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047 – Blinded by beliefs

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 17, 2019
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

It’s too easy to let unconscious bias impact our decisions. Here are three stories you can share to encourage others and remind yourself to keep an open mind. 

Unicorn silhouette at sunset

In this week’s episode of Anecdotally Speaking, we’re mixing things up! Instead of sharing one story, we’re sharing three, each one illustrating the importance of keeping an open mind and an awareness of unconscious bias.

Shawn’s about to head off on a 5-week European holiday, so this will be his last episode for a few weeks! Instead, our newest team members, Paul Ichilcik and Mike Adams, will be joining Mark at the mic! Stay tuned!

For your storybank

Tags: assumptions, beliefs, bias, data storytelling

Before Marco Polo began his expedition to China, he received one last request from his sponsors, the princes and princess who were funding his journey.

“While you’re in China, can you capture a few unicorns? We’ve killed them all in Europe, but we’re sure there’s some in China,” they asked.

“Sure. I’ll do my best.” He told them.

Marco Polo couldn’t find any unicorns in China, but he did when passing through Indonesia.

They weren’t what he had imagined. They didn’t have long, majestic horns and beautiful white coats. Instead, they had short, stumpy horns and tough, leathery skin.

Marco Polo thought, “The unicorns are different in this part of the world,” but still took them home.

The unicorns were, in fact, rhinoceros.

 

In 1889, a group of archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a Viking warrior from the 10th century during a dig in Sweden. In the same grave, they found the skeletons of two horses and all the tools a Viking would carry, including a shield, swords, a knife, a spear, and a bow and arrows.

One of the archaeologists observed, “That looks like a woman’s skeleton,” but his team dismissed the comment. Female warriors were only a myth.

In the 1970s, an analysis of the same skeleton indicated that the bones were those of a woman.

The team who undertook the analysis nonetheless dismissed the results. There was, however, some speculation. Some thought the skeleton was that of a warrior’s wife. Perhaps she was buried with his things.

Then, in 2017, a DNA analysis of the same skeleton proved that the bones were those of a woman, and that she had been a warrior.

 

Shawn recently worked with a university’s data analysis group.

One of the questions he asked the group was, “Has there been a time that you’ve had trouble convincing decision-makers, even though you had the data?” They all nodded.

The team told Shawn about a flagship program that had performed exceedingly well for some time until it hit a decline.

When the analysts presented the data to the executives, they assumed it was incorrect.

It took the team six months to convince the executives to fix the problem.

Podcast transcript

Shawn: 

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi everyone, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And hi, everyone, I’m Mark Schenk. And before we get into the story for today, we’re just getting over the celebrations for our 15th birthday party.

Shawn: 

It was good fun.

Mark:  

It was huge. We had the party at the State Library of Victoria, had about 80 people there and it was a super night. Thanks to all of our friends, clients and families who turned up and helped make it such a fantastic night.

Shawn:

We were chatting today about those beliefs we can easily get stuck on. Umberto Eco once called them background books. They sit in the background and keep us thinking in one particular way and it’s hard for us to challenge those assumptions.

So, we thought we’d share a couple of stories that a leader could use to get that conversation going.

Mark:

Absolutely. We’re going to call this episode ‘blinded by beliefs’. It’s so easy for us to let our decision-making be affected by the way we see the world in a completely unconscious way, those unconscious biases that have such a big impact. And the first story; Sean you’re going to lead off.

Shawn:  

Marco Polo, as he was heading out to explore the world, heading over to China, and as he was getting ready to go, the people who were sponsoring his journey (princes and princesses of Italy) asked him to capture a couple of unicorns. ‘We know we’ve killed all the unicorns in Europe but perhaps in China you’ll find some’.

Marco agrees and goes off to China and of course couldn’t find any unicorns. But he happened to be passing through what is now Indonesia and he found a bunch of unicorns. He was very surprised but they weren’t exactly how he had imagined them; beautiful white coat, it was more of a tough, leathery, armour-like hide.

It had the horn on its nose but it was kind of stumpy. He figured out they just had different unicorns in this part of the world. It didn’t have the long white flowing tail either. So, he packed up a few and took them back—his unicorns.

