confirmation bias

Being Wrong About Being Right

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 15 Comments

Looking at the mirrorGo ahead. Do it!

After today you may ask me everything about the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and the early onset of puberty.

I promise you one thing: it will make me cry like a baby.

Normally, I don’t concern myself with gonadotripin-releasing hormones stimulating steroid secretion. But as a voice-over, people send me the strangest scripts with the weirdest words. My job is to sound like these words are my bread and my butter, even though I prefer to have other things for breakfast.

Just to give you an idea of my voice-over diet so far:

On Monday I was telling the world about how “metabolic programming” can change the genetic expression of young farm animals. On Tuesday I pretended to be the monotonous Swiss CEO of a company refurbishing projectile weaving machines. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the art of selling on eBay in Germany.

But today… today was all about the regulation of the reproductive system in kids with central precocious puberty, and a discovery I made about myself. Don’t worry. I won’t take you back to my childhood in the Netherlands, where naughty boys are forced to stick their fingers in dikes, while eating insane amounts of cheese.

This story is about a medical script, and how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing that we actually know what we are doing. Well, I cannot speak for you, but I’m usually pretty confident about my skills as a professional narrator.

After years and years in radio, I always thought of myself as a solid cold reader. You can throw any text at me, and I’ll sound as if I know what I am talking about. It’s a dangerous skill to have, by the way. It’s like wearing glasses. Somehow, people automatically assume that the bespectacled among us, must be more intelligent. Those who sound like they know what they’re talking about, are mistakenly put into the same category, until they’re exposed as professional pretenders.

The medical script in front of me, came with a page-long pronunciation guide. It was like learning another language. A language of affliction, clinical trials, and a cure. It was about one of those medications advertisers want you to ask your doctor about. Some kind of pill that takes ten seconds to describe, followed by thirty seconds of rapid-fire contraindications and sickening side-effects.

It took me a while to record the 5000-word script, and even longer to edit it. I like doing my own editing. My voice gets a rest, and my ears and eyes can do some quality control. After all the files were cleaned up, separated, and properly named, I uploaded my work feeling confident about what I had accomplished. I was sure the client would be just as impressed.

Two hours later I got an email from the guy who had proofed my audio. “Great work,” he said. Out of thousands of words, I had only mispronounced about a dozen. But here’s the kicker: I had mispronounced the same word twelve times!

Instead of “pituitary-gonadal axis,” I had read “pituary-gonadal axis.” At least I was consistent in my mistakes.

What struck me the most was this: even though I had prepared the script, read the script, and edited my audio, I had missed my slip of the tongue again and again and again. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t hear it. Why? Because something in me believed that “pituary” was right.

I saw what I wanted to see, and I heard what I wanted to hear.

It made me oblivious to my errors.

It reminded me of the copywriter who was ready to distribute a press release about a local public market to hundreds of news outlets. He had been working on it for hours, and gave it to me so I could take one last look at it.

I said to him: “Nice work, but I hope you’re not going to send it this way. Look at the headline.”

“What about it?” he asked defensively. “It says:

Public Market Attracts Thousands Of Young Visitors.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “Look closely.”

He still didn’t see it, so I told him:

“You forgot the letter “L” in the word “Public.”

“Oh my gosh,” he responded. “I have been staring at that headline for hours, and never even noticed it. Who wants to send their kids to a Pubic Market? How embarrassing!”

Well, that’s how I felt after my pituary debacle. It also had me thinking.

Have I become one of those people who lives life guided by conformation bias? You know, the idea that we’re always looking for evidence that supports our beliefs (and we’re conveniently ignoring the rest).

I really believed the word was “pituary,” and I didn’t even see that the word in the script was spelled differently.

What if I look at people that way? That’s pretty scary. They’ll never be able to be any better or different from whom I think they are…. until someone points something out I had never considered. It’s all a matter of perception.

Perceptions are powerful. And they can be so wrong.

Perceptions tell us more about the perceiver, than about what is being perceived.

This afternoon, instead of being done with my medical project, I had to revisit every file with the word “pituitary” in it, and correct my mistakes. It was a humbling, uncomfortable experience that took up way too much time. It taught me one other lesson.

Sometimes, something happens that makes us change our perception of who we think we are.

In those moments, it is time to have a word…

with the person staring back at us in the mirror.

And after some reflection, please tell that person:

Everything is perception, but perception isn’t everything.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet: Subscribe & Retweet


Our Own Worst Critic

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 3 Comments

WAKE UP YOU IDIOT!

You’re about to lose your business, your best mate and your girlfriend.

And you still don’t get it, do you?”

Gordon Ramsay was pulling out all the stops to talk some sense into the stubborn owner of the “Runaway Girl.”  The tapas bar in Sheffield was on the brink of collapse. In an effort to bring customers in, owner Justin Rowntree had sliced prices; served pre-cooked food out of plastic buckets and brought in live music. The result: runaway customers.

Instead of taking ownership, Justin refused to face the facts and dished out excuse after excuse. Unless he would start listening, his dream was doomed. But time was running out fast.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” on the BBC or FOX, scenes like these are a staple ingredient of every episode. It’s very easy to think of this show as another formulaic piece of mindless entertainment. However, there might be more to it than that, especially if you are not too happy with the current state of your business. How would you react if Gordon Ramsay gave you a firm kick in the pants? Would you take his words to heart, or would you fight him tooth and nail?

