An Inconvenient Belief…

19 Sep

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase

 I have just been listening to a boffin on a science program on the ABC. The scientist was talking about how they could work out long past climate activities in Queensland by looking at salt deposits in layers of ice in the Antarctic. Apparently, an El Nino effect causes increased rain in Queensland and in turn reduces salt in the air in the Antarctic and, hence, less salt being deposited on the surface of the ice. This is yet another example of the mind numbing complexity of phenomena that has long been described in complexity theory.

One of our many human foibles is that we like simple explanations for events. Humans are really good at inventing quite sophisticated mystical reasons for phenomena if an immediate physical cause cannot be identified. Even science has been guilty for rather simplistic linear thinking. And it is in explaining social phenomena that we take this short cuts taking in our data gathering, thinking and analysis to an extreme.

We are hard-wired to make quick assumptions based on limited data. And this makes sense from a biological and survival point of view. It saves on processing power and avoids the risk of overloading busy and somewhat limited iconic and short-term memory systems. We increase our chances of survival by not spending too much time focussed on one object and missing critical elements in the environment. You can see this working in a cocktail party where we will pick up a mention of our name on the other side of the room in a hubbub of noise while we are engaged in conversation with another group. Our perception systems are based on the ability to make wholes out of small amounts of data. When we look around a room we only take in a limited amount of information visually: our brain makes up the rest.

There is growing neurological evidence demonstrating that the way in which we make judgements and decisions is less rational than we like to think and is enormously complex. Decision-making is fraught precisely because of the way in which we draw on emotion and previous experience that generate preference, rather than examining the facts with any conviction. Stereotyping, racial bias, and misogyny are classic negative examples of this phenomenon. A convenient belief will trump facts any time.

Leaders are no less prone to these basic human traits. The different might be that the impact of poor judgements and decision-making might be greater than for others. Let me give a couple of examples. Our previous experience and preferences can affect our choice of leadership style that might be quite ineffective but we ignore what research might tell us about leadership effectiveness and carry on regardless. The same can be said for the way in which participative process is often ignored in organisations despite the fact that it leads to better outcomes. Leaders are great at locking onto a fad or a sharp talking consultant with a cookie-cutter solution to all problems. They eschew the evidence that demonstrates that all solutions need to be custom-made to acknowledge the hopeless complexity of nearly everything.

Leaders inevitably make judgements about people. Our personal preferences can make or ruin a career, and diminish or enhance team or organisational effectiveness. We can surround ourselves with people who make us feel comfortable or we can hire people who are innovative, challenge our beliefs and judgements, and who bring diversity to decision-making.

Effective leaders recognise the hopeless complexity of the social (and physical) world and the limitations of their brain that seeks simple explanations and quick solutions based on immediate perception. What they do is to use processes to try to counter this propensity. They do research, use participative process, and seek out naysayers and people who naturally challenge. They seek to recognise the emotional reasons for their decisions and judgements.

No easy task but better leadership.

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.Stewart blogs at


11 Responses to “An Inconvenient Belief…”

  1. Sam Jandwich September 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    I’ve always been fascinated by the way people who are very experienced in their field can make judgement calls based on very small amounts of information, and yet turn out to be right most of the time. From investigating this I’ve discovered that there’s unfortunately no way to achieve this level of “expertise” without doing the hard yards and studying/working in your field in depth, up to the point where you can intuit what’s going to happen with an acceptably high degree of certainty. In fact I think it was that dreadful Malcolm Gladwell who figured out that you need to put 10,000 hours into something to get to this level…

    But as far as “truth” vs “belief” goes, I think it could be said that the intuitive judgement/analytics of such an expert could be considered to be a sufficiently rigorous basis on which to base a belief… even though you may not agree with it. So when someone like Ian Plimer says “there’s no such thing as climate change”, or Helen Hughes says “we should stop funding Aboriginal programs” , or Cory Bernardi says “we can’t legalise gay marriage because it will cause people to look too favourably on their corgis”, it’s important to listen to them, and throw their ideas into the mix which determines what we believe – and here the effect of this is to cast a seed of doubt on our preferred belief and cause us to be eternally skeptical and flexible, and thus open to reconsidering our beliefs when presented with new information.

