The Threat of Pigeons and Other Fundamentalists

You can train a pigeon to be superstitious by faking a cause-and-effect relationship. But what happens when your boss starts to think like a pigeon?

B.F. Skinner was right: You can make a pigeon superstitious. Just put it in a cage and arrange for food to appear at regular intervals. Whatever the pigeon happens to be doing just as the food arrives -- spinning around, bobbing its head, whatever -- it will keep doing, over and over again, in the hope that the dance caused the food to appear. The pigeon will assume a cause-and-effect relationship that doesn't really exist.

That's what a superstition is: a compulsion to take an action that has no influence on the desired outcome. Pigeons are superstitious, and I'm afraid that most of us are as well. There's plenty we do -- plenty we've always done -- that has nothing to do with what actually works. But once we've made up our minds, we're like pigeons. We don't want to change our behavior, regardless of how much data we see to support a new and better alternative. It's easier to be superstitious, easier to hope that the food will just slide out of the dispenser when we spin around and around.

We don't expect a pigeon to wise up and change its behavior. But what about your boss? Have you ever had a boss who said, "I've looked at all the best thinking on [insert issue here: factory expansion, layoffs, global warming, stem-cell research, foreign trade], and I'm going to change my mind; my old position was wrong, and this is what we should do instead"? Or is your boss, well, more like a pigeon?

I've got nothing against pigeons. The problem comes when superstitions belong to people in power -- when superstitions become the operating system for major companies and other important institutions.

People in power usually want to stay there. And one way they think they can do this is by enforcing rigid adherence to a set of principles that they believe are responsible for their organization's success. By requiring employees to abide by these superstitions -- better known as company policies -- rather than examining the facts, they build organizations that appear streamlined. In fact, they're doomed.

You can think of these managers as examples of the current crop of fundamentalists who are appearing all over the world -- including the world of business. These people are characterized, I believe, by two traits. First, they live according to a large body of superstitions. Second, they believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They believe that they have found the one and only truth, and they can't abide changing old rules in light of new data. Fundamentalists decide whether they like a new piece of information based on how it will affect their prior belief system, not based on whether it is actually true.

It's much easier to effect change if you don't have to overturn a superstition first. For example, nobody questioned the law of gravity. That's because there wasn't a competing theory of gravity (a superstition) built into the dominant social systems of the day. No one was threatened by gravity, so it was quickly accepted as fact. One of the reasons why email took off so fast was that it didn't try to replace the phone or the mailman. It was a third thing, something new. But finding a place to grow where there isn't already a prevailing superstition is hard.

When I meet someone who's willing to disregard an obvious truth just because it conflicts with his worldview, I wonder about his judgment. I wonder what other truths he's willing to ignore in order to preserve his superstitions. When such a person is in charge, I do more than worry. I think that we're obligated to start pointing out superstitions at work, in politics -- anywhere we find them. Superstitions are the final vestiges of prescientific mankind, and they make the workplace (and the world) a scary place.

The problem is that challenging someone's faith (when it's killing your organization) is a scary thing. Here's the useful insight: When we know what to call this aversion to rational change, it's much easier to deal with it. In a meeting, we can say, "Are we superstitious about closing this plant and hiring people to do software instead? Or is there an actual analysis that will help us decide?" We can sit down with a coworker or a client and talk not about what we irrationally believe, but about the facts that suggest that we should try doing things a different way.

My dream is that we'll discover our obligation to spot the fundamentalists and call them on it. Regardless of the organization -- nonprofit, factory work group, political party, it doesn't matter -- we now have no choice but to point out the difference between rational thought and pigeon-minded superstition.

Seth Godin (seth@sethgodin.com) is an author based outside New York. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003) is his latest book.

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