Do You Really Think for Yourself?

August 15, 2013

The question, “Do you really think for yourself?” isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. When a challenge or problem arises at work and you’re unsure of an answer, you probably rely on the judgment of others. But what if you know the answer to the problem? How likely are you to be swayed by other people’s opinions?

Countless studies illustrate we may indeed deny our own senses to conform with others. One old yet timeless experiment was designed by psychologist Solomon Asch. He asked participants to determine which of the three lines from the second image is the same length as the line in the image on the left.


While the answer is obviously C, his studies showed that people who would otherwise be certain of their convictions could be “manipulated” into questioning their beliefs. This was not done through coercion, peer pressure or even incentives. Nine experiment participants were shown the above image and were asked to call out which line on the right was the same length as the one on the left. This was done 12 times. Only one of the nine participants was actually being tested. The other eight were “plants” and were told to purposefully call out incorrect answers.

The result? Seventy-six percent of participants being tested denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B. And one-third of the time, across all the trials, the one who was actually being tested conformed to what the crowd thought.

In a nutshell, when people are in a group, individuals tend to provide similar responses, even if they believe something different. There are a variety of reasons for this, including fear of disapproval, self-consciousness and not wanting to stand out or be different.

Individuality and Group Think

We see this phenomenon take place in the world of innovation. It’s called “group think.” In group situations, it’s easier to fit in with the crowd than it is to take a strong stand for your own beliefs. And of course, in some cases, people really do subconsciously alter their opinions based on what a crowd believes. It’s harder than we anticipate to think independently.

This is why, when brainstorming (or using other forms of collaborative innovation), it’s often best for individuals to write down their own solutions before seeing what the group thinks. (The article Why Brainstorming is Stupid dives a little deeper into this idea.) But even outside the world of innovation, it’s useful to recognize this phenomenon.

The reality is, in many of our day-to-day situations, we already know the answer to our challenges but we just don’t want to admit it to ourselves. Should I get a business loan? Should I buy a new car? Should I end a difficult relationship? In these cases, we often seek advice from friends and colleagues first. Maybe we don’t trust our “gut.” Or maybe we want to find scapegoats to blame in case our decision turns out to be a bad one.

Lay Out All the Facts

A technique I use to help others make tough decisions is by flipping a coin. No, the coin flip does not determine your fate. Instead, you check how you “feel” the moment the result is revealed. Were you relieved or disappointed? This instantaneous response illustrates how you really feel at a subconscious level, and what you truly believe to be the right decision.

Although you want to be clear on your own beliefs, you need to avoid being overly dogmatic. Otherwise you might succumb to something called confirmation bias—the psychological phenomenon where we find evidence to support our beliefs, and ignore the information that refutes them. As a result, we often get attached to beliefs that may be irrational, preventing us from seeing what’s really in front of us.

The point of all this is that we are more susceptible to the influence of others than we might think. Get in touch with your beliefs. Don’t assume them to be true. But then again, don’t assume that others are right either. Use critical thinking. Ask why you believe what you believe. Groups can be quite influential at a subconscious level, causing us to change our minds without thinking.

I don’t believe there are bad decisions or good decisions. There are only consequences. When we understand this, it can help remove some of the pressure associated with trying to “get it right.”

This article originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum

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Expert Advice? Why You Should Be Skeptical

March 26, 2012

We are constantly bombarded by expert advice from advertisements, books, magazines, TV and the Internet. But how much of this information is actually true? From my experience, there is reason to believe that little of it is accurate. People (often unknowingly) make claims that are exaggerated or in some unfortunate cases, blatant lies.

I remember giving a presentation to a group of eager individuals who were either launching or advancing their speaking careers. During our 90-minute discussion, I provided dozens of tips and techniques for growing their business.

At the end of the evening, one attendee asked, “What is the most important tip?” I thought about this for a minute and replied, “I don’t know.”

Although this answer may sound like a cop out, it is in fact the truth. No one really knows what made them successful. More importantly, they have no idea how others can replicate their success. They may be able to look at a series of events that led to a particular outcome, but most likely the “most important tip” is something completely different than what is seen on the surface.

Several years ago, I attended a “book marketing” conference. It was led by a well-known author who sold millions (and millions) of books. His promise was to share the steps and tools that made him successful so that others could replicate and reap the same rewards. Over the years, thousands of people have tried his “formula,” and as far as I can tell, no one has come even close to his level of success. And those achieving some modicum of success mainly did so by leveraging this author’s name and network.