    I suppose this fits into the theme of arguments between conservative and progressive thinkers, which we continually see in the pages of Sheep. Perhaps the definition of a conservative is someone who is committed to a belief or way of thinking, because they imagine that in that belief they have found something approximating as closely as possible the “right way” (and in this sense I’ve always found it odd that “social conservatives” like MTR and Tony Abbot are considered “conservative”. In actual fact the most “conservative” people I’ve ever met are goths and BDSM aficionados, insofar as they eschew anything that doesn’t strictly conform to their world view on the way things should be…). It’s as if they have found some higher level of truth, which they know their tiny brains will never be able to attain, and so they use the teachings of this truth as the authority from which flows everything they say.

    Which I think is why they have so much trouble talking to “progressive” thinkers (and vice versa), who as above have a propensity for disloyalty in their beliefs, and for reassessing them when presented with any new information they come across. For a conservative, the truth is “out there”, whereas for a progressive, “the only truth is what I believe to be true, but what I believe to be true is that there is no truth, and in any case that’s liable to change at any time”. So for a conservative, a progressive’s argument is merely a “belief” whereas their own perspective is “factual”, whereas for a progressive, a conservative’s perspective is “limited, ignorant, fearful”, and their own is “the best we can possibly come up with given the information available”. It’s like they’re speaking two different, mutually unintelligible languages.

    What’s the answer? I would say ‘the only answer is the condition of their being no answer, so we might as well just keep going the way we always have. the meaning is in the process, rather than the content”.

    But them I’m just showing my colours then aren’t I??


    • doug quixote September 20, 2012 at 12:01 am #

      Abbott is only conservative socially, due I suppose to his cattlelick upbringing. The jesuitical strain allows him to adopt weather-vane views on just about anything else.

      As for MTR, she seems to be a chancer who sees the best way to advance her rather peculiar bacwa views is to insinuate herself into the feminist movement and to use feminist critiques as her ideological weapons; perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


    • Poirot September 20, 2012 at 8:59 am #

      Here’s an interesting article dealing with climate science and “belief” vs “evidence”.


  2. jo wiseman September 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Some interesting points there. I think perhaps it’s a first draft because some of it seems self-contradictory. I’m thinking of where you say we like simple explanations, then that we are really good at thinking up complex mystical explanations. But that’s really minor nitpicking.
    I disagree with your assignment of epistemological theories to the progressive and conservative camps. A third alternative, believing that the truth is out there while simultaneously being aware that our understanding of what some truths are might change at any moment, has long been a standard scientific viewpoint and one held by a large number of people on both sides of the progressive/conservative divide.


    • jo wiseman September 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      Excuse me. I just realised I should have addressed the second bit to Sam Jandwich not Dr Hase. Sorry but I read the two together for some silly reason.


  3. paul walter September 20, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    I think we must turn our attention to a more immanent danger. This is the moral cataclysm, scuse pun, described by Sen. Cory Bernardi, as to the pending outbreak of epidemic goat shagging, donkey “riding” and puppy love not to mention pussy-eating instigated through the offices of that modern day Moriarty, Prof Peter Singer.
    A plot hatched has been single-handedly unmasked by our intrepid hero and caped crusader, the steely Senator from SA.
    No one will ever be able to say that they love their pet or claim vice versa without looking sheepish; looked upon by those of sterner moral fibre with the greatest of opprobium, from this day forth.


    • doug quixote September 20, 2012 at 7:55 am #

      All too true, paul walter. One may pretend to consider a marriage to another human being whilst all the time lusting after the family pet.

      Where will it end? Is it speciesist?


  4. paul walter September 20, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    You want to remain true but there are these big cow-eyes gazing imploringly at you.
    But what of that bitch who forsook me for some german(?) shepherd up the road, bloody foreigners..


    • Hypocritophobe September 20, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      The Christians may well have started this furry adoration thing;
      All things bright and beautiful,
      all creatures great and small,
      all things wise and wonderful:
      the Lord God made them all.
      God gave us eyes to see them,
      and lips that we might tell
      how great is God Almighty,
      who has made all things well.



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