Archives for posts with tag: language

Futures Rambling #101

In the book, The Enigma of Reason cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber help us understand the concept of bias using the analogy of a mouse who is bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats in the world. One can quickly see the inherent danger when the mouse becomes a kitty snack. On the world stage examples abound from the silly, e.g. Trump’s ‘birther debate’ to those with broader implications, such as denying climate change.

Sadly, to add to the list, we humans have another fault referred to as ‘myside bias’ clouding our reason. People are amazingly efficient at spotting weaknesses in another’s approach, but can be completely blind to their own. Sperber and Mercier suggests this occurs when the pace of change in the environment is too fast for natural selection to catch up. There are many examples, one is the dizzying speed that technology and digital interfaces have entering our environments, and the impact they have.

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, also cognitive scientists, put it another way. They say people are simply dumb and believe they know more than they actually do. Ignorance fuels bias. To make the point they suggest thinking about a toilet. It’s of course one thing to flush one and another to know how it actually operates.

As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding. This is particularly worrisome when people who think alike collect together and form dangerous communities of stupidity. One excellent example would be the Trump’s cabinet and their highly inexperienced advisors. Really, who knew selling handbags and shoes was transferable to running a nation, but has it kept Ivanka from the West Wing?

Humans are so flawed, even our own physiology sets us up for failure. We experience a rush of dopamine when our beliefs are reinforced by others. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that control the brain’s reward and pleasure center; consequently, thinking you’re right and sticking to your guns, even when you’re wrong, produces a rush of dopamine. We actually get high. It’s sick and warped in the same cruel way a dopamine rush from checking email is.

A final addition to the list of flaws is implicit bias. They are learned bias associated with various qualities or social categories such as race or gender. These are currently playing a critical role in America right now, think about the Black Lives Matter debate. Implicit bias are hard to correct because they’re based on rehearsed, or learned, neural connections in the brain. Unfortunately, our brains are very good at leaning, they are not very good at unlearning.

If we can’t rely on data, because no one believes in it anymore and logic and reason are prone to bias, might we perhaps we turn to intraception? This is the term psychologist use to describe those who process the world primarily through their feelings or emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barret, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, discusses this approach in her book How Emotions are Made. The long held belief that emotions are hard-wired in neurons in the brain is one she challenges, the status quo thinking is these neurons are automatically triggered when something happens to produce a specific emotional response.

Instead, she suggests emotions are more complex. For example a smile cannot provide clues to appreciate the nuances of a given emotion because there is more than one type of sadness, happiness or awe and emotions vary from culture to culture. She’s coined ‘the theory of constructed emotion’ which posits the brain relies on the past to construct the present. It predicts what to expect, and what actions to take, from sensory input based on experiences rather than hard wiring.

Thinking about this from your brains point of view it makes sense, it’s in your skull with no access to what causes the sensations it receives; it only has the effects. Given the plethora of human flaws outlined above what’s great about this is that Barret believes it is entirely possible to invest energy into cultivating new experiences that in time, if practiced, will become automated emotional responses.

Architects and designers can learn from this. If we know people’s immediate emotional response to change is ‘no way, no how, not doing that’ and we also know banging our heads against the wall trying to change beliefs hurts, we should stop talking and start creating experiences. It’s not complex, in fact the benefits of exposure to new things was introduced by the famous Dr. Suess in the legendary tome Green Eggs and Ham.

If all else fails there is always professional help to be sought. Extreme lost causes can be sent away for neuroscience-based coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy. Yes it’s a real thing. There are even programs to overcome implicit bias called Raciest Anonymous, naturally this concept was conceived of and is held in California (there’s an example of implicit bias in action). Finally, if the people you deal with are just plain stupid, perhaps suggest they immigrate to America. I hear there are still spots in the Trump administration up for grabs.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Futures Ramblings # 67

THE POWER OF WORDS 

Lance Armstrong told Oprah: “I looked up the definition of cheating and the definition is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe’. I did not view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” Well that is one creative interpretation of the word! Perhaps during Lance’s exploratory foray into the dictionary he should have continued on further to the letter D to investigate the meaning of delusional, or backtracked to B’s to peruse the definition of bully.

Back home in Australia the former NSW Resources Minister Ian Macdonald was called a crook at a corruption hearing investigating his granting coal exploration licenses to Labor Party mates. In exchange Macdonald luxuriated at their ski resort in Perisher. Words were exchanged at the hearing with Macdonald’s political career hanging on the description of “very confidential” versus “not entirely confidential”. The argument enraged the hearing commissioner so much he was forced to tell Macdonald to stop his shilly shally.

This all pales in comparison to the confusing answer US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton provided Senator Ron Johnson when he and others gave her a grilling regarding the death of four American diplomats in Bengazi. People thought she said:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

What she really said was “get off my back you ignorant republican ninny.” You would have known that if you heard her tone of voice and could speak American like me, one never forget their native language. That being said, it has been nearly a decade since I lived in the US and my ability to translate may be a bit rusty. The word ninny is quite easy to confuse with the slang word for male genitalia.

