Affinity Bubbles Turn Simple Errors Into Mass Stupidity

I think I coined a phrase a couple of years ago: affinity bubbles. idiocydemotivator

(Image clipped from I love their stuff.)

Affinity bubbles are the cocoons we build to protect us from challenges to our beliefs. They’re confirmation bias on steroids. And search engines and social networks help us build them.

Sure, the sounds of our echo chambers can be as peaceful as a mother’s heartbeat to an infant. But what if you’re all wrong?

Realizing You’ve Been Wrong All Along Is Better Than Being Wrong And Denying It

Don Peppers is one of the smartest men alive because he actively challenges his own beliefs.

He recently reviewed a book that discusses the importance of accepting that you might be wrong. The book is Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz.

While there’s much to love about the book, I want to stress one point: you might be wrong. In fact, to some degree, you are wrong about some aspect of everything you believe.

That doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss all of our beliefs. It means we should challenge all of our beliefs. It also means that we can become better advocates for our causes if we spend more time reading and thinking outside of those causes. (I’ve blogged about this before. And here.)

Here’s How To Break Out Of Affinity And Strengthen Valid Beliefs

To break out of your affinity bubbles, do this exercise. (It won’t take long.)

1. Make a list of your 5 most important core beliefs that are absolutely, positively certain of.

2. For each of 5 unshakeable beliefs, spend 3 minutes contemplating this question: “What if this isn’t true?”  Think broadly about this. How would the world be different if that one core belief were wrong? What would you have to change about yourself?

3.  Find one intelligent blog, article, research paper, or book that challenges your belief and read it with an open mind.

4. If you find your belief is still valid, circle it in red.  If, however, you are less certain of your belief, keep reading about it.

Make this an annual exercise. It will keep your mind broadening.  And you’ll probably find yourself far more open to ideas beyond your affinity bubbles. The more frightening this exercise seems, the more you need to do it.

Please write about your experience in the comments. And help pop affinity bubbles.

This Blog Could Save a Life

When you hear the Tylenol case study, do you want to puke? spirit1Sure, it’s a great story of how a responsible company handles a crisis.  If you’ve never heard it, it goes like this:

People in Chicago were dying after taking Tylenol capsules.  Some hunk of human detritus had replaced the acetaminophen in the capsule with cyanide.  Poison.

So innocent people—young, old, didn’t matter—were dying.  America panicked.  I remember watching Nightline with Ted Koppel and hearing that we are pretty defenseless against a monster bent on murder.

Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol’s manufacturer, immediately pulled all forms of Tylenol from the distribution chain.  They didn’t wait for a government order. They didn’t wait to add up the costs.  In this case, Johnson & Johnson valued human lives more than quarterly profit—even more than they valued one of the best-selling brands in the world.

Why do I puke when I hear that story?  Because it seems to be the only example in the history of American business in which a company put people before profit. Instead of being a lesson that business leaders follow, it’s an outlier that business students read and forget when they rise to the C-suite.

Thankfully, Southwest Airlines just gave business textbook writers a new case study.

When a chunk of the fuselage fell off of a Southwest Airlines flight last week, the company grounded the fleet for inspection. Just as J&J did 30 years ago, Southwest acted to save lives. They didn’t add up the costs and then decide right from wrong.  They chose the right path at any price.

The Wall Street Journal has more:

Typically, airlines wait for regulatory direction and manufacturer recommendations before removing planes from service. In this case, that was a tricky proposition—partly because BoeingCo. was temporarily caught off guard and regulators didn't know what initial action to take.

That’s right. The all-powerful government to whom so many want to surrender all responsibility was frozen, but a private, for-profit company was fluid.  Southwest did the unthinkable—grounding is fleet.

Yes, passengers were upset.  And people were stranded. And it will take time for Southwest to recover.

But no one has died from a cracked fuselage since the problem happened.  Human lives, not quarterly profits, drove Southwest.

What drives you?

Leaders Don’t Always Fight

One of the top news stories last week was fight between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a loosely assembled organization called the Tea Party movement.  The fight started when Ben Jealous, the NAACP’s chairman, proposed a resolution condemning the Tea Party as a racist organization. He softened the language a bit before the final vote, but the softening was a distinction without difference.  The official position of the NAACP is only racists participate in the Tea Party movement. In the course of battle, civilian casualties occur. Conservative new media mogul, Andrew Breitbart, discovered an NAACP video filmed earlier this year. It showed a woman named Shirley Sherrod, Rural Development Director for the USDA in Georgia, talking to an NAACP meeting. Her words on the video were awful. She talked about withholding information from a farmer that could have saved his farm from foreclosure.  Her motivation was the color of his skin.  Ms. Sherrod is black; the farmer white. The audience applauded and laughed its approval.

When the story broke on Monday, the White House forced Ms. Sherrod to resign.  They even told her to pull her car to the side of the road and resign via her Blackberry.  She did.

The White House proudly announced the firing, saying it had zero tolerance for racism.  The NAACP endorsed the forced resignation, saying it, too, opposed racism of any kind.

But then the rest of the video appeared.

It turns out that Ms. Sherrod’s motivation for confessing her sin was not earn approval from the audience, but to set up her tale of redemption.

The farmer didn’t lose his farm.  First doing the minimum possible, including introducing the farmer to white attorney, and gradually getting more deeply involved, Shirley Sherrod went beyond the call of duty to help the man and the family she almost destroyed.  When the white lawyer she’d recommended turned out to be an empty suit, she helped the farmer find a better attorney—a black attorney, at that.

In the end, even the farmer’s wife stood up and contacted the press to tell them that Shirley Sherrod might have race issues, but she saved their farm and remains their friend.

What we all thought was a story of racism turned out to be a story of machismo and bad leadership.  Ben Jealous is chairman of a once-great institution that has been in serious decline for a decade.  In 2007, the NAACP laid off almost half of its paid staff.  Since then, fundraising and membership have declined further.  While many of the NAACP’s greatest battles are over—to the organization’s benefit and credit—the tactics used in the past no longer work to improve the lives of African-Americans.  In fact, many argue that the NAACP’s opposition to school vouchers and free enterprise hurt the very people the organization represents.

To regain some relevancy, Mr. Jealous picked a fight with a non-organization.  The Tea Party is a movement with less structure than summer sport coat. To make his case of racism within the movement, Jealous could point only to a handful of signs from a sea of 20 million people. He threw an anecdotal story involving two Congressmen that has never been proved despite $100,000 reward offer. In the course of Mr. Jealous’s reckless quest for relevance, he hurt an innocent woman.  And he immediately blamed someone else.

We are told that leaders fight for their people, fight for their principles, fight for their organizations.  That’s true when their people, principles, or organizations come under attack.  But leaders don’t pick fights just to look tough, because fights always produce unintended consequences.  The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand killed two of my great uncles—one on the battlefield in France, and one at a young age because of lung damage from mustard gas.  Who could have predicted in August of 1914?

Leaders avoid fights whenever possible, and they own up to their mistakes.  Perhaps the NAACP will gain relevance again when it appoints a leader who understands that his mission is not to destroy, but to build.