“I’m always surprised at the reluctance of failing business owners to listen to Ramsay’s advice. I’m sure much of it is in the TV production, but it still seems silly,” commented one of the viewers online, after watching this season’s premiere. Well, what do you think? Is it all silliness, or are we witnessing the results of arrogance, denial and an innate inaptitude to self-evaluate?

MIRROR, MIRROR

I talked about denial  in my first installment, and today I’ll turn to our ability to look into the mirror and objectively assess our own behavior. But, is that even possible? Can we be brutally honest with ourselves? Should we even trust our own judgment?

First of all, it’s not something we can easily shut off (unless we’re masters of meditation). We’re constantly making judgment calls. Our business has developed in such a way that voice-seekers aren’t willing to pay for a director or a sound-engineer anymore. Instead, we end up directing, recording and editing ourselves. Not everyone is good at that. I’m willing to go even further: most of us stink at it because we can’t objectively listen to our own performance.

Thanks to years of conditioning, you and I suffer from selective memory, selective hearing, selective eyesight and selective reasoning. This commonly leads to ‘confirmation bias,’ a tendency to validate and reinforce our personal prejudices, regardless of the evidence.

Studies have shown that, even if these beliefs are debunked, the discredited proof is filtered out as “irrelevant,” and we keep on clinging to our distorted version or reality. And if you strongly believe that this theory is utter hogwash, I have to thank you for proving my point.

FROM MY KITCHEN

A few weeks ago, I knew for sure that I had nailed an audition. There was nothing I could have done to make it any better. I proudly submitted my flawless demo, and I thought it was just a matter of time before the voice-seeker would call me saying: “You blew me away. No need to re-record it. We’ll use your MP3 as is. It’s brilliant.” Of course I never heard back from the producer, and I was convinced that he had made the biggest mistake of his career.

After the holidays I decided to listen to my masterpiece again, this time with fresh ears and a clear mind. You guessed it: this year, my ‘perfect’ audition didn’t sound so good after all. I should have known. There is a reason why writers don’t review their own books.

A DIFFERENT ANGLE

When I first started in television, I once got a call from a very angry cameraman. He had volunteered to climb to the top of a very tall tower to get ‘the perfect shot’ for a documentary we were working on. When he came down, he was perspiring profusely and it looked like he was about to collapse. “This is pure gold,” he said, catching his breath, as he proudly handed me the rushes.

Having watched the end result on TV, my camera guy was not amused. In fact, he was livid and demanded an explanation: “I climbed over 500 *** steps to get you a picture from that angle, and you decided to cut it out! Is that your way of thanking me?!”

When he had calmed down a bit, I said to him: “I really appreciate you climbing to the top to get those shots. But when we looked at the footage in the editing room, it just didn’t work and we decided to use a close-up instead. You and I both know how much it took for you to get those shots. Ultimately, the public doesn’t care how many steps you had to climb. All they’re interested in is the big picture.”

I believe that we are our own worst critics. Usually, we’re too involved and too invested in our own efforts to see and hear what others are seeing and hearing. That’s why every translator needs a proofreader; every athlete needs a coach and every cameraman needs an editor. These professionals shouldn’t have to worry about hurting our feelings or massaging our ego. With the odd exception, I believe it’s best that these pros are outsiders with inside expertise. That’s the only way they can have any leverage at all.

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…

Meanwhile, the days of the “Runaway Girl” seemed numbered, even though a knowledgeable outsider was brought in to save the business from going bust. Chef Gordon Ramsay had to overcome yet another obstacle that had nothing to do with the quality of the food, the location of the restaurant or the atmosphere inside. Once again, it all came back to the headstrong owner who suffered from “premature closure”.

Premature closure is a term sometimes associated with cognitive diagnostic medical errors. It’s a tendency to stop considering other possible diagnoses after a diagnosis is reached. The idea behind it is that humans solve problems by searching for an explanation that best fits, and then they stop searching. Coupled with confirmation bias, premature closure can be a fatal mix in any hospital or court room.

BLOCKING INPUT

In education, students who suffer from “premature closure” are commonly referred to as “know-it-alls”. They seem easily distracted; they rarely pay attention; their questions aren’t really questions but attempts to show-off how much they know about the subject. People who think they know better have no incentive to listen and learn. Justin Rowntree was their poster child. Ramsay appeared to be talking to a wall.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be well-informed. I am suggesting that it’s even better to keep the door open and to realize that there’s always more to discover. Albert Einstein put it this way: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” He also understood that knowledge in and of itself is useless unless applied in a sensible way.

CRISIS

There are at least two ways to break through these attitudes and patterns: the long road and a shortcut. The long road is based on the answer to the following question: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “In very small bites”.

In other words, change is created through a gradual process of small, manageable steps. Most therapies are based on that model.

However, the fastest way to bring about change is through a Significant Emotional Event. A crisis. For years, the staff at the “Runaway Girl” had told the owner that he needed to make major changes. But it wasn’t until Ramsay came in, that the desperate situation reached a boiling point and the pressure became unbearable.

Something had to give…

Paul Strikwerda © nethervoice

PS Next time, we’ll take a look at the importance of relationships. Are you a one-man band on an island, or are you part of a huge network of professionals? Could you and should you run your business all by yourself?