Of course, today we know these weren’t unicorns, they were rhinoceroses.

Mark:  

But he was looking for a unicorn and by goodness, he found some.

Shawn:

Exactly. This is a classic example of background books embedded in everyone’s mind.

Mark:   

You think how many times in business we look at something and make a judgement about it very quickly and really it doesn’t matter whether we’re right or wrong; we’re blind to it, to the things that lead us to make that decision. This is why bringing to the surface all of those biases and assumptions is vital.

Shawn:   

Exactly. So you can imagine a leader wanting to set the scene about how important it is not to get too carried away with the consensus view and throw that story in. It’ll make people laugh a bit and at the same time make a very important point.

Mark: 

Absolutely and I can just picture someone in the 12th century when Marco Polo turns up and everyone goes ‘unicorn, unicorn’ and someone going ‘oh, rhinoceros’ and people just dismissing him out of hand like a crazy person.

Shawn:  

Yeah, what’s this rhinoceros talk?

Mark:  

And that’s an important lesson in business as well; that the consensus view, the prevailing wisdom is often wrong. In one of our recent episodes, we talked about the difficulty of overcoming the prevailing wisdom.  So the voice that initially sounds crazy, that goes against the group; that’s often the one you should listen to.

Shawn:  

‘Often’, I think is a little strong because I suspect that the wisdom of crowds (the other end of the spectrum) might suggest that consensus can actually lead you in the right direction. So, I reckon it’s somewhere in between where you just have to be mindful of the fact that when there’s a guy who is way out on the edge of the curve–like Money Ball, the Brad Pitt character saying we can just pick players based on their stats.

The common wisdom was it’s how they look, their swing style and things like that. These are all little examples you can have to get people thinking there’s another way of tackling it.

Mark:

Another way is to be aware of the extent to which people are invested in the status quo.

Shawn: 

Tell me another story.

Mark: 

In 1889, in an archaeological dig in Sweden, a 10th century warrior’s grave was found. Inside were the remains of a warrior and all the accoutrements of a professional soldier. This is a Viking professional soldier. There was a long sword, short sword, knife, shield, spear, bow and armour-piercing arrows. There were 2 horses buried in the grave; a stallion for charging into battle and a packhorse.

There were chess pieces (imagine Game of Thrones) these were what soldiers used to strategise battle tactics. At the time someone said it looks like a woman’s skeleton and this was dismissed out of hand—this is 1889.

In the 1970s, another group of scientists looked at the archaeological dig and did a bone (osteological) analysis and found strong evidence it was a woman. But of course, the experts were saying ‘no, you’ve got that wrong because the idea of a shield maiden or warrior was a myth’.

In 2017 a DNA analysis proved conclusively that it was a woman buried with all this stuff. But of course a whole bunch of people just completely dismissed that out of hand. They were saying things like she must have been buried with the soldier and his remains were removed before the archaeological dig. There was no evidence for this but that was their argument.

The other one was maybe she inherited that stuff from her husband who was the warrior and she was buried with his stuff. There was no domestic stuff in there at all. There’s no evidence to support this view. Yet, in spite of overwhelming evidence that this, in fact, was a Viking shield maiden people are still going ‘no, no’.

Shawn:  

Classic. I have a Viking fact for you. My dear friend, Peter Fox, in the U.K has just written a book called The Shadow of Fenrir. It’s the story of a young Viking fellow so check it out on Amazon.

Mark:

I’m going to check that because Fox is a great guy but also he’s a geek for history.

Shawn:

He knows his Viking history and this is the one he told me. We all know the Viking with horned helmet. It turns out that of all the archaeological digs there might only be one they’ve found with a horned helmet. The whole horned helmet thing happened long after the Vikings to demonise them, to tell stories that people would think poorly of the Vikings.

They were just here to rape and pillage.

Mark:

And burn down a few churches.

Shawn:

The thing that is interesting in both the Viking and the Marco Polo story is that there is an emotional bond to these ideas that we have. We know about the confirmation bias and the other psychological biases that keep us attached to these ideas that we have. But the funny thing is people in business say show us the data then we’ll have the truth.

