Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 29;   July 17, 2019:

Barriers to Accepting Truth: II

by

When we work to resolve differences of opinion at work, we often depend on informing each other of what we believe to be real facts. At times, to our surprise, our debate partners reject these offerings as untrue, even when they're confirmed authoritatively. Why? And what can we do about it?
Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc (1923 - 2008) was a Polish-born American social psychologist who is known for work on social and cognitive processes. He discovered and demonstrated experimentally the mere exposure effect. Because of this effect, repeated exposure to a given stimulus leads to a change of attitude about the stimulus. Photo credit ucsd.edu.

Some workplace discussions fail to converge because participants cannot agree that particular facts are indeed facts. This can happen even when the facts in question are objectively unquestionable: sales are increasing, or voluntary terminations spiked in Q2, or one of the technologies underlying some of our products is about to become obsolete. Debates about issues that aren't actually debatable are more harmful than merely wasting time. They can lead to the spread of misinformation on a scale that can prevent the organization from taking necessary steps that can avert organizational disaster.

In Part I of this exploration, we examined two barriers to accepting truth that are unfortunate, but which trace to cultural causes difficult to avoid. In this Part II, we sketch three additional barriers that trace to more individual frailties. And this leads to an important insight about persuasion in workplace debate.

We begin with sketches of three more barriers to accepting truth.

Boredom
For some people, in some life situations, energetic and passionate workplace debate provides welcome respite from intellectual boredom. They find irresistible the challenge of crafting arguments and chains of reasoning that are unexpected by their debate partners and which "win the day" for the side of the argument they're advocating.
The intellectually bored generally aren't evil people. Their behavior usually returns to more acceptable patterns if we can find something for them to do that's both constructive and sufficiently challenging intellectually. A contributing cause of this problem, perhaps, is the failure of the supervisor of the bored person to first notice the boredom and then to take steps to address it effectively.
Malevolence
Malevolence is the desire to cause harm. In the context of workplace debate, malevolence can take many forms. Examples include taking steps to prevent debate from reaching closure; intentionally offending one or more debate participants; preventing a particular participant from attaining a goal; or causing all participants to be late for lunch.
Straightforward Organizational power can bias our
judgment as we assess the
ideas or proposals of others
motives for malevolence can include compulsion, revenge for perceived wrongs, or a desire to sabotage a rival's efforts. But more subtle motives can also occur. For example, the perpetrator might be acting at the behest of a person not participating in the debate, in exchange for a favor that person might deliver — or might already have delivered — in another context.
Power bias
Organizational power can bias our judgment as we assess the ideas or proposals of others. People who possess organizational power can be reluctant to consider proposals that they believe might erode the power they do have; people who lack organizational power or who seek additional power can be reluctant to consider proposals that they believe might hinder their acquisition of power they don't have. So either way, power introduces a bias that can affect judgment and motivation.
If power bias presents a significant barrier to people accepting truth, offering more truth or different truth is unlikely to bring the discussion to closure. In such situations, the pursuit or retention of power is the fundamental issue. Addressing that issue, or any issues that might be causing people to focus on their organizational power, is likely a more fruitful approach.

Certainly there are dozens more factors that lead us to be reluctant to accept truth. Fear is probably among the more important. Fear causes us to stay with what is, instead of what could be better. Virginia Satir expressed this idea by saying that people tend to prefer the familiar to the comfortable. The phenomenon that familiarity enhances preference, sometimes called the mere exposure effect, has since been demonstrated experimentally [Fang 2007]. Perhaps the most persuasive evidence for the existence of a mere exposure effect is the choice by advertisers to present identical advertisements repeatedly in multiple media.

Participants in workplace debates can also exploit the mere exposure effect, but to do so, they might need to adopt a long view. To expect that presenting unfamiliar facts for the first time can be persuasive in the moment might be expecting too much. The mere exposure effect suggests that presenting those same facts or similar facts repeatedly over the course of several debates might be more likely to achieve the intended result. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Stupidity Attribution Error  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Fang 2007]
Xiang Fang, Surendra Singh, and Rohini Ahluwalia. "An Examination of Different Explanations for the Mere Exposure Effect," Journal of Consumer Research 34:1, 97-103, 2007. Available here. Back

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