I am not implying that these experts are misleading or malicious. Not at all. The issue lies in our inability to find the correct correlations between cause and effect. Too many hidden factors play a major role—ones that we might never consider or notice.

Many experts use anecdotal evidence to support their conclusions: It worked for me and a few of my buddies, so it should work for you. This isn’t the most sound reasoning. Maybe the expert’s 10 Steps to Financial Wealth were not the true causes of their success. Maybe success was coincidental. Without more data, it is impossible to know. If 100 people tried the same 10 steps and each got the same results, then you might be able to claim a correlation. While there may be wisdom in anecdotal evidence, you shouldn’t blindly accept it as the truth.

There are many, harder to measure factors that often play a substantial role. Your attitude plays a larger part than you might think. Your Rolodex of contacts (for the younger readers, this is where the old-timers stored our addresses before computers) can be a huge factor in the equation. Being in the right place at the right time has launched many businesses, including Microsoft. Or sometimes, plain old dumb luck is the real cause.

So, how can you separate the accurate from the invalid? One way is to understand the difference between causality, correlation and coincidence.

I recall a study that claimed, “Individuals with greater wealth are happier.” Assuming that this statement is true, it is a correlation. Wealth and happiness are related. However, after reading this, some immediately jump to the conclusion that “money makes people happy.” This statement is causality suggesting that money is the cause of people’s happiness. According to this study though, this is not true. The research indicated that money did not make people happier. Happy people attracted more wealth into their lives. Money is correlated to happiness but is not the cause of happiness.

Beyond causality, correlation and coincidence, there is another factor: conditions. Just because something works for one company does not necessarily mean it will work for yours, even if there truly is a cause and effect relationship.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

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Help Me with the Math

December 7, 2008

Today’s topic is less about innovation and more about critical thinking.

I am in Florida in a timeshare I bought a couple of years ago through the Hilton Grand Vacations Club (HGVC). Although I bought it on impulse rather than logic, I have been taking full advantage of it and am glad I purchased it. Today, I had a chance to step back and reflect on my “investment.”

This morning I attended a sales pitch from the good people at HGVC. I currently own the lowest point allotment allowed, so they wanted me to increase the number of points I get each year.

For the bargain rate of $10,000 down, a $1,000 closing fee, and $500 a year (extra) in dues/taxes, I can get an additional 2,300 points per year.

I told the nice saleswoman that so far I have not been able to use the points I already get.

Her response was, “That doesn’t matter. For $69 a year, you can convert your unused HGVC points to Hilton Honors (HH) points, allowing you to stay in Hilton Hotels anywhere.” Each HGVC point is converted to 25 Hilton Honors points (2,300 HGVC points = 57,500 HH points). She continued to tell me that she converts half of the points she gets each year into Hilton Honors points, because it is such a good bargain.

I think that she and I have different definitions for the word “bargain.”  Here’s why…

I had a choice of parting gift for spending the hour in the sales pitch: either a restaurant voucher, a theme park discount coupon, or 20,000 Hilton Honors points.  Each are said to be worth $100.

If 20,000 HH points are worth $100, then 57,500 HH points are worth $285. Yet, the total cost to get these 57,500 is $569 per year (dues, taxes and conversion) PLUS the $11,000 down (buy-in and closing costs).

Call me crazy, but this does not sound like a bargain to me.

P.S. My gripe is only with the conversion to HH points and not the overall program.  My experience to date with HGVC has been quite positive.

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Relearning What You Know

November 14, 2008

The blog here has been quiet for a while. I was overseas for the past 2.5 weeks having a fantastic time. A handful of days in Lisbon (my favorite photo from my travels is pictured left). A week in England. And a few days in Oslo.

It was my first time to both Lisbon and Oslo. They are lovely cities.

And of course I always love visiting London. I lived there for four years. However, there is always something a bit disconcerting about being in the UK.

I have been driving a car in the states for nearly 30 years. I know how to drive. I drive well. And I don’t need to think about driving when I drive. It just comes naturally.

But when I am in the UK, that’s a totally different story.

The cars there have the steering wheel on the right-hand side. You drive on the left side of the road and pass on the right. Roundabouts (rotaries) go clock-wise. And for manual transmission cars, you shift with your left hand.

