When we are confronted with something new – whether it is something as concrete as a new haircut or something as abstract as a new idea – most of us believe that we can provide an objective response. We believe that we can evaluate something new and different based on its merits alone to determine if it is good or bad, worth pursuing or rejecting. However, both nature and nurture suggest otherwise.
Industrial designers know how to use the way human beings are wired to experience their surroundings to elicit reactions that are not based on the actual physical characteristics of what is encountered but on subtle environmental cues. Cabin design for business class air travel is a perfect example of how designers manipulate our all too human senses so that those who shell out the big bucks for luxury air travel feel they are getting what they pay for.
Alternating upholstery tones on the seats in a business class cabin creates “a pattern that causes the brain to register less than the entire expanse.”(1) The checkerboard effect prevents people from being able to perceive the whole. As a result, business class passengers entering the cabin do not become overwhelmed by a cascade of seats. Contrast that with the phenomenon of entering the economy or coach class cabin – the deflating vista of tightly packed row upon row of identical seats and the immediate claustrophobia it induces.
Designers use another trick in business class cabins with seats that open up to become fully flat beds to distort reality. While most passengers in these cabins sit facing forward, they sleep on a diagonal, “an innovation that makes it possible to create what looks like a first-class experience in a significantly smaller space.”(2) These passengers feel that they have more room than they do because every centimeter of space is designed to “de-crowd” their experience. How much space they actually have at their disposal is irrelevant. In fact, most of them would be shocked to learn how little it really is, even in luxury class.
If we were asked to describe the business class cabin compared to coach, we would most likely call it “roomy,” and “private.” In reality it is not particularly roomy or private. But we wouldn’t really be able to tell. Even if we were industrial designers ourselves and could appreciate how we were being manipulated, we would still be manipulated. It’s just the way we are made. It’s our nature.
Over the past decade or so, it’s become increasingly accepted in the business world that human nature affects our decisions and actions at work. We are wired to respond to risks in certain ways that are divorced from reality. We are likely to take action if there is a 90% chance of success but will avoid a 10% chance of failure like the plague. If asked to place an economic value on something that is completely outside of our expertise, we come up with numbers that are anchored to whatever numbers are floating around in our heads from our most recent experiences. We shut down disconfirming points of view under all sorts of pretexts – the person expressing them is not a team player or is simply obnoxious. Even if these observations are true, they serve to keep us from having to absorb unsettling information. Behavioral economics has emerged as a field of inquiry because traditional economic theory with its assumption of rational decision-making that is aimed at maximizing utility fails to explain the way in which people really seem to go about making economic decisions.
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that nurture, the lives we lead, profoundly shape how we evaluate new things, even in the world of work. I remember when I was first entering the work world, one of the big messages about how to conduct yourself was “leave your personal life at home.” “It’s just business” is still a catch phrase that is often used to explain away decisions that deeply impact others on not just a professional, but also a personal level. When I was younger, I struggled with an inability to completely inhabit this impersonal, highly rational business self. When I was upset, I would find myself crying in the women’s bathroom; quietly, of course, but crying nonetheless. This was NOT something that you were supposed to do in business. And perhaps it was because the way that men typically channel their frustrations – bluster and bravado – was considered businesslike, it wasn’t clear to me that no one was really leaving their true selves or their personal lives at home.
Recently reported research from a team of business school professors at Wharton and Temple University examined how the marital status of 1,500 CEOs affected the riskiness of their decisions and actions. The researchers looked at CEO decisions such as capital expenditures, innovation, R&D and acquisitions and used their company’s stock return volatility as a market-based measure of enterprise risk.
“…we find that there is a still sizable difference — about 10% greater investment [in risky activities] by firms led by single CEOs compared to firms run by CEOs who are married. And differences in stock return volatility are also quite substantial… Managerial decisions are affected by what is happening in those individual’s personal lives in ways that most of our views of business decision making do not account for.”(2)
Apparently nobody leaves his or her personal life at home – not even the CEO. How we live our lives affects the way we perceive and respond to our options. This happens without any conscious awareness on our part. However, we act as if this were not true. We act as if we are dispassionate decision-makers who respond to the new and different without bias. The evidence is mounting that this is a lie we tell ourselves to shut down the discomfort that we experience when confronted with something new and different. Instead of sitting in that discomfort with an understanding that both nature and nurture are doing their best to maintain the status quo, we react as quickly as possible to keep the new and different at bay. Perhaps we should take a page from the comedian Louis C.K. whose approach to developing material is all about unease.
”You’ve got to embrace discomfort. It’s the only way you can put yourself in situations where you can learn, and the only way you can keep your senses fresh once you’re there.”(3)
Nature and nurture could be our best friends when it comes to the new and different. But only if we can learn to resist the urge to get back to what feels safe and hang in there with discomfort long enough to have a shot at evaluating whatever it is that we haven’t experienced before on its merits.
(1) “Game of Thrones,” David Owen, The New Yorker, April 21, 2014
(2) “Risk and the Unmarried CEO,” sourced on 5/21/14 at: https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/risk-single-ceo/ based on “Marriage and Managers’ Attitudes to Risk,” Nikolai Roussanov and Pavel G. Savor.
(3) Quote sourced on 5/25/14 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/22/louis-ck-gq-cover-story-embracing-discomfort-photo_n_5191708.html