by Kenneth Rudich
Each separate task prompted the brain to adopt a strategy that would reduce the ill-effects of the noise on your performance. In Part 1, it required looking at the whole of the word while ignoring the individual letters. Part 2 called for the exact opposite strategy — it was wiser to ignore the whole of the word and instead concentrate on one individual letter within each word.
As you may recall, the performance of each of these tasks involved the concept of selective attention – that is, when you focus your attention on one specific aspect of a task while ignoring all else about it.
Implications of Selective Attention
While these mind tricks – or mental gymnastics, if you will — can be helpful for processing information while trying to make a decision or perform a task, they can also be harmful, misleading or disruptive when used improperly or if left unchecked. Indeed, they can conspire with the noise to actually work against you. Here’s how.
If we think of selective attention as operating like a zoom lens, then we can more clearly understand its effect on our ability to perceive or apperceive information as part of the communications process.
When zoomed out to see the big picture, as was the case in part 1, the individual details, in this case the letters, tend to get lost. When zoomed in as in part 2, it becomes natural to lose sight of the big picture, in this case the word as a whole.
For most complex challenges or tasks, good decisions and top notch performance typically rely on an ability to grasp the relationship between the big picture and the details contained within. Understanding the big picture provides a context for properly processing the details. Think of it as constantly zooming in and zooming out to keep it all in proper perspective.
This is where the inclination to employ selective attention can cause trouble – especially when it happens automatically like in Part 1 (only zoomed out), or something kind of prompts it like in Part 2 (only zoomed in). Instead of staying attentive to the relationship between the big picture and the details, we sometimes submit to overly focusing on one or the other. As a result, key information gets lost or distorted. When this circumstance arises, it often precipitates bad judgment and poor performance.
Noise in Communications
Noise in the communications process often enables or abets this kind of circumstance. One such example is cognitive dissonance, as was briefly discussed in Part 2.
Another example is a concept known as groupthink. Groupthink occurs within groups of people who have an overriding desire to achieve consensus or harmony. It’s another adopted strategy for noise reduction, insofar as people typically ignore other ideas or different sides of an issue to avoid conflict within the group.
Groups that experience this phenomenon tend to be less creative and are unlikely to entertain other possibilities or consequences for their decisions. Social psychologist Irving Janis described it as leading to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” He proposed that groupthink was responsible for such fiascoes as the U.S. failing to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the ill-fated hostage rescue in Iran.
Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
Penn State Succumbed to Noise
In Part 4 of this series, we’re going to propose that these three communications concepts – selective attention, cognitive dissonance and groupthink – played a central role in creating the administrative debacle at Penn State University with Jerry Sandusky. We’ll dissect the timeline of what occurred as per the Freeh Report, and we’ll specifically point out how these concepts likely impacted the decision-making process along the way. We’ll also demonstrate how these concepts coincide with, and lend credence to, the main conclusions made in the Freeh Report.
But here’s the really important part of what we’ll be doing in Part 4. Insofar as the same thing can happen — and frequently does happen – with other groups or organizations, we’ll also discuss the steps that could have been taken at Penn State (and were in fact circumvented) to reduce the risk of being compromised by selective attention. These same steps can be applied to, and work well for, other groups and organizations too.