The task of driving a car in the UK is almost identical to driving a car in the US. But for me, the experiences are TOTALLY different.

I need to concentrate when I drive in the UK. When turning, I need to remember to go wide when turning right. I find it hard to judge the end of the car. While driving in South Africa last year, I came close to killing everyone in my car on several occasions.

It’s amazing how we can become very good at something. But when one thing is changed, we become incompetent.

Think about your job. Think about your life. What do you do well? What are you able to do without thinking, because it comes naturally?

Maybe these areas of your life and business represent blind spots. Places where there is an opportunity to grow and learn.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc, once said, “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect… connect experiences and synthesize new things. The reason creative people are able to do that is that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

If creative people think more about their experiences or have more experience, then it is possible that the more you are on autopilot, the less creative you are.

What are the routines in your life? What small, subtle pieces can you change to fundamentally change the experience?  Remember, you don’t need to change everything, just something that moves you from unconsciousness to consciousness. I still know 99% of the skills required to drive a car.  Only 1% needs to be changed to cause me to think.

Visit a country where you don’t know the language. Change an aspect of your job so that you need to be more present to your actions. Speak with people you normally avoid. Change one attribute of a routine.

Do you want your organization to be more innovative? If so, your people need to get more comfortable with change.  Start by introducing small changes. Every morning, write down one small change you want to introduce into your day. Have everyone on your team do the same thing. Make the changes small. They should take little or no time.  They should be easy enough so that people will actually incorporate into their day.

If everyone on your team starts to introduce small changes on a regular basis, they will get used to frequent small changes.  And then, infrequent large changes won’t seem like such a big deal.

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How Concerned Should You Be?

October 12, 2007

Imagine the following situation.

You go to your doctor for a physical examination.  You test positive for a spreadable, yet treatable virus-based disease. 

You discover that the testing is somewhat accurate.  If you have the disease, you will be diagnosed positive 75% of the time and negative 25% of the time.  If you don’t have the disease, you will be diagnosed as negative 75% of the time and positive 25% of the time. 

You also learn that 1% of the population has this disease.  That is, one in one hundred people have contracted this virus.

Given that you tested positive, what are the odds that you have the disease?  75%?  50%?  25%? How concerned should you really be? 

Interestingly, there is less than a 3% chance that you actually have the disease. 

Here’s how the math works. 

Imagine 10,000 people. 

100 people will have the disease (1%), of which 75 (75%) will accurately test positive.

9,900 will not have the disease (99%), of which 2,475 (25%) will falsely test positive.

Therefore, of 2,550 people (75+2475) who test positive, only 75 in fact have the disease.  75/2,550 = .0294 which is less than 3%.  The rest are false positives.

If this disease is totally treatable if diagnosed, I might be more concerned if I tested negative.  25 people who should be treated won’t be, and those individuals will continue to spread the disease.

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How to Tell Fact From Fraud

April 27, 2007

We are constantly bombarded by information from advertisements, books, magazines, TV and the internet.  But how much of this information is true?  From my experience, little of it is accurate.  People (often unknowingly) make claims that are exaggerated or blatant lies. 

How can you separate the accurate from the invalid?  One way is to understand the difference between causality, correlation, and coincidence. I alluded to these in previous entries and want to address them a bit more.

In a previous blog entry, I cited a study that claimed, “Individuals with greater wealth are happier.”  Assuming that this statement is true, it is a correlation.  Wealth and happiness are related.  Some people may think this implies that “Money makes people happier.”  This statement is a causality.  It suggests that money is the cause of why people are happier.  However, this is not true.  According to the study, happier people make more money, yet more money does not make people happier.  Money is correlated to happiness, but is not the cause of happiness.

In my blog entry, “Never Trust an Expert,” I discuss the concept of causality again.  Many experts use anecdotal information to make causality statements. “I followed these 10 steps and got the following results.”  However, without more data, this may just be a coincidence.  If 100 people tried the same 10 steps and each got the same results, then you might be able to claim a correlation.  Although there may be wisdom in anecdotal evidence, never accept it as the truth.

