Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘employee research

Knowing (Not)

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Two elderly gentlemen who were the best of friends were passing each other on the street. Allen calls over to Seymour and says, “Seymour, have a great day!” To which Seymour replies “Go to hell!” Allen says to Seymour, “What gives?” And Seymour replies, “If I had answered you politely, you would have asked me where I was going, and when I told you the name of the restaurant, you would have said “No, don’t go there, this other one is better”. We would have argued about the merits of various restaurants endlessly and eventually I would have told you to “Go to hell”. I am hungry and thought I would save us all some time.” (modified from Ausubel, 1948)

Filter bubbles is a term coined to describe a trend in internet search engines, one that some see as a new threat to our ability to receive and process information in an unbiased fashion. (Pariser, 2011) It used to be that when you searched the internet you got results that were wide open. Anything having to do with the topic you searched upon would theoretically turn up. Search on famine and you would find information on what is going on in impoverished countries as well as perhaps a new fashion trend called “famine dressing”. The search results were unedited, raw and covered whatever topics happened to match your search term.

This can be contrasted to newspaper reporting, at least at reputable papers, where an editor purposely searches out various aspects of a topic to present it from differing angles and points of view, including those the editor knows readers will disagree with or be uncomfortable with. The editor acts a filter on what news you see, and a good editor broadens your perspective rather than conforms to it.

Today internet search engines are becoming smarter. They are looking to make your searching more productive and to help you find the results you are seeking faster. In order to do that they can keep track of the kind of searches you undertake and the items you further review from your searching activity. Search on wood rot repair supplies and you will find that ads for companies that supply rot repair material will follow you around the web. Similarly, search on a type of shoe and those shoes will walk in your footsteps, following you as you maneuver the information resource the web represents. This is all well and good for ads for supplies, but a similar process hold true for other topics as well. If you search on political topics and delve into the more conservative “hits” you find, and then later on you search on another similar topic the conservative “hits” will be at the top of your results. Other points of view may not even show up on the list. This new kind of filtering, rather than broadening your perspective and knowledge about a topic, simply reinforces your current notions about a topic and could be seen as weakening the power of the internet to inform. In other words, the new internet surrounds you with information that simply conforms to your existing point of view.

This filter is fine for people who are seeking out confirmatory information for the beliefs they already have, which is a human tendency anyway, but for those  who are looking for new or differing points of view this filter poses a threat. Is it really a new threat though?

When this was first brought to my attention it reminded me of an incident that happened early in my career. I was asked to create a selection system for executive assistants. I did the job analysis and created a system that was validated against the performance levels of the current incumbents. I was then told that my multiple hurdle approach to selection for these positions was going to have one final hurdle. I asked what that was and was told that it was going to be political affiliation. You could only be an effective executive assistant if you were registered with a certain political party, I was told. As a young idealist I was aghast. Political affiliation did not show up on my list of bona fide occupational requirements. Not to mention that the information on political affiliation was supposed to be private and confidential. When I mentioned that I did not see the rationale and besides you could not ask about political affiliation, I was told that the final hurdle in the selection system would be handled by someone else and I should not worry about it. The rationale for this hurdle was that to promote harmonious relations in the executive suite it would be beneficial to have it full of people who all thought alike, and believed in the same things. I gave my notice at that company not too long after.

Executives, or at least their surrogates in HR, wanted to surround the most senior folks running the company with assistants who only thought like they did, believing in the same things as they did. Could it be that internet filtering is simply a new form of a process that has been going on for a very long time? And those who would prefer not to know new information will always find a way to support their already held beliefs and those who actually desire to search out new points of view and alternatives will also find a way?


© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

August 2, 2011 at 8:18 am

Psychic Wins Multi-Millions in Lottery

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Everyone and their brother is out there trying to make predictions regarding what will happen in 2011. Will the economy improve, will jobs finally begin to appear, will various wars and conflicts resolve themselves, will I get a promotion, will gasoline prices go up or down, what about the stock market, will Elvis put in an appearance, will I win the lottery, etc.?

