Thursday, December 29, 2011

- Mistaking Everyone Else's Motives




One of my big ideas that I don't hear from others very often, is the concept that we each think, that everyone else also 'thinks', just like we do. We all individually operate from the base assumption, that everyone else is operating with the same base assumptions that we are, and that their decision making follows the same processes that ours does.

As a result, highly analytical people always seem to believe that others are following an analytical decision making process, and then conclude that if someone disagrees with them, it can only be because they’re stupid. Highly sentimental people think everyone is deciding things based on sentiment, and if someone disagrees with them it must be because that person is an unfeeling monster. This maps onto our political choices fairly well. But that fact only highlights that the one thing we all have in common, is something which we all have absolutely wrong.

In truth, monitoring people's behavior tells you almost nothing about their motivations or decision making until you give up that particular bias. But the second you do, it's like turning on the light in an otherwise dark room. Suddenly what everyone is doing and why they're doing it, becomes instantly transparent. You see who they are, where they are in their life, and what they hope for the future as revealing tons about how they think and how they decide. And knowing that, you can form very solid conclusions about what they will likely decide in the future when faced with various choices.

I made that realization many years ago, and have since found a way to base not just a personal philosophy on it, but an entire business model as well. For the last 15 years virtually all I do, is monitor and examine the decision making behavior of people and the ways that it differs not just from my own, but from each other’s.

I’ve met people over the years that have transcended that ‘decision making assignment bias’, but they are very rare. Even the people who analyze group behavior don’t often do it. The key is that this isn’t a generalization; it’s a personal issue. This is a metric which can be applied accurately to individual people, and from there it can also be scaled up to group behavior as well. But there is almost no way to breach the ego’s defenses to make the realization from the opposite direction - going from groups down to individuals, and inevitably to the examination of your own personal biases.

I think the times when this is most easy to remember, is when you’re listening to news media gazing into the Petri-dish of Republican politics to talk about what’s motivating various conservative sub-groups. The news media is overwhelmingly liberal, so the things that motivate liberals are the things they attribute to various groups on the right.

Evangelicals don’t like Romney? It must be because of his religion. Libertarians don’t like Newt Gingrich? It must be because seeing photos of him with Nancy Pelosi changed their feelings. Tea Partiers don’t like Huntsman? It must be their racism and the fact that Huntsman worked for a Black President. I’ve listened to each of those theories being offered as an absolute certainty. But I’m equally certain that none of the people whose motivations are being examined would claim those as their primary one. It’s just the talking head assigning his or her personal decision making bias to others.

Being truly objective is tough for anyone even on a single issue. Being objective consistently is all but impossible. You can try, but it’s tough to succeed, even for the best of us. And since that’s so, I think it would be really great if the News Media would recognize that fact, and start behaving accordingly.

It would be too much to expect them to do the kind of self examination to transcend this particular bias. They aren’t nearly smart enough. But I for one would think it’s more then enough if they simply accept that the bias exists and that they aren’t immune from it. Do that, and I’d be willing to give them a pass on many more of their errors in attribution.

1 comment:

frithguild said...

This question of bias for me conjures the immage of the Allstate Mayhem guy in your car's blind spot - "Clear!"

At one time there may have been some in the journalism industry that truly strived to be objective. But when you get down to it, objectivity was just good marketing that differentiated the Pulitzer "brand" of news from Hearst. The press always grinds their ax and swings from beneath a cloak of "objectivity" because they would sell fewer papers, if their bias were open and admitted. Yellow press has far less of an impact that "objective" press. Conflict sells papers and objectivity creates more conflict because it creates more damage that must be refuted. So the ones who really believed in objectivity were just journalistic "useful idiots" in the circulation wars.

Almost anybody will tell you they believe or act in an objective way when they favor one politial course over another. But many know deep down they act on raw bias. You can sense it, as they smile when they tell you their "objective" reasons.

In reality, most are blind with resentment because of some sin against them, real or immagined. So the ends justify the means, as long as it rights a wrong. Thus the smile when the person thinks about their shot at changing the world into what they want. Opposing objective conclusions are nothing more than today's fleeting obstacle to be vaulted with your own brilliant "objectivity."

It seems that journalism holds out the most promise to a person that wants to change the world. So journalism has a built in Mr. Mayhem. The publication of a thought that promotes the right objective, and might change anything at all, is worth the risk of pulling back the carefully spun curtain of objectivity. Some things always fit into the their blind spot.

"Clear!"