Humans are fearful creatures. We can’t help it, we evolved that way to help us survive. When a pre-technological human was kneeling by a stream to get a drink of water and there was rustling in the nearby trees, the human assumed that the unexpected noise was a potential threat and immediately took up a series of defensive moves. The assumption of threat is called the intentional stance, and is the idea that until proven otherwise, the human assumes that the noise was not the mere rustling of the wind, but rather that the noise was created by some creature or agent, potentially a creature or agent with intent, perhaps with the intent to eat you or cause harm. Even today, we very often assume intelligent or purposeful intent to what are random or statistically meaningless events. The assumption of intelligent intent means that a random or statistically meaningless event is assumed to be done with some deliberate or intelligent purpose, by some kind of agent. The makers of horror movies know this reflex very well and use it over and over to achieve their desired reactions among the audience. They will often substitute ominous sounding music for the rustling of the wind in the climatic build-up to a fear-inducing scene. You just know something awful will happen when you hear that music.
The intentional stance and intelligent intent plays out over and over in organizational life. Here is one example. When an organization reorganizes itself, merges with another, or goes through some other kind of significant change, one assumption often made by the troops in the trenches is that the future of each and every person is known by those in charge. And what is on the mind of the staff? They want to know how the changes going on will affect them personally. For the intelligent intent instinct that we all have means that someone must surely know. And by-and-large, if communications around the changes are less than complete or misleading, people will instinctively fill-in the picture for themselves. Most of the time with a version of reality that is much worse than the actual reality.
The origins of superstitious behavior lie here as well. And none of us are immune. For instance, over the last few months I have coincidentally worn the same suit during a number of successful sales visits to potential clients. The pull to wear that same suit on the next sales visit I do is very strong, even though intellectually, (assuming I look equally decrepit in each of my suits), I am aware that which particular suit I am wearing has no impact. I am willing to somehow give the suit agency in being able to have an impact on the sales visit outcome rather than looking at it as simply pieces of cloth. But of course, if I get over the need to wear this particular suit I always have my lucky socks to fall back upon.
In terms of people’s reactions to a perceived threat the standard flight or fight response that we all grew up learning is actually a little more nuanced. Recent research has shown that there are at least four separate reactionary stages that occur when animals, including humans, are threatened. The freeze response comes first which is characterized as a state of hypervigilance. Research has shown that the initial freeze response is “stop, look and listen”, the immediate response associated with a fearful situation. Once this first phase has run its course the next one is an attempt to flee the situation, to remove oneself from the threat. The third phase is then to fight, to resist the threat. Once the fighting is over or is deemed as not immediately advantageous, a type of paralysis can set in called tonic immobility or more commonly, fright, which can result in extreme passivity, possibly in the hope that the attacker or threat may loosen some vigilance, relaxing its guard and allowing the victim to escape. So, the more accurate and updated description of flight or fight is freeze, flight, fight, and then fright.
There is a great debate going on among scientists today. Generally, an apolitical bunch, who prefer to let their research and publications do the talking for them, assuming that others will act rationally in the face of evidence and facts, they are debating how forcefully to speak out as science comes under increasing threat by current political powers and scientific nay-sayers in a manner (forgive the hyperbole) not seen since Copernicus’s time, when he proposed that the earth was not actually at the center of the universe. This notion of a heliocentric model, with the sun at the center of things, caused a great deal of fear among the powers that be at the time as it threatened their belief system and their hold on power over the masses. (For a really good description of this read Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charges Seife.) And in case you forget that time period in Europe when Copernicus lived is now called the DARK AGES. The arguments against facts and scientific notions which led Europe into the dark ages is eerily similar to some arguments against science being made today.
Attacks on science and facts in the face of fear did not start with the dark ages, it seems to be somewhat cyclical. Remember Pythagoras? The Greek who knew all the angles? His worldview of math and hence his worldview of the world was based on rational numbers. In fact, the whole Greek understanding of mathematics was geometrically based and restricted to rational numbers. When a student of Pythagoras violated their vow of secrecy (power structures often depend on secrecy rather than transparency to solidify their hold on power and disseminate only their approved worldview), and told the world about irrational numbers, that student (gets a little murky here) was either murdered or exiled by Pythagoras and his other students. Pythagoras may have been willing to commit murder to prevent truth from reaching the world. But over the long-term truth and science won out.
