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Pluralistic Ignorance

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

How often have you heard something – and not questioned it, as you don’t want to appear stupid, foolish or ignorant?

Too often people accept what they are told and don’t question information. In educational environments this leads to a failure to learn. In business environments, it leads to bad decisions and bad strategy. Received wisdom becomes the operating principle rather than reality – especially when things have changed or are changing.

The reason people don’t question is that they don’t want to look foolish in front of peers, bosses or employees. Rather than highlight something that doesn’t make sense, they prefer to keep quiet so as not to appear stupid. The term for this is “pluralistic ignorance“. It is especially a problem in cultures where “losing face” is an issue. (I wrote about this almost two years ago -see  Competitive Intelligence & Culture). In such cultures, employees find it difficult to question superiors – there is almost a belief that superiors are in their position as they know more and are better.

Pluralistic Ignorance” is a phenomenon that prevents people questioning, when they fail to understand something or when they disagree with an issue, because they feel that they are the only ones not understanding or agreeing. It leads to “group-think” whereby a group of people fail to face up to their lack of knowledge or address false/inaccurate information because they don’t wish to appear foolish by questioning it.

In business it is important to emphasise communication and openness at all levels – and encourage questioning. This is especially key for effective competitive intelligence, but can be just as much a problem in CI as in other corporate areas if CI people aren’t looking out for it. For example, in CI there is the risk that a key piece of intelligence is missed because the person (perhaps a sales rep) doesn’t pass it on. They are sure that the CI team will already know this / that senior management is sure to know this – and so they don’t want to look stupid by passing it on.

The solution appears easy – build a corporate culture that rewards those who share information, even if it is already known. The difficulty is that such openness often contradicts other aspects of the corporation including hierarchical aspects – where one needs to address chains of command to pass on information. This leads to problems where the person at the bottom passes on information to their superior. This person then qualifies the information (exaggerating good news and softening bad news) when they pass it up – and by the time it reaches the actual decision-maker the information has been so transformed as to become meaningless and often false.

An example of how pluralistic ignorance works can be seen in this video of a college lecture. This brief (5 minute) video is the first in a course on behavioural economics. The lecturer, Dan Ariely of Duke University Business School (and TED speaker), is aware of the problem and halfway through this lecture shows how it works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9wHttUayMo

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Thinking Hats

August 7, 2007 1 comment
This entry has been prompted by a comment (critique) on Jon Lowder’s CI blog that I don’t publish very often. I could try and make excuses (work, laze, inability – delete whichever is not applicable). However I won’t – as I think the complaint is totally justified. In fact I tend to have spurts – and publish when I get ideas. I’d prefer to blog something that fulfilled the aims I have for this blog then just use it for a stream of consciousness – much of which would be just a way of me asserting my ego. So thank you Jon for the prompt to think!

First – a couple of comments on Jon’s blog – if you’ve not ever read it. He has some great tips which I firmly second. For example, recent blogs mention the uses of LinkedIn in CI. I’ve been a LinkedIn user for some time – and have found it invaluable as a source for potential contacts. I’ve also signed up with other networking groups although my network is smaller on these – Xing, Ecademy, etc. Also – don’t ignore Facebook and MySpace. A lot of companies have signed up for pages on these networking sites, and you never know who or what you might find that could help with a project.

Jon mentions a new LinkedIn feature – the ability to ask questions, and get answers from other users as a strength of the service. Potentially it could be – although I felt the answers given were poor. I think a better service for answering questions is the FreePint bar which has a circulation list of approaching 100,000 expert searchers who answer questions on a massive range of topics – many of which are relevant for competitive intelligence professionals. (As an example, recent posts have looked at international tax comparisons, media monitoring, Swiss, Austrian & German company shareholders and Russian export regulations).

In the example Jon highlighted, half the answers suggested HitWise. This is a great service, but I’m not sure that it is the right solution for the questioner, from the bank JP Morgan-Chase, who was looking for competitive intelligence vendors for paid search – asking Is CI effective in Search? None of the answers given took into account the questioner’s origins in financial services – or asked what he meant by his question about whether CI was effective in search.

What Hitwise offers is a service giving customers knowledge on how Internet users interact with web-sites – your own and your competitors. You can use it to compare how your site is performing against competitor sites – and if this is what was wanted, then Hitwise would be a good solution. However Hitwise’s strength is not really for B2B web-sites, as these will generally receive much less traffic than the consumer web-sites for which the Hitwise service is best aimed. If what was wanted were vendors who were experts at secondary Internet search then Hitwise would not be the correct solution – members of the Association of Independent Information professionals (www.aiip.org) would have been a better bet – as most are experts at searching the Internet and other databases, and many, including us at AWARE, specialise in competitive intelligence.

In fact, another interpretation of this question is completely different and takes into account both the nature of the questioner and medium where the question was posed. LinkedIn attracts a lot of recruiters and recruitment agencies, and is used by these for looking for candidates. Search is sometimes used in this context so the question could have related to this i.e. Is CI effective in Recruitment Searching? If this was what the questioner really wanted then none of the 8 responses was satisfactory.

This highlights a lesson for all competitive intelligence professionals – you need to know, for each research request:

  • who is actually asking the question (i.e. you are asked a question by your boss, but this is because his or her boss has asked them a question – are the two questions the same or has something been lost in the transmission?),
  • why are they asking it,
  • what are they really looking to achieve with the answer.
Only then can you really answer the question. It’s a question of putting on your thinking hat to get behind the, often, easy looking question.

In fact, if you really want to study a problem it’s not one thinking hat that should be used but six! This idea comes from the work of Edward de Bono – and should be a key element of all competitive intelligence analytical approaches. Essentially every problem for which a decision is required should be looked at in six ways:

  1. Neutral: focusing on the data available, knowledge gaps, past trends and extrapolations from historical data. Unfortunately this is where a lot of CI people stop in their analyses – and just present the neutral view. This is rarely the full answer that the decision maker needs.
  2. Self-opinionated / emotionally: how will your customer react to the response you are giving him or her? Does your work answer the question they’ve posed – not the surface question, but the underlying driver that led to the question? You need to use intuition and your emotional instincts to look at the problem with this approach. What are the emotions involved? How will people respond to your research when they’ve not been through the process or followed the reasoning you took to reach the answer?
  3. Judgmentally: what are the bad points or weaknesses in your work or the decision suggested? What could go wrong? Be cautious and risk-adverse. This approach lets you prepare for the worst and makes you think of alternative options and create contingency plans if things don’t work as expected.
  4. Positively: now look at the good points and the benefits that will result from any decision. Even if everything looks like a disaster, trying to see the positive can help find a way out of the mess. It can also help show the value in the decision – in a way that may not be immediately obvious.
  5. Creatively: brainstorm a bit. Try and think beyond the problem for alternative solutions or approaches. Don’t criticise any ideas – just go with the flow. This approach allows you to come up with further suggestions and ideas that could add increased value to what you are suggesting. More importantly they show that you’ve really considered all aspects of the problem.
  6. Take an overview of the other 5 approaches: this final approach looks at all the other five and evaluates the responses, synthesizing the responses into a single coherent, balanced position. If there are too few alternatives then it may be time to go back to the creative approach. If everything looks perfect, then be really judgmental and see if you can come up with anything wrong at all – just in case there is some gremlin that was missed. If everything looks bad, go back to the positive approach and look to see if there is anything salvageable.
Answering problems and coming to decisions using de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats technique will result in better solutions and safer, more resilient and robust decisions – avoiding potential disasters, while being able to feel more confident about the actions you commit to.
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