Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance


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“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” – Francis Bacon

Curses are another form of wishful or magical thinking, and though there are positive curses, most of the time they are thought of in a negative sense, in an attempt to bring harm to someone else or another organization. While most people use curses as a way to relieve pent up feelings of anger, maybe helping to prove wishful thinking’s health benefits, others will utilize curses believing that they will bring benefit to themselves while harming others. Since there seems to be a built-in tendency on the part of the human brain towards wishful thinking, and that human thought can alter events and even objects, it is no wonder that so many people actually believe in magical or wishful thinking and its power to affect events.

Appearing February 6th in the New York Times is a story about a small research lab at Princeton University. “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events… The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university’s engineering building since 1979…. But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time.” The history of wishful and magical thinking is long and is enticing to many of our fellows on this planet, especially in places where the basic tenets of science are not well established.

The very best curses (if there can be such a thing) in my opinion are those that make you stop and think about what they really mean. Three curses that fit that description and are linked together (their origin is a bit unclear) and in order of increasing severity are: May you live in interesting times, May you come to the attention of those in authority and May you find what you are looking for. Some curses are related to sporting events: The curse of the bambino is very well know, but recently annulled. There are many other curses perceived to be related to sports or to those participating in sports. One is that athletes appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated are likely to suffer setbacks in their careers or to become injured.

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.” (Skeptics Dictionary)

“Curses seem to have been a regular part of ancient cultures and may have been a way to frighten enemies and explain the apparent injustices of the world. There is no evidence that anyone has successfully invoked occult powers to do harm to others, but there is evidence that those who believe they have been cursed can be made miserable by exploiting that belief. Fear and the human tendency to confirmation bias and selective thinking can sometimes lead the believer to fulfill the curse.” (Wikipedia)

The power of the mind, while of dubious efficacy on external events has been demonstrated to have power over internal body processes – partly due to the power of positive thinking. The US Food and Drug Administration states that “Research has confirmed that a fake treatment, made from an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution, can have a “placebo effect”–that is, the sham medication can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. For a given medical condition, it’s not unusual for one-third of patients to feel better in response to treatment with placebo.” “Expectation is a powerful thing,” says Robert DeLap, M.D., head of one of the Food and Drug Administration’s Offices of Drug Evaluation. “The more you believe you’re going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit.” What about the power of positive expectations in organizational life? Are there benefits from that as well? From my experiences with various organizations I would have to respond affirmatively, though I can’t point to any definitive work proving that.

For someone who has a strong belief, a curse is in essence a negative Placebo effect. They expect something bad to happen and will begin looking for it. When something unfortunate happens, as it is likely to do in life, a ready explanation is available.  From an organizational standpoint and an interpersonal standpoint, I don’t think many of us would have to think very hard before we came across someone who we have crossed paths with or an organization, upon which we could lay a well deserved curse, the telephone company or the cable company somehow spring to mind. But in general organizations and most people are indifferent to such things.

The thing is, if you have organizations filled with people, and people have these natural tendencies, it becomes a very interesting thought experiment regarding how to maximize performance of the organization. Superstitious beliefs and the belief in wishful or magical thinking while not hard to find in places like the USA is even more predominant in the 3rd world, where large portions of the population may not be exposed to the common scientific rationales as to why things happen. I remember one organization in China I was working with that had to bring in an expatriate human resources manager, because the previous Chinese one, had died during a business meeting and this was viewed by potential replacements as an ominous sign and not one of them would take the position. 

Managements of organizations can have a tendency to assume that organizations are filled with logical rational beings and that their customers make decisions that way as well. However, some recent work seems to point in some other interesting directions. “The best decisions do not always derive from analytical reasoning, says Dr. Matthias Rosenberger, research associate at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at Chemnitz University of Technology. The fact that emotional and subconscious principles, that is, the gut feeling, significantly influence our decisions is verified by latest research findings in psychology. Intuitive decisions are more reliable and make us feel more comfortable.” But what are these gut feel decisions based upon?

Without mystery there is no freedom to choose. 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 19, 2009 at 3:42 pm

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  1. […] Confirmation bias […]

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