How good are you at distinguishing fact from fiction? As I’ve written before, I think that is one of the two most important things anyone can learn in their professional (and personal) lives, with the ability to express your thinking clearly orally and in writing being the other. The folks over at The Pew Research Center studied whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it. The results aren’t particularly surprising but they also are a good reminder to any of us in business.
First, the results. I’m summarizing here but you really should read the entire study – it’s fascinating and gets to a lot of what’s going on in the country today:
The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion…Republicans and Democrats were more likely to classify both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed most to their side.
In other words, confirmation bias comes in quite a bit of the time. I raise this because I think it happens all the time in business as well. We receive data that doesn’t support the direction in which we’re taking the business but we reject it as biased. We get complaints from customers but dismiss them as opinion even when there are facts to support the customer’s unhappiness. It all comes back to what the study measured – many of us can’t distinguish fact from fiction.
We need to pay attention to the source of what we’re hearing. Does the data come from an unbiased, third party or is it an opinion? Is the person who is telling you something doing so based on first-hand experience or are they just repeating something they’ve heard elsewhere? Do multiple sources independently report the same information (not quoting one another, in other words) or are you basing a business decision on a single source? If you’ve spent any time in business, you know that even “trusted” sources – your analytics, your financial reports and others – can be manipulated. Always seek the unvarnished, fact-based truth and learn to ignore opinion unless it’s labeled as such. It’s hard to do that, but you’re up to the task, right?
I’m back from my mini-sabbatical. I think once the exhaustion wears off, my mental acuity, as well as my productivity, will be better than they were before I left. One thing that I can already feel, however, is that I’m refreshed. Let me explain why this might just be important to your business thinking.
It’s not so much the break from the daily grind although there is an awful lot to be said for that as well. It’s that my perspective has been recentered. My golf group consists of a dozen of us. We have folks from all over the country (including one guy who’s now living in Thailand). We work in different business sectors – lawyers, media folks, defense contractors, consultants, and others. We’re all senior people, and we have the complete spectrum of political views in the group. In short, we haven’t siloed ourselves into an echo chamber, where confirmation bias can run rampant. We have a few common interests (golf and good food among them) but from there, we’re very diverse.
How is this refreshing? I won’t speak for the other guys, but it forces me to listen to different points of view which come from a different experience set. Ask yourself how often you’re speaking only with people in your own company or your own business sector. That’s not a broad enough view, in my opinion. It’s scary once we get outside of our own group-think bubble (which can be as small as a department or as big as an industry) but it’s absolutely required of us if we’re going to continue to be effective. Sure – we read the newspaper and we watch the news and we probably have the news come to us via various social media. What’s even better is an extended person-to-person discussion, and that’s what I had over the last few days with the boys. It invigorates one’s brain and forces you to be certain of your facts, at least if the group is as smart and experienced as mine is.
So I’m back, with lots of energy and, hopefully, a few new thoughts stemming from my refreshed perspective. Stay tuned, won’t you please?
I played in the annual July 4 scramble golf tournament yesterday.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For you non-golfers out there, this is a team competition in which each member of the team hits a shot, the team selects the best one, and everyone then hits the next shot from that position. Once on the green, hopefully with more than one ball, the team chooses from which ball position to putt and everyone gives it a go from there. If the team is playing pretty well, there are often a few decisions to make. Do we forsake some distance for a better lie? Do we putt the shorter putt or the straighter one? Do we chip a ball that’s off the green but close to the hole or putt a ball that’s way on the other side of the green?
Your thinking is influenced by your particular abilities. I’d always rather putt than chip, and while distance isn’t usually a problem for me, it might be for the other members of the team who’d rather hit out of the rough if they can be 25 yards closer to the green. And of course, this raises a business point too.
There’s a good piece today in Lifehacker about how as part of beating back confirmation bias (the tendency to listen only to the data or opinions that confirm our own) we need to take the other person’s perspective – walk a mile in their shoes – as we consider their opinions. It works for research too – who funded it, what might the researcher’s biases be, etc. Most importantly, when we’re asking for advice, taking the person’s perspective along with the advice helps overcome the blindness confirmation bias can instill. This is a good article on that phenomenon.
The ability to get past your own beliefs in considering outside information is a key to being successful. It goes with the ability the synthesize and communicate your thinking effectively. We won the tournament yesterday so I’m very happy with how we communicated and thought as a group, even when my opinion was overruled. Even when our shots weren’t perfect, our thinking was awfully good. How’s yours?