Words are powerful, inspiring and easily misinterpreted. One obvious reason is misuse, we often use the wrong words and sometimes people make up words like shilly shally or argie bargie, particularly if they’re in politics. Exacerbating the challenge is the evolution in the meaning of words over time. Compare the description of the phrase far out or sick with someone over 50 to that of a 19 year old.

The words we use in business have evolved as well; new buzzwords enter and depart the business lexicon reflecting the social trends and sentiments of the times.  Recently two articles came across my inbox highlighting this evolution. In the first the author suggests words to avoid, particularly when describing ourselves. They rightly point out word choice is critical and makes a first impression; therefore, to avoid being seen as a complete tosser they recommend removing the following words, listed with the author’s rational, from our vocabularies:

Innovative – if you are innovative don’t say it prove it.

World Class – who defines world class, if it is just you don’t use it.

Authority – if you have to say you are, then you aren’t.

Global Provider – only to be used by those selling goods and services worldwide.

Motivated – never take credit for things you are supposed to be, or supposed to do.

Creative – everyone uses this word to describe themselves, it has lost its impact.

Dynamic – it means vigorously active and forceful is that what you really are?

Guru – self proclamation means you are trying too hard to impress others.

Curator – libraries have them, tweeting things to people does not make you a curator.

Passionate – too over the top, use focus, concentration or specialisation instead.

Unique – you are unique, but your business probably isn’t.

Incredibly – if you must use over the top adjectives spare further modification

Serial entrepreneur – be proud if your just an entrepreneur

Strategist – most strategists are coaches, specialists or consultants. Do you make something new?

Collaborative – okay to use as long as you’re not really forcing others to do something they don’t want

Last week I went to a pitch along with several of my esteemed colleagues and we used most, if not all, of these words with the exception of serial entrepreneur and curator. We may have even used some twice. Perhaps it was a fluke that we were able to convince the potential client we were a world class organisation with global reach, comprised of motivated people who in their own right are gurus, clear authorities known for their creativity, innovation and unique dynamic passion.

The language we use and words we choose influences how we think, feel, act. This is the thesis of the second article “Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life”. In this missive we are told to eliminate the word YES and only use it when it reflects our true desire. Use the word WORK to describe our individual contribution rather than what we do from 9 to 5. Additional new meanings are defined for: boredom, anxiety, conflict, failure, success and procrastination.

Call me a cynic, but I have difficulty in seeing how redefining a conflict as an opportunity for vulnerability or success as a way of being, living, feeling and achieving that is defined by you could radically improve my life. That does not mean to imply choice of words isn’t important and potentially detrimental to one’s wellbeing. For instance using the word bomb at luggage screening in the airport, or saying just about anything about the Prophet Muhammad could be quite damaging.   

There are several words that really annoy me bantered around in the design world that I wish we could get rid of for once and all.

The first is guess. Not a bad word on its own but when used in the context of explaining a design or process to a client it is woefully inappropriate. The definition is to form an opinion of from little or no evidence. Telling your client you “guess” or “suppose” your solution is appropriate does little to instil confidence in our abilities to advise them. If the pilot on your next Qantas flight said “I guess we are going to Perth”, you would run not walk to Virgin.

The second word that aggravates me is aspiration. It’s meaning a strong desire to achieve something high or great in itself isn’t offensive, it is in fact quite uplifting. However, in the context of describing a workplace an individual’s desire, hopes and dreams regarding the workplace are too shallow  and in the land of rainbows and unicorns for me. A workplace needs to be described in a business context, what it needs to survive not what its occupants aspire to.  Once a foundation is set other more ethereal ideas, which are also important, can be incorporated. They are not a starting point.

Finally can we all stop saying actually, this adverb means in act or in fact. When we use the word it is generally in the right context, it is simply tragically overused. Many designers use the word actually with the same frequency in a sentence as a bogan using expletives. “The design is actually a reflection of the actual way we actually work today. We actually spend very little time at our desk and actually practice highly mobile working styles.” Seriously, we actually do that?

When I hear designers talk that way, I actually tune out and find myself actually making ticks on my notepad to actually keep count of how many l times the designer says actually. I guess that sound mean and I suppose it is actually highly unproductive, but I guess you could say I was doing research. I suppose my aspiration was to one day write a Futures Rambling on the topic.

 

Sources:

Haden, Jeff; Stop Using These 16 Terms to Describe Yourself; LinkedIn, January 17, 2013

Parker, Kathleen; Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of Benghazi; Washington Post, February 08, 2012

Rae, Amber; Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life; Fast Company; January 30, 2013

Salusinszky, Imre and Shanahan, Leo; Gloves Come Off at ICAC: Macdonald, You’re a Crook; The Australian; February 13, 2013