“Psychic wins multi-millions in lottery.” I am quite certain I have never seen a headline like that. Have you? So if you were truly psychic would you waste your time doing card tricks in a lab, or spend time predicting another’s future on some side street in a second floor walkup shop or would you go for the gold, so to speak? Why waste time providing services to others if you could truly predict what was going to happen?

Why are hawkers of get rich quick schemes not getting rich on their own schemes, but are getting rich by getting others to buy into their schemes? Was P.T. Barnum right? If I could truly buy foreclosed houses and sell them for tremendous profit, why aren’t you doing that yourself rather than trying to convince me to give you my money for your secret to success?

If genius stock brokers are so good at making money, why do they need my money? Why is it not a full time job just managing all the gobs of money they are making for themselves?

I was doing work for a large Fortune 50 company. They had assembled a cross section of consulting firms to tackle an issue they wanted researched and resolved and I was invited to participate. One of the other consulting firms kept vigorously pressing their solution as the one that would resolve all of the client’s business issues, all they had to do was adopt it and pay them a lot of money. Success was guaranteed. The very large and extremely well known firm that was so strongly promoting their concepts was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. I had to ask, in as gentle way as I could, why weren’t they employing their own magical solution in order to save their own company. I mean if it was good enough for their clients why aren’t they taking their own medicine?

As a teaching assistant in grad school, I had a question posed to me about Nostradamus that has bothered me enough that 30 years later I still remember it. A freshman student asked me if I believed in the teachings of Nostradamus. I immediately responded in the negative without giving it much thought. I knew who Nostradamus was, but my tendency was to dismiss such nonsense out of hand – it was not something I wasted time upon. The student then followed up with “Have you ever read Nostradamus”? I had to answer that “No, I hadn’t.” (I also have not read Scooby Doo or Josie and the Pussycats). Then came the obvious next line – then how can you dismiss it?  I needed to have a more thoughtful reply rather than simply dismissing what to this student was a real belief. I am still kicking myself for not having a better reply handy with perhaps some facts and figures. The issue is that you can’t possibly have facts and figures at hand to reject every charlatan’s claim as there are simply too many charlatans with false claims out there. In order to deal with the flood of claims you need to develop your own heuristics that allow you to evaluate the claims one at a time in a logical fashion.

The bottom line though is that if these kinds of approaches did not work with at least some regularity with people and organizations they would no longer be used. The fact that they are not that hard to find in our day-to-day world means that they do in fact work often enough that the perpetrators of these solutions/hoaxes continue to use them.

There are a few factors that make us susceptible to these come-ons including a human’s tendency towards biases, such as confirmatory bias (accepting only information that confirms your existing beliefs and rejecting information that does not), the bandwagon effect (a desire to go along with the crowd, to fit in by believing what others believe). There is even a bias that you have, which makes you assume that you are less biased than others (well of course you don’t have that bias, only others), along with a host of others. There is also a human tendency to assume intelligent cause of an action. So that noise in the woods is more likely to be assumed to be a bear rather than just the wind, which has obvious survival benefits. And the human tendency to want to believe in higher powers, that someone at the top of the organization (no matter the size) knows what they are doing, can give the fortitude to persevere in the face of adversity. Of course each and every bias which developed because of its survival benefits also has a downside, and can make us susceptible to manipulation by others.

Any researcher, who regularly peers into datasets to read the evidence of what is contained within, must remain cognizant of the potential biasing and other factors that can cause misinterpretation of the evidence at hand. Any decision maker who understands the factors that can influence their decisions, is on a path towards making better decisions. And any person who can evaluate information coming at them from a evidence-based basis is more likely to steer clear of charlatans. Try this next time you walk into a psychic’s shop. When the proprietor asks you what they can do for you, ask them why they don’t already know.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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