We often talk about the importance of getting “out of the box” to supposedly free ourselves of bias and be better at making informed decisions and capitalize on new opportunities. In reality, we often just barely ease ourselves out of the box and happily exist in the shadow cast by that box. There’s comfort and familiarity in our bias, perspective, and past experience – especially when they are reinforced by those around us.
Over the past several years I’ve worked to understand and confront my comfortable perspectives, and in many cases I’ve changed – even radically – both personally and professionally. Research has shown that being more openminded to other perspectives leads to many positive effects, including health and creativity.
A psychological study conducted by researchers Anna Antinori, Olivia L. Carter, and Luke D. Smillie revealed that open-minded people may live in a completely different reality. They found that openness and mood can affect how you visually perceive the world, which can affect creativity. Research shows that your personality traits (patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving) not only change your outlook on life but also change the way you perceive reality at work, and how you relate with family, friends, and romantic partners.
Language Shapes Thinking
Language has a major impact on how we see the world. Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky presented a TED Talk on how language shapes how we think, which included several interesting examples.
- At 2:30 she gives the example of an aboriginal tribe that doesn’t use terms like “left” and “right” but instead describes everything with cardinal directions. You have a pain in your “southwest foot” for example, which obviously changes as you move and converse with others. As part of “hello” when greeting, they also say “I’m heading south-southeast.” So we like to think that some animals have “magnetic sensors” that tell them direction – or are they just thinking (and therefore sensitive to) a different perspective on orientation? Another facet is that to this tribe, time is relative to the landscape, not to the person.
- At 7:50 she describes how many languages have gender tied to every noun, and the impact of different genderized nouns changes how speakers of that language think. For example, the word “bridge” is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. If asked to describe bridges, German-speakers typically use terms like “beautiful” and “elegant” while Spanish-speakers use terms such as “strong.”
Other examples include how some languages don’t have names for each number, categorize colors differently, and how the object of a sentence is different therefore “who is to blame” can be different.
What are you understanding when you’re reading? What are you conveying when writing? Language has impact on perspectives.
Information Bias and Depth
One impact of the Information Age has been the advent of multiple news sources. Typically those news outlets have two objectives: report the news and grow their audience to become financially sustainable. Those objectives inherently create bias and therefore confirmation bubbles as they begin to “report” on news that helps grow their specific audiences. An interesting website, All Sides, takes a stab at presenting the news from multiple biased sources, side by side, in an attempt to give the reader a full spectrum. It also categorizes over 800 news sources by their bias. I’ve long been a fan of both AP and BBC (especially as US-based sources provide less global news), but an alternative might be something like All Sides.
Information depth is arguably even more important than bias, as with depth data and analysis could counteract bias. I used to be a fan of The Wall Street Journal. The news articles (unlike the Opinion section) were and, according to All Sides, remains right in the center, fairly unbiased. But over the past few years I’ve noticed that the articles, information, and especially the analysis conveyed have become significantly more shallow.
A year ago I switched from The Wall Street Journal to the Financial Times as my primary source of business news. Although both are rated as unbiased, I’ve found FT articles to be far deeper, more analytical and nuanced, and more international in scope. An example is this article (open, non-paywalled) on excess deaths from COVID. The data is deep, the analysis thorough, graphics are meaningful, underlying data sources identified, and there’s even discussion on the problems with the data and analysis. Nothing in the WSJ comes anywhere close.
The point is that depth of information and analysis creates better understanding, which leads to better and more accurate perspectives. There may be a lot of fluff in most business books, but there are also important contextual nuggets that are missed by the short book summary services. Don’t get me started on Twitter…
Experiences – the Gemba of Information
We’ve all had experiences that shape how we perceive various aspects of life and the information that surrounds them. Experiences are what converts information into actionable reality – which is why at Gemba Academy we tell our customers that watching a video isn’t learning, taking a quiz isn’t even real learning, but demonstrating that new knowledge through applying it to a real project can be (but not always!). We go to the gemba to experience and understand what is really happening.
In our professional realms we learn from working with our customers and seeing our products and services through their eyes. We learn from working alongside more experienced colleagues, networking with industry experts, and seeing new concepts in action. Those interactions and that reality changes how we understand and perceive what was just information.
On the personal side, living overseas and travel to many countries has changed my perspective on many topics, and helped me understand how others can perceive the same information or even experiences very differently. I’ve also learned a lot by dealing with close family and friends with mental illness. Knowing them, talking with them, and supporting them for many years has changed my perception and opinion from “buck up” (I’m ashamed I ever thought that way…) to being compassionate and understanding, to now being in awe of how they see the world completely differently than I do – sometimes even better or more realistic. It’s made me aware of the severe flaws in our healthcare system, the damage of stigma, and the incredible opportunity to society when it’s addressed effectively.
Similarly, I have a now-adult niece with severe learning disabilities. Over the last couple decades I’ve watched my in-laws advocate and support her, and the toll it took on them. My sister in-law has a great podcast that tries to help other special needs parents navigate those unique challenges while dealing with their own grief.
It takes a conscious effort, but working to expand perspectives and understanding has many benefits, professionally and personally. Consider the language and information content of others. Strive to remove bias and add depth. Seek out new experiences to improve understanding.