Bias and the Complex Task of Changing Minds. (first in a two part series)
By Laurie Aznavoorian
Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of entering into a political debate with a person of the opposite party in today’s politically polarised world will appreciate the challenges of attempting to change a person’s beliefs, particularly when their mind is set. It is a conundrum so many of us are all too familiar with: whether we’re trying to nudge a crazy relative’s position at a holiday dinner or shifting mindsets in a professional setting. That the beliefs you’re hoping to alter are based on flawed logic, or even complete rubbish, rarely plays into the debate.
This is by no means a new phenomenon; man has contemplated epistemology: the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge, justification and the rationality of belief for a very long time. In 210a Plato defined knowledge as a ‘justified true belief’, in other words: if one’s belief is their knowledge, and they believe it to be true, it is justified.
In this discussion it’s important to appreciate knowledge and belief are two separate things. It’s easy to distinguish the difference; you can believe things that aren’t true, but you can’t know things that aren’t true. What causes us trouble is when reason enters the mix because reason is not always related to reality, and it has the power to override evidence. Imperfect reason is what causes the daft person to think their beliefs are actually the truth.
The fire is bellowed when beliefs becomes stronger than evidence, motivating a person to shut down and refuse to enter into debate. The implications are both significant and dangerous. In order for any of us to interpret reality correctly, we absolutely must be prepared to question our thoughts.
Designers face similar obstacles every day in discussions related to workplace transformation. Inevitably these lead down a path of exploring worker mobility and the need, or want to own space. The exchanges can become quite tiresome when they’re had with ‘know it all’ workplace deniers who reject the impact of change: new technologies, social expectations, economic pressures, evolved attitudes and ideas.
For deniers workplace design is simple. Provide a space for 200 people like the one they currently have, but instead of a blue carpet, bust out and innovative, go with orange. A more evolved, but equally shallow approach, comes from those willing to enter into debate only because they are itching to get into an ‘to ABW or not to ABW, that is the question’ skirmish.
During these exchanges it never seems to fail that an article proclaiming Activity Based Work as a colossal failure gets produced and waved in your face while the person spits and sputters anecdotes about living and working and how they’ve done both and know all there is to know. Even when presented with vast amounts of evidence to the contrary, data that tangibly demonstrates spaces are underutilised today and therefore a waste of money and energy, they adopt the disbelieving stare of a five year old who’s been told the tooth fairy isn’t real.
Such attitudes have an uncomfortable parallel with what is happening in politics, we’ve entered an unsettling time when facts no longer have authority and people believe what they want to believe. For some, their only motivation for conversing is to let you know you’re wrong. In the case of workplace, their message is unequivocal: take your activity based, well-being, brand communicating, and talent attracting workplaces and put them where the sun doesn’t shine.
Rather than debating ABW, or any other workplace, the focus of this conversation is impressions and how remarkably perseverant they are. It’s a phenomena that’s so rampant today that it’s been given a name, confirmation bias, which describes why people hang on to persistent beliefs that are not only false, but sometimes dangerous. The tendency for businesses to cling to information that supports their belief, while rejecting anything that doesn’t, is especially troublesome because it blinds organisations to new or underappreciated threats and halts innovation.