Don't Like the Message? Maybe It's the Messenger

22 May. 2012 | Comments (0)

We all like to think we can evaluate information and arguments rationally, regardless of where they come from. But we don't. As Yale Law School's Dan Kahan, who has studied this stuff a lot, puts it:

People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

When the information seems to be coming from or favoring the other side, all bets are off. Kahan again:

In a famous 1950s psychology experiment, researchers showed students from two Ivy League colleges a film of an American football game between their schools in which officials made a series of controversial decisions against one side. Asked to make their own assessments, students who attended the offending team's college reported seeing half as many illegal plays as did students from the opposing institution.

To which I can only add that, although I know nothing about the 1951 Dartmouth-Princeton game other than what I've read in the cited article, I'm confident that if anything the refs went far too easy on Dartmouth. I mean, those thugs gave Kazmaier a concussion! (Wow, how did you guess where I went to college?)

Kahan is most concerned about scientific issues (climate change, HPV vaccines) where he thinks group identities get in the way of reasoned discussion. But the same tendencies can be seen in pretty much any case where there are conflicting opinions — which ought to make them of interest to anybody in a management or other decision-making role.

This was brought home by an experiment I inadvertently unleashed last week. I wrote a post here at hbr.org on whether the Internet era has been a time of world-changing innovation or a relative disappointment. It was inspired by comments from author Neal Stephenson, who espoused the latter view in a Q&A at MIT. His words reminded me of similar arguments by economist Tyler Cowen (if I had enough brain cells to remember that Internet megainvestor Peter Thiel had been saying similar things, I would have included him, too). So I wrote a piece juxtaposing the Stephenson/Cowen view with the work of MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson, who has been amassing evidence that a digitization-fueled economic revolution is in fact beginning to happen.

If I had to place a bet in this intellectual race, it would be on Brynjolfsson. I've seen the Internet utterly transform my industry (the media), and I imagine there's lots more transforming to come. But I don't have any special knowledge on the topic, and I do think the burden of proof lies with those who argue that economic metamorphosis is upon us. So I wrote the piece in a tone that I thought was neutral, laced with a few sprinklings of show-me skepticism.

When the comments began to roll in on hbr.org, though, a good number of them took me to task for being a brain-dead, technology-hating Luddite. And why not? There's a long history of journalists at legacy media organizations writing boneheaded things about the Internets being an abomination and/or flash in the pan (one recent example being this screed by Harper's publisher John McArthur). Something about my word choices and my job title led some readers to lump me in with the forces of regression, and react accordingly.

When I saw that Wired.com had republished my post, I cringed. Surely the technoutopians there would tear the piece to nanoshreds. But they didn't. Most of the Wired.com commenters instead jumped straight into an outrage-free discussion of innovation past and present.

That's probably because, if there is one person in the world whom Wired.com readers consider a "knowledgeable member of their cultural community," it is Neal Stephenson. This is the man who described virtual reality before it was even virtual, after all. I'm guessing that Wired.com readers were conditioned by the sight of Neal Stephenson's name at the beginning of my post to consider his arguments with an open mind. Here at hbr.org, where we don't require readers to have read the entire Baroque Cycle before they are allowed to comment, Stephenson was just some guy saying things they disagreed with.

So think about that next time you hear an argument that you think is just the dumbest thing ever. Is it the argument that bothers you, or the group you think the arguer belongs to?

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 05/04/2012.

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  • About the Author: Justin Fox

    Justin Fox Justin Fox is editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group and author of The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street.…

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