The American Psychological Association (APA), a group to which I belong, has taken a position that political advocacy is important and has come out in support of an upcoming scientist march on April 22, in support of facts and science. SIOP, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, to which I also belong, has joined in with its support as well.
Immigrants have always been a cornerstone in the formula of what has made the USA successful. And despite all that evidence that exist to that effect, there has been much discussion, based on fear, about limiting immigration or deporting undocumented immigrants. I was at a recent scientific event and there were many immigrants or first-generation Americans in the crowd. And this was a crowd that has made tremendous contributions to America, our innovativeness, our businesses, and our culture. Should we limit which immigrants can come to America we run a substantial risk of losing our leading position in many fields including medicine, technology, computer science, finance as well as many others. What is my point of view? Well, since you asked…
We are a nation the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, there are things that we have done and things that we continue to do that we should not be proud of, but we are a nation that follows the long arc of justice towards the right policies over the long-term as Martin Luther King would say, or as in Winston Churchill’s sentiments, we are a nation that eventually does the right thing, after we have tried everything else. We are a nation where people should know no fear. No fear of going to bed hungry at night. No fear of being forced to live in the streets. No fear of not being able to see a doctor and get treatment when sick. No fear of being relegated to a status somehow “less” than others because of the color or your skin, your religion, your sexual orientation, your age, your occupation or your income level. We as a nation should be investing in education, in infrastructure, in innovation, so that we live in no fear of losing our technological leadership and competitive status. We should live in no fear of change, knowing that we bring our citizens along, helping them to adapt, rather than leaving them as carcasses in the road. We should have no fear of bullies, either in the school yard or at the state actor level. And no fear of those who attracted by the light of the torch shining in the New York harbor, come to our shores to continue to help us fulfill the promise of this great nation. Our current political situation relies heavily on our natural human tendencies and peddles in fear to achieve their objectives. A great nation does not wall itself off from the rest of the world, in fear, if it hopes to maintain its position of greatness. A great nation embraces the world and becomes a shining example of morality and justice for all, and for all to follow. I have no interest in giving in to ancestral fear and making decisions based on primal instinct. I will make my decisions based on my hopes and dreams for my nation, and upon science and facts. And I will know no fear.
A few years old, but more relevant than ever! Jeff
“From the children’s point of view it was hard to tell a neighbor from a relative. She is like a sister to me was said in all sincerity. Door-to-door living over long periods of time made these people true kin to each other. The only difference between neighbors and relatives was that the neighbors went home to sleep; the relatives could climb into bed with you.” (Sam Levenson, Everything but Money).
The fact that neighbors went home to sleep and relatives could climb into your bed was information that helped a small child differentiate relatives from neighborhood friends in a crowded, confusing world encompassing the tenements of East Harlem in the early 1900s. Information, we are always searching for more in order to help us make sense of our world, to help us interpret the events by which we are surrounded, to help us make better decisions, but then we…
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“Neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them.” My professor for a course called abnormal psychology made that statement as a way of remembering the difference between these two classes of mental illness. While the thinking around many aspects of mental illness has shifted and continues to evolve since that statement was made, that stark difference between people with neurosis who fantasize, sometimes as an escape from reality, and psychotics who can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality remains.
While people talk about mental illness as some sort of all-encompassing disease the term mental illness is not at all precise, nor is it very useful. From the Mayo Clinic: “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental…
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What organization has not tried to present itself in as favorable a light as possible through their marketing and promotional efforts? A question for deliberation is, how far can they go before the…
Source: Selling Falsehood
Can you remember when you were young, on a long hot summer day, school was out, and a sibling or friend would ask, “whatcha doing?” Your response of “nothing” could only mean that there must have been something good going on and that the sibling or friend was being left out. Humans have a very hard time thinking that nothing is really just that, nothing, and the implications are somewhat staggering.
