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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for January 2014


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A friend recently sent me a video which illustrates some new experiments going on in an area called experimental philosophy. Like the well-publicized experiments in behavioral economics, the vignettes bring us to the conclusion that humans are not always rational creatures and that we often think in a contradictory fashion. The video shows two vignettes of a business manager who doesn’t care about the environment, all he cares about is maximizing profit. In the first vignette he states that he doesn’t care about the environment and takes action that causes environmental harm, while maximizing profit. He is then blamed by viewers of the vignette for causing intentional environmental harm. In the second he states that he doesn’t care about the environment then takes action which improves the environment, while maximizing profit, for which he gets no credit. In viewing the vignettes, I found myself drawn into the same judgments as the other viewers, you just can’t help it. Because he is only driven by maximizing profit, when the businessman states he doesn’t care about the environment and then causes harm, your brain readily ascribes intentional fault. But when the businessman states that he doesn’t care about the environment, only profit, and then does environmental good, your brain refuses to ascribe any credit. In this case the environmental effect is viewed as unintentional. You get blamed when you knowingly and uncaringly cause harm, but you do not get credit when you knowingly (but uncaringly) do good. There was no intentionality to do good, hence no credit is ascribed, even though good was done.

The kind of contradiction that this points to is the kind of contradiction that all humans are capable of making. It is part of our shared genetic heritage and it is how all of our brains are wired. For instance, if you ask an abortion opponent about science, it is quite easy to create the following situation. Paint a picture about a scientific investigation that has unequivocal findings supporting the abortion opponent’s point of view and they will state that abortion supporters should change their point of view due to the scientific research.  But if a scientific investigation unequivocally proves the fallacy of their position the abortion opponent will reject the science. They will accept the science only when it supports their previously held notions. Conservatives who form a higher proportion of abortion opponents (and paradoxically death penalty supporters) are not the only ones who fall into this cognitive trap.

Those who support the notion that we are in the middle of major climate change, which human behavior is significantly impacting, will often point to the reams of scientific evidence supporting that fact. Opponents, who state that humans are not altering the environment, will find the one or two outlier studies and hold them up as somehow equivalent to the preponderance of evidence, the thousands of studies that state otherwise. People who support implementing environmental regulation, who are often more liberal, scoff at the unscientific notions held by their opponents, stating that science should take precedence.

Yet, those same liberals may hold onto the notion that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), should be kept out of our food chain because of the harm they might do, that somehow they are unhealthy. Bending to this pressure, just this week the maker of Cheerios has announced that no GMOs will be used in the manufacture of its product.

There is no scientific evidence that GMOs have any detrimental effect on human beings. Humans have made modifying their food sources, modifications that require genetic changes, into an ongoing art form which we have been practicing for tens of thousands of years. In fact you would be very hard pressed to find any food what-so-ever that you put into your mouth that has not been genetically modified from its original state by humans over time. That natural organic turkey you just ate bears no resemblance to its wild ancestors, neither do the tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, apples, bread made from wheat, or anything else you might have eaten along with it. GMOs have the potential to deliver critical vitamins to poverty stricken areas, to cure or prevent disease and to create drought and disease resistant crops that could help billions on this planet who cannot take food for granted. So how can some scoff at climate change opponents for ignoring science, when they themselves ignore the science surrounding GMOs? We humans are very good at rationalizing and dealing with our mental contradictions.

Is it possible to teach people to think more rationally? Not to fall victim to their mental traps? The answer appears to be yes. By first learning about these mental traps, by studying them and their underpinnings, then practicing decision-making the research says that thinking patterns and decision-making can be improved.  But, stubbornly held onto notions are not going away any time soon.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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