Two of the most dangerous words in business

Complete the quiz below to test your familiarity with players in the retail market:

  • Sportsgirl is just like…
  • Bunnings is just like…
  • Zara is just like…

(Don’t skip this, because you will need your answer at the end of the post.)

The answers are… whatever you want, I won’t be able to convince you otherwise, and this post is about why I can’t.

Human being are innate pattern seekers. Our brains are wired to explain all the things we experience as quickly as possible because that best ensures our survival.

Is that brown shape in the grass a snake or stick?

The fastest way to do this is to map it to something we already know. Make one connection between the new experience and an existing, and your brain can file it away. As soon as you can say something is ‘just like’ that new thing is not new or dangerous anymore.

In the process we create stereotypes.

Some good: long, thin with uneven angles, not moving = stick.

Some bad: People who wear turbans/hijabs are evil.

Stereotypes save us a lot of time and mental energy and getting things wrong occasionally is a small price to pay for all the other times we got it right. Psychologists term this tendency to for people to favour information that confirms their preconceptions a  ‘confirmation bias’.

It works for us most of the time. Except when it doesn’t.

If that long, thin brown shape turns out to be a snake, the price is death and it is irrelevant that the previous thousand times you walked on that pat it was only a stick.

The effect of confirmation bias is to erase the new experience and to assimilate it into what we know, which creates a virtuous loop of self-fulfilling confirmations.

Eventually we only perceive that which confirms our preconceptions.

This in turn keeps drawing us to people, things and ideas which are already familiar with: we read the newspapers which share our views, the watch the movies we like, we mingle with people who are like us.

And even when it doesn’t quite fit, we ignore the bits that don’t and simply complete the picture we want to see. In the figure below you will see a square that does not exist, because you fill in the blanks to see what you want to see.

We do the same with ideas, experiences and interpretations of other people.

I am sure you have been on a holiday somewhere (Bali, France) and thought hat landscape looked ‘just like’ – Adelaide or wherever. And soon after you are thinking the bread tastes just like that deli back home and the coffee reminds you of that time you visited Melbourne… and you start wondering why you paid all that money.

The objective truth is that no two things/ experiences can be alike. When we say something is just like – we diminish the new experience and destroy what is unique for the sake of remaining in a comfort zone.

This is especially sad when we diminish people who are not like us to something that they are not, but suits our prejudice.

In the business world, we are prone to make this mistake too. Even if confirmation bias is potentially ‘fatal’ we continue to do it because that is just how we are wired.

Is there is a way to minimise the effects of confirmation bias in the workplace?

It takes a bit of work and re-training the brain, but there is. Whilst I can’t (and no one can) you can change how you process things, so consider the logic below:

When we match patterns, we match to things we know.

The easiest match is with the things we know best.

What do we know best?

Ourselves. Our environment. The familiar. Otherwise known as our comfort zone.

So the solution is simply to start training yourself to:

  • Do things outside your comfort zone.
  • Be conscious about seeking out differences rather than similarities.
  • Consciously take a different route.
  • Make an effort to catch yourself saying it is ‘just like’ and correct yourself.

Can you remember which retailer you said is ‘just like Sportsgirl’?

Now make an effort to now consider how those two are different. And there has to be at least one major (point of) difference, otherwise one of them won’t survive.

Then make that kind of thinking a habit.

That is how you discover new things, that is how you innovate and that is how you see opportunities; by focussing on differences and gaps, not on similarities.

I can speak from experience because I am a contrarian and I am acutely aware of the need for likability which precedes any relationship because I don’t always succeed in getting people to see past the contrariness. But what I miss out in warn and fuzzy relationships, I make up in edgy new experiences; and most of the time I consider that to be a fair trade.


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