This is a quote from an American comedian, taking the mickey out of imaginary Republicans complaining that reality itself is as biased as the liberal-elite media against Republican beliefs and actions. It is a joke about how people convinced they are right will react when presented with evidence that they are (literally) in fact wrong.
Both liberals, Republicans and every shade in between and beyond exhibit strong tribal loyalty to beliefs, rejecting evidence if it shows they are wrong, and seeking out evidence that they are (literally) in fact right. This is not just political trait but a human one called the Confirmation Bias. But like Paul Krugman says here, it is more apparent in Republicans than liberals.
“liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do.
Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right.
Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?” [Link]
Now I’m no expert on American politics, no really I’m not, and this blog isn’t about any of that, but I’ve noticed the same sort of thing in managing in the public sector, a lock-step rejection of evidence cos it doesn’t agree with what they think.
Reality is biased against normal ordinary command and control management.
This diagram above shows pretty much how people think. All people, even me and you. Course we’re not perfectly accurate in our thinking and mental models of the world.
The problem arises when we’re confronted with this. There’s Confirmation Bias that biases people towards looking for evidence that confirms their beliefs and rejects evidence that shows it ain’t necessarily so.
Now this is fine and usual and normal until this evolutionary quirk of the human brain meets modern management thinking…
The thing that gets a leader noticed is THEIR IMPORTANT THING. Could be anything. A new model the business should follow, a big expensive new IT system, a whole new reorganisation of everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s at the national level, like the Troubled Families initiative or locally, in your very own office reorganisation. The thing that matters is the actual thing being proposed. Not the effect that the thing itself is supposed to bring about. No, not that. Nobody can see that yet, not whilst it’s being done.
The IMPORTANT THING inevitably appears with a bang or a whimper and had some kind of an effect. A terrible effect or a brilliant effect, a tiny effect, or a big effect. Either way, out it goes.
Once it’s out there, if it’s some kind of national initiative, there’ll no doubt be performancey measurey people crawling all over it, monitoring it getting numbers from it to look at the effect it is creating.
Thing is, this isn’t REALLY what decision makers care about. Managers, leaders etc are recruited to do a thing, and they choose their IMPORTANT THING and do it. The important thing is the thing itself, it’s an article of faith.
The language shows this, in Big Speeches they often use the phrase “I am clear that…” or “let me be clear” which uses a rhetorical sleight of hand to suggest that anybody not agreeing with their IMPORTANT THING can’t see the clarity of it and therefore the problem is with them, not it.
For example in the speech that David Cameron used in announcing his Troubled Families programme, he used the phrase repeatedly, being extra clear for us Muggles.
Sadly, reality is biased. It is biased against things that aren’t reality. Heavily biased. No matter how clear things are to people, it doesn’t give a flying one.
So poor Dave and his Troubled Families, he spent £400m of everybody’s money on a payment by results Local Government ran scheme, that had “no significant impact” according to a big review of it. For half a billion pounds!
The report, which was published last night, found that families who were on the programme were no more likely to find jobs, stop claiming benefits or improve the school attendance of their children.
Reality really doesn’t give a stuff does it?
And the annoying thing is this will go on and on, because decision making in normal ordinary command and control environments is all about managers and leaders coming up with THE IMPORTANT THING, and poor old reality trailing along in its wake. No wonder reality is biased against managers and leaders, it feels neglected. It should be wined and dined, treated right.
How could you treat reality like it should?
Well I reckon this would be a start.
Don’t split up mental models of decision makers, their brave Nobel schemes split from the nerdy monitoring of reality. That Troubled Families programme, it relies on payment by results. If a Local Authority does”turnaround” a family, from being “troubled” to presumably “not-troubled” then they get money. Payment by results ALWAYS screws motives and methods.
Local Authorities were told the estimated number of troubled families within their area, according to some formula, and that they’d receive £4,000 per family turned around.
Not one local authority has needed to work with more than their indicative number in order to ‘turn around’ all of their families. In fact, many local authorities can demonstrate a 100% success rate not just in identifying and working with ‘troubled families’ but in turning them around. Manchester, for example have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around. [Link]
This isn’t a surprise if you know what happens if you give someone a financial incentive to meet a target. They will meet that target, regardless of how silly. This is reality being biased against targets and misapplied financial incentives.
Strange behaviour by individuals as a result of system rules is common, but cos reality is biased against decision makers, it isn’t the rules themselves that are to blame. The cause lies with faulty individuals.
Take Chuck Finley. Chuck is a VORACIOUS reader. He read 2,361 books in a 9 month period.
Sadly he doesn’t exist. He was invented by East Lake County library to take books out of the library that hadn’t been checked out in a while, to stop them being removed from the shelves and destroyed according to the rules of the system. This destruction of books meant that if someone, a real reader, wanted a book that had sadly been removed and destroyed, the library would have to repurchase a copy. Again.
So some enterprising librarians decided to save money by keeping unpopular books on a rotation through the imaginary Chuck Finley’s bookshelves. When this came to light, what happened? Were the rules of the system that created this odd behaviour changed, to avoid the wasteful creation of pretend readers and the hard work of keeping track of unpopular books and checking them out and back in again?
No, the librarians were sacked.
It appears that not only is reality biased against decision makers, but also decision makers are biased against reality.