Saturday, March 14, 2020

Why no one understands and what to do about it

These days, there are huge powers creating chaos. They are so huge that people cannot grasp how big they are, even when it’s carefully explained to them. It’s impossible to imagine how much power just a few people have.

How much is a billion dollars? A trillion? Just as an example, I’ve seen Jeff Bezos’ $116 billion illustrated this way: Take one grain of rice as a representation of $100,000, an amount any of us would love to earn in a year. At that scale, ten grains of rice would be a million dollars. One thousand grains = one-hundred million dollars. One-hundred thousand grains of rice would be ten billion dollars. Bezos has 11.6 times that much: 1,160,000 grains of rice at $100,000 each. There are about 29,000 grains of rice in a pound; so, Jeff Bezos has about 40 pounds of rice, each grain representing $100,000. I don’t blame Bezos.

Bezos is not the problem. The problem is that, because people don’t understand, none of my knowledge or experience matters. Nobody’s expertise matters. No credentials, or decades of research, or carefully cultivated credibility matters. Even the well-established facts don’t matter. All facts and researchers can all be dismissed in an instant with a sneer and a turn of the back. Because people don’t take time to think, and they especially don’t want to be reminded that they don’t think.
It’s much easier to wave a hand and blot out all facts. Shake the head and claim credible media sources report fake news.

People make a quick, shallow assessment of a situation, a person or a national issue – and then fill in the blanks to support their hipshot assessment. This is called Phase I judgment. Phase I judgment achieves only 33% accuracy, at best. But 95% of every story we tell ourselves is based on Phase I judgment.

Phase II judgment happens when someone starts questioning their first impression and starts digging for more accurate information in a search for the truth. But even when we take time for a second look and carefully dig out the facts, science has discovered that we can only achieve – at best – about 67% accuracy in our understanding of other people and situations, even after we’ve lived with a person for 40 years. (For a better understanding, of Phase I & II judgments, see No One Understands You and What to Do About It, by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Associate Professor of Motivation Science Center, Columbia Business School.)

But our understanding of each other is worse than that. Because we operate on Phase I judgment in 95% of our daily doings, and it is only 33% accurate, we just automatically fill in the rest of the story with information we picked up in a similar situation. We judge people and situations based on 67% fabricated information. We make up a story to explain things and to make ourselves comfortable that there is order in the universe … in the world … in the country.

Don’t get me wrong. Telling stories is an ancient survival skill. There is so much going on in the real world that we construct a vastly simplified mental model of the world. This mental model becomes second nature: An automatic, unconscious response to 95% of the day’s doings. The only time we wake up is when something doesn’t match our mental model. Then, we wake up for about five seconds. (Scientists measured it.) Most of the time, when we wake up, we only check to see if there is an immediate threat. Then, we go back to default mode, dismiss the new situation, and go back to unconscious autopilot. This all happens in about five seconds. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. And we miss it frequently.

Scientists call the process we use to build stories “motivated reasoning.” People get a feeling, make up a story to support that feeling, and then watch for facts to support their story. It’s a very human tendency that we apply to all kinds of facts about the environment, god, economic history, and current events. We make up stories about each other, and the story is only one-third accurate … at best. But we live by our stories. (See the book, The Truth About Denial, by Adrian Bardon, Professor at Wake Forest University.)

All of this is to say that, it behooves us to be constantly aware of our own fragility. To realize that we don’t really understand … ever. That others don’t understand us … ever. And with that realization, we need to try to enter Phase II judgment – to think twice, so we can begin to approach halfway understanding. Then we can be more patient, more tolerant, more curious about what’s really going on, and take time to listen carefully, ask questions, and maybe learn something. It could change the world.

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