Let’s start with the esoteric. Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American (February 2017, pp. 73), starts off by asking “Imagine nothing. Go ahead. What do you see?” In this case he is really asking you to imagine nothing, no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no energy, no space, no time, not even darkness. Nothing. Go ahead, give it a try. People can’t do it. If everything started with nothing, we would not be here, for what can arise from truly nothing? He goes on to argue that nothing is not stable, and not the natural state of things, citing findings in classical and quantum physics.
Fast forwarding a bit from the origins of the universe, as humans developed counting systems, nothing was again a difficult concept to grasp. John Matson writing in Scientific American on the origins of zero (August 21, 2009), describes its origins as somewhat murky. But here is something you can try. Try writing zero in Roman numerals. Can’t be done. Zero is nothing, the absence of a quantity, formally depicted by the Arabic numeral 0. (Each Arabic number was represented by the number of angles in the number so the representation of the number 1, had one angle hence its value. Zero was depicted as 0, a symbol that had no angles.) The concept of zero arrived in the west by way of North Africa approximately in the year 1200 CE, when a mathematician named Fibonacci figured out how to incorporate it into his work. In addition to the later Arabic refinement of zero, earlier work on the concept happened in both India (circa 500 CE) and among the Mayans (circa 100-200 CE). But the point is that the notion of zero did not always exist, for nothing was a difficult concept for humans to grasp and the Romans built a whole mathematical system that excluded it. We are simply not built to think of nothing very well.
Janis Joplin in the lyrics to her song, Me &Bobby McGee, states that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. So if you truly have nothing, you have freedom (according to Janis), but the reality is that as long as we are clinging to even a shred of hope or a shred of life we all have something and humans with their natural tendency to resiliency tend to have hope of one sort or another, especially if they are given some assistance in generating that hope. (Ok, I am pushing it here a bit). But the song struck a chord and was very powerful in its time of turmoil and protest, and has been used by people willing to stand up and fight for what they believe, for when everything has been taken away, well, what do you have to lose?
In this last election there were many people who felt that prosperity had slipped past them and they had nothing to lose, so they were free to take a risk. Trump himself in trying to promote that idea and get votes in the black community said, “What have you got to lose?” He was attempting to make them feel like they had nothing.
There is tremendous strength in a community that can band together to solve problems. The notion is that you are not alone, with nothing, with no one to help, but that there is hope, there is help, and there are options. And with the generation of hope, resiliency springs forth and all things suddenly become possible. The tendency to band together for mutual benefit was stated eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr. as “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Anyway, the point is that humans grapple with the concept of nothing and don’t always do it very well. How does our inability to deal with nothing play out in organizations?
It is quite clear that when there is a lack of information or opaqueness on a topic, say a change in leadership, a reorganization, an acquisition or a downsizing, etc. that people will fill in the missing information for themselves. And in the absence of actual information, people are quite willing to just make things up. In fact they can’t help it, we are programmed to fill in the blanks, not to leave things at zero or at nothing. And what they make up is generally more negative, often much more negative than reality.
As you can imagined, and as we have all recently experienced, people are more than willing to use this human foible to achieve their own ends. When James Comey of the FBI publically announced that a new email investigation was underway on Hillary Clinton, and then provided no details, people, especially swing voters began to fill in the missing details for themselves. And just like in other organizations the stuff they made up was much worse than reality. It is human nature. You would expect that someone in Mr. Comey’s position would know that would happen.
Are we all really that different? A friend of mine in India, Shuba, sent me a link to an advertisement on Danish TV. The ad showed a large group of people who are segregated into separate boxes drawn out on a large floor. They were placed into these different boxes by certain characteristics. The educated go into a certain box. People struggling to get by went into another box. Wealthy people into another box. People with somewhat scary characteristics went into another and so on. They all stood there in their separate boxes looking at each other somewhat distrustfully. Then the moderator enters and said he was going to ask them some questions. Some of which may be somewhat personal, but he would appreciate it if they answered honestly, and if the question applied to you, to walk together into the middle of the room. The first question, “Who in this room was the class clown?” The second question, “Who in this room are stepparents?” As people from all the different and separate boxes come together they realize that they have more in common than they thought. What is the underlying commonality here? Their humanity and the normal things that happen in each and every one of our lives that make us all human. It was a very powerful message and can be seen here: https://www.onedayonly.co.za/blog/?post=this-danish-tv-ad-is-literally-the-best-weve-ever-seen-300.