Mark:  

And often when people say give us the data they’re looking for a way of saying ‘no’ to whatever you’re proposing because it’s not what they currently believe. And this brings us on to the next example we’re going to share.

Shawn:  

It’s a very recent one. I was talking to a group of university people early this week—a data analysis group. I asked if they’d had trouble convincing even with all the data the decision-makers. It was an immediate ‘yes’.

There was this flagship programme the executives were very proud of because it was kicking ass in all the right ways; hitting the student numbers, the quality, everything was fabulous. This had gone on for some time and it was doing very well. And they had presented some data which showed that the shine had worn off that programme.

Mark: 

So, it wasn’t as good as everyone made it out to be?

Shawn:    

It was in the beginning but over time it had worn away. It was now dipping down to a point where it wasn’t great. And they showed that to executives who had had so many benefits from this flagship programme and their view was the data was wrong.

Mark:

Give me the data. Oh no, I don’t like that data.

Shawn:

Exactly. It took them 6 months to get them to the point where they could pivot. That meant it was 6 months before they could fix the problems they were facing in the data. And because this data was lag data it really reflected something that was going on 12 months before that so you had this massive time period. You’re turning around a large ship so they lost that time. They eventually got there. Listening to the data analysts was interesting because they were this impartial, empirical group that influences decision-makers. Do you hear the contradiction there?

To influence decision-makers. They think they’re just going to throw out that data and that will immediately switch.

Mark:    

And it doesn’t work.

Shawn: 

And that’s why data storytelling has become such a big area.

Mark:   

And the confirmation bias where if you believe something we go to ridiculous lengths to reject something that isn’t in accord with the thing we already believe. Now, I want to go back to the Viking one because I think that’s a really important one. Think about the assumptions that are underpinning the belief that it could only have been a man.

And think about our attempts in business to achieve gender, pay or any sort of equality, the assumptions that are in the way of achieving that are enormous. That story highlights how difficult it is to change our behaviour, our beliefs and make better decisions.

Shawn:

And you can’t be overly rational in fixing these biases. For example, there’s a short film festival in Melbourne and for a long, long time they found that the directors were predominantly male—70/30.  These were all creative people who obviously believed in equality.

Mark:

I remember the story; it was bigger than that. It was almost no female representation.

Shawn:       

So, they did the basic things you do when you’re trying to fix those problems. First of all they removed all the names from the submissions. They made sure there was no imagery showing the producers and guess what? 50/50. Even though if you had asked these people would you like equality? Absolutely, we do everything we can to support equality. Yet, it’s so embedded, ingrained; it’s hard to pull out.

Mark:   

And we’re often blind to it. These people, over their wine, at dinner parties would have argued vehemently that they were not biased in any way, shape or form and yet their behaviour belies that because of beliefs, as Umberto Eco says, background books’ are driving so much of our behaviour.

So, in organisations, in leadership roles we have to be really aware of this and some of these examples might help raise awareness of some of the issues and maybe cause people to ask the question; is this something driving my behaviour?

And by the way, Shawn and I are not sitting here thinking we’re not susceptible to this, because we absolutely are, just like everybody. In fact, having this conversation is really good because it reminds me there are times when I have to step back and ask what’s driving this decision.

Shawn: 

Yeah absolutely. This is a bit different to our typical podcast episode where we just give you one story and pull it apart. We thought we’d give you a few stories so you can feel what it’s like when you’re using them in a conversation. Please provide feedback on whether you had the opportunity to use the Marco Polo or Viking burial stories because we love to hear how these things are actually used out in the wild. We’re surprised by the variety of ways that people do this so that would be great.

Mark:  

So, there are three different stories (actually more); Marco Polo, the Shield Maiden, and the data analysts. Those can all go into your story banks and if you find one of them particularly useful we’d love to hear that as well.

Shawn:   

O.K guys, I think that’s where we’ll wrap things up. Thanks very much for coming along to the journey today and we’ll see you next time where we’ll put together another episode where we’ll put stories to work. Thanks again. Bye for now.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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