Sunday, February 21, 2010

One Bad Apple

Yesterday I heard about an open position at a place where I once worked. The person who was in the position hadn't impressed the committee that oversaw his work, and they had decided not to continue his contract. In addition, they decided that they were going to revise the position to favor people that had a different set of credentials from the individual with whom they were displeased. Even though it is likely to be much more effort, it seems to make more sense to revamp the position than to consider that they may have just done a less than adequate job in filling the position.

The human brain likes to put things in boxes. It loves to label partly because it can make extrapolations about other things with the same label. If a person behaves a certain way, then other people with similar characteristics will behave in a similar fashion. If a situation has a particular outcome, then other similar situations with have a similar outcome. It becomes a matter of prediction.

We can predict how someone will behave based on their skin tone or age or attire, and we can determine in advance whether we are going to like or respect someone based on our predictions. Except that we are often wrong about our predictions. When we assume what is going to happen without regard for the actual relevant data, we are likely to be surprised. When we assume how a person is going to behave based on arbitrary attributes, we sometimes overlook useful information.

Sometimes we draw conclusions about a person's trustworthiness, capability, drive, or intelligence based on the flimsiest of observations. Some dangerous issues go overlooked while our attention focuses on less critical matters, all because we act on superficial assumptions. Some people are hired for a position largely because of their alma mater, and yet it is inconceivable that everyone who graduates from a particular school will have the same level of capability. At the end of the day, we cannot completely trust all of the conclusions we draw from extrapolation.

An alternative might be to assess things more purposefully. Awareness that our minds are likely hurrying us along to a conclusion before we have taken in all of the relevant information can give us incentive to slow down and look at the truth of a situation or an individual more clearly. This requires a certain level of consciousness, of course. I wonder how often challenging circumstances can be traced back to a series of decisions and assumptions made by someone on autopilot. Or a whole group of sleepwalkers. I believe that what we create tomorrow will be built on the purposeful decisions we make today, about ourselves and about the people around us.

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