As we think and talk, we slip into the mindset of different professions preachers, politicians and prosecutors. In each of these, we take on different identities.
Imagine you have a friend who is a financial advisor, and he recommends you invest in a high growth fund retirement fund. Now imagine you have another friend who is fairly knowledgable about investing, and he tells you that this fund is risky. What would you do? When Stephen Greenspan found himself in the exact position, he decided you weigh his sceptical friend’s warning against the data available to him. By that point, his sister had been investing in the fund for many years, and she was pleased with the results, and many of her friends had been too. Even though the returns weren’t anything extraordinary, they were consistently in the double digits. Greenspan’s financial advisor was enough of a believer that he, too, had invested some of his money in the fund. Armed with that information, Greenspan made a bold move; he invested a third of his retirement savings in the fund. Soon his portfolio grew by 25%, but then he lost it all overnight when the fund collapsed. It was the Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernie Madoff. Probably the biggest Ponzi scheme after Charles Ponzi himself.
We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy. We preach to others to protect and promote our ideals. We enter into prosecutor mode when we find flaws and irregularities in other people’s reasoning. We get into arguments and debates to win our case. And at last, we shift into politician’s mode when we want to persuade an audience. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we are right, prosecuting others who are wrong and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.
When Stephen Greenspan and his sister chose to invest with Bernie Madoff, it wasn’t that they relied only on one of their mental tools. All three modes together influenced their ill-fated decisions. When his sister told him about the money she and her friend had made through the fund, she was preaching about the fund’s legitimacy. Her confidence led Greenspan to prosecute the friend’s belief, who warned him against investing in the fund. He was in politician mode when he let his desire for approval sway him toward a YES. The financial advisor was a family friend whom he liked and wanted to please. Any of us could have fallen into those traps. Ironically, when he decided to go ahead with the investment, he was almost finished writing the book “Annals of Gullibility.” He might have approached the investment with a different set of tools. He would’ve analysed the fund more systematically instead of simply trusting the results. He could’ve experimented with the sum amount at the start and gradually built up his position over a long period before gambling so much of his life savings. That would have put him in the mode of a scientist.
If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental trade, and you’re constantly rethinking your own beliefs. You’re expected to doubt what you know, look for what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data. Being a scientist is not just a profession; it’s a frame of mind and a different mode of thinking from preaching, politicking, and prosecuting. We turn into scientist mode when we search for that truth; we run experiments, analyse data, and make decisions based on our findings.
Let’s look at another example that’ll help paint a clear picture of these models.
Decades before becoming a smartphone pioneer, Mike Lazaridis was recognised as a science protege. He made the local news for building a solar panel at the science fair in middle school and won an award for reading all the science books available at the local public library. When his teachers had broken TVs in high school, they’d call Mike to fix them. He built a computer and designed a better buzzer for high school teams in his spare time, which ended up paying for his first year of college. Just months before finishing his degree, Mike dropped out of college to create his company. Mike’s first success came when is patented a device that could read barcodes from Hollywood movies. This device was so useful that it won an Emmy and an Oscar for technical achievement. That was nothing compared to his next big invention, The flagship phone, making his firm the fastest-growing company on the planet. Mike Lazaridis dreamed up the idea for BlackBerry as the wireless communication device for sending and receiving emails. In the summer of 2009, it accounted for nearly half of the smartphone market. He was thinking like a scientist. Existing devices for wireless communication were too slow, or the keyboard was too small. He started thinking about ways to make typing more efficient. What if there was a single mailbox synchronised across devices. What if messages could be relayed on a server and only appear after they were decrypted.
As other companies took Blackberry’s lead, Mike would take their phone apart and study them. Nothing really impressed him until the summer of 2007, when he was stunned by the computing power of the first iPhone. He said, “They’ve put a Mac in this thing.” As iPhone rapidly grew in market share, Mike firmly held onto his belief that what made BlackBerry successful in past. That might have been the beginning of the end of BlackBerry. He was confident that people wanted a wireless device for only work emails and calls, not an entire computer in their pocket with apps, music and home entertainment.
In 1997, one of BlackBerry’s engineers wanted to add an internet browser, but Mike told him to focus only on email. A decade later, Mike was certain that a powerful internet browser would drain the battery and strain the bandwidth of the wireless network. At this point, he is preaching about what he believes and prosecuting his engineer’s beliefs. He didn’t employ his inner scientist in him. By 2008, the company was worth over $70 Billion. BlackBerry remained the company’s sole product, and it lacked a reliable internet browser. By 2010 when his colleagues pitched to include the encrypted text messages, Mike was open to the idea but expressed concern that allowing messages to be exchanged on competitor devices would render the BlackBerry obsolete. They later abandoned the pursuit of instant messaging. The missed opportunity that Whats app later captured for upwards of $19 Billion. As Brilliant as Mike was for rethinking the design of electronic devices, he wasn’t willing to rethink the market for his baby. By 2014 its market share had plummeted to less than 1%. When a company takes a nosedive like that, we can never pinpoint a single decision that led to its demise. His thinking may have led the spark to the smartphone revolution, but his struggle with rethinking ended up sucking the oxygen out of his company and virtually extinguishing his invention.
The smarter you are, the harder you fail. Mental horsepower doesn’t mean mental dexterity. You may be able to complete a mentally straining task, but that doesn’t mean you can do all or most of the mentally straining tasks. Math students may be better at analysing a large amount of data than the rest of us, but when the data focuses on an ideological issue, the students don’t do any better than the rest of us. Being a math wiz makes you more accurate in interpreting the data results AS LONG AS THEY SUPPORT YOUR BELIEFS. Yet if the data clashes with your belief system, your mathematical advantage is no longer an asset. It actually becomes a liability. The better you are at crunching numbers, the harder you fail to analyse the data that contradicts your belief.
In psychology, there are at least two biases that drive this pattern.
- Confirmation Bias — Seeing what we expect to see.
- Desirability Bias — Seeing what we want to see.
These Biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence; They can actually turn our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to PREACH our faith more deeply, PROSECUTE our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our POLITICAL party. The tragedy is that we are usually unaware of flaws in our thinking.
Credit: Think Again – Adam Grant
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