutchesonA major curse of organisations is that of confirmation bias – that nasty trait of being able to find evidence supporting your own beliefs or opinions, selectively ignoring facts that don’t fit those beliefs. I give you any number of economic disasters, from tulip mania of the 18th Century to the global financial crisis, as evidence of how pervasive and pernicious this syndrome is.

A second curse is that of cultural unity. The paradox of organisations lies in the fact that to function effectively, an organisation needs its people to be singing from the same song sheet. Yet by attracting and retaining like-minded recruits, a kind of group-think ensues. By failing to adapt to change, organisations eventually atrophy and die through lack of new ideas, or worse, continue to their doom by charting perilous or fatal courses of action.

Somehow fresh, maverick thinking has to be regularly introduced into all organisations, commercial, political or social, for their health and long-term survival. Knowing how to do it is where the trick lies.

Michael Schermer, writing in Scientific American, reported on a 2004 study at Emory University, led by psychologist Drew Westen. The study established that quite distinct parts of the brain are engaged when evaluating information on subjects to which we already have committed views.

In the case of this study the view-holders were Republican and Democrat voters, with strongly held opinions.

While undergoing MRI brain scans, the respondents were asked to evaluate statements by opposing candidates, in which the candidates blatantly contradicted themselves.

Surprise, surprise, Republican statements were criticised by Democrat supporters and vice versa, while the candidates were each excused by their own supporters for their obvious gaffes.

However, the interesting bit was evidenced by the brain imaging results. It wasn’t the reasoning part of their brains that were active while the evaluations were being made, but the parts associated with emotion, moral judgment and reward and pleasure.

It seems that the subjects ignored information that contradicted their preconceived notions, and responded based on emotion, filtering their responses through a moral sieve and finally reinforcing their conclusions with a gratifying smugness that they had done the right thing.

In other words if someone doesn’t like you, it doesn’t matter what you say or how well you say it, you’re not going to change his or her mind.

There are some pretty big implications buried in these findings and they don’t augur well for peace in the Middle East or resolution of any conflict where fundamentalism or political ideology is involved.

Is it just me or is everyone else equally bemused by the fact that we only try to kill each other over things that can’t be proven? I would’ve thought the only things worth dying for were matters of incontrovertible truth. If something can’t be proven, we should be talking about it, not fighting. Everything should be open for debate.

Wars over the nature of God or whose religion is best are the biggest travesty. It’s like saying my imaginary friend is better than yours. Anything that shuts down debate or censors opinion in the name of moral righteousness or political correctness just puts us closer to a new Dark Age.

The phenomenon of confirmation bias is exacerbated because we tend to hang out or work with others we like and with whom we share interests. Consequently our thoughts, prejudices and perverse ways of thinking are constantly reinforced by those who think similarly.

That leads us back to impediments to innovation. The twin curses of confirmation bias and cultural unity are endemic in most organisations, if for no other reason than that HR policy is usually driven by the need to hire people who’ll ‘fit in’. Eventually such an imperative leads to a calcifying condition that chokes the corporate heart and needs to be cleared through radical intervention by maverick thinking.

Such intervention, however, can be extremely disruptive, and while mavericks are refreshing for short visits, they’re not good at fitting in to corporate structures. In the interests of long-term cohesion of the group they’re better to remain outside the walls as free agents – on call rather than on staff.

Nevertheless, however disruptive they may be, outsiders carry the only known cure for the twin curses and the only hope that truth might eventually trump erroneously held beliefs.

Mike Hutcheson is a director of Tangible Media, a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, and sings from his own song sheet on request after a glass of Chardonnay.