You see, here is the bottom line, if we want to search for differences those differences can be found. If we want to look for the things that we all have in common, we will find that as well. The choice is ours. If we approach life as a win/loss equation, that in order for one person to win, somewhat else has to lose we will constantly be at each other’s throats. If we approach life as a win/win, all parties can find mutual benefit. Will we let people drive us apart? Using the fears that we all harbor to achieve power and position for themselves? Or will we celebrate what we all have in common together? Our Humanity. Celebrating our humanity together is a path to common prosperity. From nothing we can create something, together.
This weekend has ended up being one of great turmoil for our nation. Our new president has signed a series of executive orders and has imposed other rules which are very questionable from a legal, moral, and scientific standpoint.
Gag orders have been imposed on organizations like the EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency, charged with protecting our environment not only for ourselves, but for future generations, the CDC – The Centers for Disease Control, The National Park Service as well as a host of others. What this gag order does is prevent the dissemination of peer reviewed scientific research without vetting from the White House on its political implications. This strikes at the very foundations of the scientific process and at a cornerstone of what has made this nation a leader in research and innovation, but it also begins the process of degrading the notion of data sanctity. Over the years I have had conversations with some clients who wanted me to present results in a certain “light”, whether it is one that was more favorable to them or one that made a specific point. At one client I was fired by the board after I would not create a story that was critical of the CEO (they wanted to get rid of him) – a story that the data did not support. I will not violate the sanctity of our data at any time. This attempt to undermine the scientific process has the potential to do great harm to the nation and to our futures and I will join other researchers and scientists as we resist this attempt. The nation’s Park Rangers, have begun an information dissemination program that is independent of the government and pushing out facts on climate change. See for instance: https://qz.com/894622/its-no-surprise-the-national-park-service-is-defying-trump-it-is-deathly-serious-about-climate-change/. I expect many other efforts to provide unvarnished scientific truth to emerge.
The new president also issued an executive order barring refugees and other immigrants from certain Muslim nations. The second part of what has made America great, beyond our science has been the flow of immigrants that has powered many of our most innovative organizations over the years. Who among us can go back more than a few generations and not find immigrants in our ancestry? We are a nation of immigrants and that, unquestionably, has made us stronger. Many technology companies, have already expressed alarm at this order. Google has recalled any employees traveling on business, telling them to return to the USA. Microsoft, Apple, & Facebook have expressed their opposition to the order. Many others have voiced similar concerns.
As some of you may know, my daughter was accepted at MIT. She is scheduled to start there this fall. There are a number of her high school peers from other nations who will now be banned from entering the country to attend MIT with her. She is in communication with them. They are distraught as they see lifelong dreams and their futures going up in smoke because of pandering to a political base. MIT is trying to figure out how to get these kids here so they can study, but right now the door is closed. This order is affecting real people in disastrous ways.
And of course the science behind a ban like this in an attempt to prevent terrorism is non-existent. And those of us who have worked in selection know how weak this approach, painting a class of people with a broad brush, really is. Not to mention that punishing a class of people for the actions of a few is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention and a religious test is a direct violation of the constitution.
I have signed an academic petition (based on my teaching in the MBA program at Binghamton University) in opposition to this order, along with thousands of other academics, including some of the most accomplished in the world. I am proud to be able to add my name to the list. https://notoimmigrationban.com/. Last night in support of the efforts to resist this order I also joined the ACLU – the American Civil Liberties Union, who are challenging it in court. They also won a short-term victory, getting a stay issued for those people who were being held at the nation’s airports, preventing them from being deported. There is of course much more that needs to be done.
In terms of how this new president’s approach of wall building will affect us, I wrote a blog piece describing how it will imperil innovation at companies and in the nation in general. Read it here: https://jeffreysaltzman.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/the-big-lie-walls-and-innovation/.
For those of you, within OV, who feel personal uncertainty, for yourself or for family, please know that we will support you and help you through this turbulent time.