Thursday, July 14, 2011

Those Who Dismiss Research – A Neurological Perspective

I have a clearer understanding now of why some people resist or never seem to grasp why it is important to provide research or back-up for decisions which I learned to do early in my now-concluded four decades as a community/destination marketing executive.

In fact, after reading the 2008 book by neurologist Dr. Robert A. Burton entitled On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right When You’re Not, I understand now why some of these people always seemed to get so so annoyed and dismissive and even threatened by research. Capture

I always felt that my gut hunches and intuition were as strong or stronger than anyone else’s, as was my strength of what Burton calls the “feelings of knowing and correctness and conviction.”

But until Burton broke it down so clearly in his book, I didn’t realize that these and other thoughts are all really just as Burton writes, “just sensations subject to perceptual illusions and misperceptions.”

Stephen Jay Gould is quoted saying, “objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny.”

Paying more attention to gut hunches and intuition according to Burton “doesn’t guarantee a higher degree of accuracy.”  He continues, “we have no mechanism for establishing the accuracy of a line of reasoning until it has produced a testable idea.”

Maybe that’s why we always felt that we owed it to stakeholders to submit my decisions to “harsh scrutiny,” and underpin them with testing and research.  We also felt it was important to provide stakeholders not only with the decisions but the research upon when they were based both so they could see how and why the decisions were made but also understand the validation.

It was was later in my career that studies quantified that this approach to information-based decision making also provides a measurable advantage.

Dr. Burton’s explanation of what neurological research has learned has also helped me better understand the folks who long ago shut down or out-shouted what he describes as the subconscious screening committees meant to vet their thoughts based on past experiences and biological tendencies.

These are the people with little patience for discussions in meetings.  You know, the ones that always feel they have the correct and only answer.  Long ago they  closed their minds to their own subconscious screening committee let alone any they encounter in the conscious world.

These folks may have an addiction to what the book describes as a brain-reward system for “certainty over open-mindedness.” They may be educated but only to what Burton calls “the thrust of being correct (or appearing correct) rather than acquiring a thoughtful awareness (and acceptance) of ambiguities, inconsistencies and underlying paradoxes.”

While many other people are energized by ideas, learning, unlearning and relearning, these folks remain as addicted to certainty as rats are in the experiment where electrodes are placed to stimulate pleasure and they will keep pressing the bar for more, forgoing food and water until they drop.

When these folks are confronted with the “cognitive dissonance” from new ideas and concepts, according to Burton, “instead of acknowledging an error in judgment or abandoning an opinion, they tend to develop a new attitude or belief that will justify retaining it.”

These two types of thinkers, those over reliant on unverified and untested gut instincts and those addicted to certainty often team up and fall victim to “confirmation bias” or the “motivated reasoning” revealed in a noted study led by Dr. Drew Westen.

Westen’s team of researchers subjected partisans for both 2004 presidential candidates to questioning during fMRIs.  The study revealed an almost total lack of activity in the part of the brain used for reasoning.

This may be why President Obama befuddles polarized partisans on both sides of the isle because he is willing to inform his opinions with new information and be open to good ideas regardless of the origin. He can see through the inconsistencies and underlying paradoxes of polarized arguments.

Maybe some people and factions distrust research and legitimate scholars and intellectual authorities because they or others they witness view it only as something obtained to confirm an existing bias just as adherents to some political ideologies alarmingly listen and watch only news outlets that will confirm their existing opinions while others including Independents consume news from a cross section of different outlets.

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