I am fascinated by the phenomenon known as “The Secret.”  The book and video are based on the “Law of Attraction (LOA).” Simple stated, the LOA is the belief that positive thoughts attract positive results and negative thoughts attract negative things.  This implies a causality: If you envision what you want, you will attract it.  However, the LOA is really a correlation (and it may be just a coincidence).  Visualization can help you get what you want, but it may not be the direct cause. The cause may be something else – like taking actions that are subconsciously aligned with your desires.  The difference between causality and correlation is subtle, yet important.  When stated as a causality, the LOA may lead you to believe that sitting in a corner and visualizing your success will manifest success. 

There is a lot of dubious advice out there.  Understanding the difference between causality, correlation, and coincidence can help you make more informed decisions.  Just because tall people’s pants are longer than mine does not mean I should buy longer pants if I want to grow a few inches…

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Skeptical About Skepticism

February 8, 2007

I recently went to a “skeptics” convention in Las Vegas. When I checked in, it looked like I was signing up for a Star Trek convention. There were some, well, interesting people. In total, there were 800 attendees discussing skepticism in all areas, from psychic abilities and conspiracy theorists to environmental concerns and biases of the media. There were some top notch presenters, including big names like Penn & Teller, Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame), Adam Savage (from the MythBusters). They were all great. There were radio personalities, scientists, professors, authors, paranormal debunkers, and so many more.

This was my first time to this event. The conversations (in the class and late night in the bar) were fascinating. No topics were taboo. And opinions were flying. What become apparent to me was that on the whole, the group could be described as “dogmatic atheist libertarians.” Some had moved from skepticism to cynicism, no longer remaining open to new perspectives. Although there were many parts of the conference that resonated with me (most in fact), I had some perspectives that ran contrary to the herd. I liked to tell people that I was “skeptical about skepticism.”

Skepticism is defined in the dictionary as: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism.

This feels awfully negative to me.

To me, skepticism should mean “critical thinking.” It implies remaining open to any possibility, while not accepting things at face value. It is about applying science and reasoning, recognizing the limitations of those disciplines. To do this, you must avoid both dogmatism and blind faith – two opposite ends of the spectrum. What is the difference between dogmatism, blind faith, and critical thinking?

If you are in a conversation with someone and you are dogmatic, you will immediately shoot down any perspective that is contrary to your own belief. Your knee-jerk response is, “No.” You go on the offensive and put the other person on the defensive. This does not help further the conversation.

Conversely, if you blindly accept what others say, your immediate response is “Yes.” You become a sheep following the herd. You don’t question the other person’s perspective. Again, this does not help further the conversation.

The critical thinker would ask, “Why?” “Why do you believe that to be true?” Try this with friends, colleagues and family. You will find it opens up a whole new level of conversation. This is where true learning and dialogue take place.

I encourage you to apply critical thinking to all areas of your life. This is an incredibly useful skill to learn, and one that few people practice. I believe that critical thinking combined with creativity, leadership, and social skills are the cornerstones of a successful and passionate “goal-free” life.

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The Power of the Mind…To Be Fooled

June 21, 2006

I am fascinated by the mind’s incredible power. And this power sometimes causes you miss things that are right in front of your nose. In the secret, “Remember that Opportunity Knocks Often, Just Sometimes Softly,” I talk about how the brain filters 99.9% of the stimuli around you. This is important because it allows you to focus. However, what you focus on expands, to the exclusion of all else. You see what you “want” to see, but miss everything else.

I love magic. Magic uses misdirection to get you to see what the magician wants you to see rather than what is really taking place. One form of magic that is particularly interesting is “cold reading.” This is the ability to perform seemingly paranormal (aka psychic) activities through conversational misdirection.

I am reading a great book on the topic by Ian Rowland. I first learned of his book from an article on (Be sure to read this article and then sign-up for the free Straight Dope newsletter. It’s great. I also subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine I highly recommend). According to the article, Ian “is an entertainer who claims no psychic ability. He has given TV demonstrations posing as a tarot reader, an astrologer, a clairvoyant, and a spirit medium. He scored just as many hits as the ‘genuine’ psychics even though he openly admits he isn’t psychic.”

I’m not discounting the possibility of people with psychic abilities. However, this article provides compelling evidence that our minds can be easily manipulated. People see what they want to see, and miss everything else. When you are blindly focused on your future goals, you often miss opportunities that are around you. You are unwittingly blinded and unknowingly misdirected.

When you are “present and conscious” of your immediate surroundings, you may find bigger and better opportunities.

I will be writing more about magic, mind-reading, and misdirection in the future.

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