The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated that purchases of equipment by the military that feature new technology are delivered on time and on budget just 1% of the time.1
In 1964, the front page of The New York Times declared the detection of the afterglow of the big bang, finally settling the question of how the universe came to be. Or so you’d think. Even thirty years later, proponents of the “steady state” theory—the idea that the universe has always been around and didn’t start with a big bang—still believed in iterated versions of the steady state theory rather than the big bang.2
In the UK, half of the population believes in heaven, but only a quarter believes in hell.
The common thread that links each of these facts is this:
People reject evidence where it doesn’t support what they already believe to be true.
Your brain, the painter
Your brain is pretty clever. It doesn’t know everything and it knows that it doesn’t know everything, so it’s become incredibly efficient at painting a picture of yourself and the world that’s based on limited, incomplete and inaccurate data.
It does this without you even knowing what it’s up to, presenting your conscious mind with a complete picture of “how things are” and “who you are” that’s been composited together from different visual cues, memories, and emotions, then Photoshopped to add sunshine and a lens flare.
This mechanism helps you select, filter and even create evidence to support your own beliefs. It also inflates your own competence and feeds the belief that you’re in control and “right.”
Social psychologists call this motivated reasoning, and recent research using FMRI brain scans shows that when you make a logical, objective assessment of what’s in front of you, it is in fact anything but logical and objective.
When attempting to objectively process data that’s emotionally relevant (such as starting a business, creating a service or marketing yourself), your limbic system lights up and your brain automatically weaves in the things you want, dream, admire, crave, and desire.
When information enters your brain that favours those things you mark it with an A. “Looking good,” you say, patting yourself on the back.
And when information enters your brain that doesn’t favour the way you want to see yourself and the world, you mark it down to a D-. ”I’m not going to listen to that nonsense,” you say, congratulating yourself for being smart enough not to be duped.
Your choices are not so much based on fact and logic as they are centred on who think you are and what you really want.
Who’s calling the shots?
This automatic deception is normally one step ahead of you, having you do things you wouldn’t do if you knew the real cost.
It’s an in-built defence mechanism that purges the uncomfortable, painful or contradictory information that threatens your core beliefs, even if those same beliefs aren’t serving you well (such as a belief that you’re not good enough, not up to scratch or less than others, for example).
It can have you making a decision about your business based on your desire to fit in.
It can have you wasting your energy on something that your brain tells you will get you lifestyle you think you want, even if you don’t really want it.
It can have you investing time and money in a new project to gain the validation your brain craves.
Letting your brain automatically call the shots is what might ultimately kill your business.
Luckily, there are two antidotes to the unconscious biases created by motivated reasoning.
1. Rampant curiosity
It’s hard for assumptions about yourself and your business to remain unchallenged when you’re asking the right questions.
Ask questions about what’s fun, resonant, playful, daring, meaningful, silly, and important, and be willing to explore your own undiscovered country.
2. Deliberate awareness
Asking questions can open doors that give you valuable insights, but you can only step through those doors and hear those insights when you foster a deliberate awareness and ‘fess up to what you find.
Notice how you’re feeling when you’re making choices. Notice the thoughts in your head related to your circumstances, business offering, and value. Notice the thoughts you have about how you feel about what you’re doing.
Motivated reasoning will always have you dancing to the same ol’ tune; well-worn steps that hide the truth, constrain your growth, and ultimately limit your business.
So don’t let your brain make decisions on your behalf that you wouldn’t make while keenly awake and aware.
Wake up to it. Rampant curiosity. Deliberate awareness. That’s where your success lies in 2013 and beyond.
1. Ross Buehler, Dale Griffin and Michael Ross, “Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions”, in “Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement”, Cambridge University Press, 2002. Cambridge Books Online. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511808098.016
2. George Smoot and Keay Davidson, Wrinkles in Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe (Haper Perennial, 2007) 79-86.