Noticing July 17, 2014

Building on the work of David Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and Cass Sustein (Nudge), and others, Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School discusses The Power of Noticing in a forthcoming book.

He starts with the Youtube video that we’ve all seen: You’re asked to count the number of dribbles in the 2-minute video, and you completely miss the guy in the monkey suit who crosses the screen. Focus is valuable, Bazerman agrees, but focus can make us miss relevant information. We might be gripped with “inattention blindness” or fall into the trap of “bounded awareness,” noticing only those factors that we expect to notice. We get locked into either-or framing of a choice, and fail to ask whether there’s a third, fourth, or tenth alternative. We accept the information we’re given without asking the questions we need to ask. As a result, we fail to get all the information we need to make good decisions.

Some of Bazerman’s most effective examples explore the causes of “motivational” blindness, willful blindness to unethical behavior: How did Jerry Sandusky get away with abusing boys for so long? Loyalty, fear, respect for authority paralyze us; or, better, the only move we can make it to look the other way. To notice, you have to be willing to disrupt and violate boundaries. It’s much safer not to notice, so we don’t.

The book is also enlightening on what Bazerman calls “predictable surprises.” NASA scientists had enough information to abort the Shuttle Challenger mission that ended with a tragic explosion. 9/11 should have been predictable: Officials knew that the WTC was a target, and in France a plot to ram a plane into the Eiffel Tower had been adverted some years before. Bazerman quotes several articles describing the dangerous conditions in New Orleans several years before Katrina. Some disasters are truly surprising; some come from preventable ignorance or inaction.

Bazerman’s book is not only descriptive, but an effort to turn the reader into a “first-class noticer.” He offers common-sensical advice: Get an outsider’s opinion; and, Pay attention to the architecture of incentives in your organization, so that you don’t inadvertently encourage poor performance.

Though Bazerman doesn’t claim anything so grand, The Power of Noticing is a detailed exploration of the epistemology of everyday life.

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