Avoid the Semmelweis reflex

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In the 1840s, a young obstetrician in Vienna named Semmelweis noticed that doctors who performed autopsies and then delivered babies had a high rate of disease among the children they delivered (known as childbed fever). So he made the audacious and until then, unheard of, suggestion that doctors wash their hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby. He recommended that they wash in a solution of chlorinated lime, which apparently solved the problem; there were fewer cases of childbed fever.

Sadly and incredulously, instead of being praised for his life-saving solution, he was ostracized from the medical community because at that point in history, there was no germ theory; scientists had not made the connection between microscopic germs and illness; science doubted that the unseen could be a cause of death.

Psychologists have coined a term to describe the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s worldview: the Semmelweiss reflex, or Semmelweis effect. Daniel Kahneman calls it theory-induced blindness—an adherence to a belief about how the world works that prevents you from seeing how the world really works.

It’s an interesting anecdote from history but let’s try to apply the lesson to our lives so we can avoid the tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge simply because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

In our society:

  • Many are reluctant to accept global warming even though 97% of scientists agree that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring; and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence.
  • Managers have been slow to accept the fact that the “carrot and stick” approach to motivation (rewards and punishment) doesn’t work in the modern workplace; employees are motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery. [Not convinced? See Daniel Pink’s terrific book, Drive]
  • People spend billions of dollars on the latest weight-loss craze, sadly ignoring the factual approach to weight-loss: calories in/calories out.
  • Despite the fact that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that biorhythm works, millions of dollars are still spent on this movement every year.
  • Neurolinguistic programming for education still has its adherents despite the scientific evidence declaring it a ruse.

We suffer from the Semmelweis reflex every time we refuse to accept facts and instead rely on our prejudice or unfounded convictions. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” but sometimes we think our opinions are tantamount to facts.

They are not.

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Pursue individuality and community

Information about June 21-22 Lead Well workshop

A major part of the human experience is the search for both individuality and community.

These two aspirations may seem to be polar opposites, but they are complementary, even interdependent. Until I know who I am and accept myself for who I am, I will have difficulty knowing how I fit into community.

Pursue individuality

You are unique. Nuanced. There is no one on earth like you.

I’ve coined a term to describe this distinction—your Signature Soulprint.

The term is a slight variation of a familiar word—fingerprint. Our fingerprints are used to determine and affirm our unique identity. There are 14 billion+ index fingers in the world, but yours is distinct; one square inch of flesh distinguishes you from all other humans.

If you are that unique physically, imagine the complexity of your soul. Hence the term Signature Soulprint.

It’s difficult to live authentically if you don’t know who you are. That sounds almost too obvious but, sadly, many people never develop a clear, accurate understanding of themselves, so authenticity eludes them. Knowing who you are and accepting who you are brings peace and contentment and will help you live a fulfilling and effective life.

“Know thyself” was the inscription over the Oracle at Delphi. It was, and is, good advice.

I’ve just published a book that will help you discover who you are and the unique way that you have been created. Click here for information about the book, Signature Soulprint.

Pursue community

We were created to relate intimately with other people. A “Lone Ranger” mentality might have worked for the masked man but it doesn’t work in real life. Simon and Garfunkel had it all wrong when they sang: “I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain and an island never cries.”

Take the initiative to develop a social environment in which you are relating intimately to others. Develop a group of friends who care for one another and meet each other’s needs. Establish relationships that are mutually beneficial.

The nuclear family is our first experience of community in life: our mother, father, siblings, and extended family should create a safe and fulfilling social environment. But sometimes families are dysfunctional and cause more pain than comfort. So develop friendships that meet your need for intimacy. You had no choice as to who your family members are, but you can choose your friends.

Becoming aware of self

When a word begins with the prefix “self”, you usually want to avoid exhibiting the behavior it describes. Don’t be self-fish, self-centered, self-reverential, self-absorbed, or self-serving. But there is one “self-word” that you must vigorously and continually pursue—be self-aware.

First, you need to discover who you are and how you are unique among all the humans who have ever lived. Then you need to be mindful of how your self relates to other people. How should you act in any given context? How should the real you interact with others?

Discovering your Signature Soulprint will be a continuous, lifelong process. You are so complex and there are so many subtle nuances to consider, it will take the rest of your life for you to gain clarity.

Establish your individuality and live in community with others. Sadly, many people never achieve either of these aspirations and fewer still master both.

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Think carefully about how you frame issues; consider how to take advantage of default settings

In his must-read book, What Intelligence Tests Miss, Keith Stanovich shares this insightful information.

“Researchers Johnson and Goldstein found that 85.9 percent of individuals in Sweden had agreed to be organ donors. However, the rate in the United Kingdom was only 17.2 percent. What is the difference between the Swedes and the British that accounts for such a large gap in their attitudes about organ donation?

“The difference had nothing to do with internal psychological opinions. The difference is in the form of a particular public policy. In Sweden (and others countries like Belgium, France, and Poland) the default policy is that everyone will be an organ donor – one must take action to opt out. In the United Kingdom (and other countries like the United States, German, and Denmark) the default policy is that no one will be a donor – one must take action to opt in.

“In both scenarios, people have a choice as to whether or not they will donate; free will is not being denied. The difference is simply in how the original proposition is structured.

“Interestingly, Johnson and Goldstein discovered that roughly 80 percent of all people prefer to be organ donors. The actual number of donors is determined simply by how they are approached.” (page 203)

Here are some examples of how carefully framed options could benefit individuals and society.

  • Believe it or not, some people turn down their employer’s offer to match contributions to their 401k retirement account. Organizations could make employee contributions the default setting, requiring individuals to opt out if they don’t want to participate. (Social Security is a similar plan, except for the fact that individuals cannot opt out.)
  • Some states have a vaccine immunization requirement for children. Parents must opt out if they do not want their children to be vaccinated. (Why would any parent resist medical care for their children?)
  • Most software updates are automatically sent to users, who then have the choice to download or not download.
  • Some makeup companies are adding sunblock to their products. If consumers don’t want that added benefit, they can choose not to buy the product.

Use this powerful tool: frame carefully and take advantage of default settings.

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Have good manners

Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go. Margaret Walker

“Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization. It is a law of nature that two moving bodies in contact with each other create friction. This is as true for human beings as it is for inanimate objects. Manners—simple things like saying “please” and “thank you” and knowing a person’s name or asking after her family—enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this.” Peter Drucker

You don’t need a certificate from the Emily Post Institute to know what good manners look like.

  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
  • Open the door for other people.
  • Don’t interrupt people when they are speaking.
  • Don’t text at the dinner table.
  • Write thank-you notes.
  • Don’t eat before everyone is served.
  • Only use your phone in appropriate settings.
  • Be gracious in entering and exiting a conversation.

Mannerly conduct can preserve the integrity of relationships at home and at work. Good manners make people feel appreciated and respected and show others that you care about them. Manners take the rough edges off social interactions and make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable.

Pier Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says that manners are like traffic lights for life. “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.”

When we are unmannerly we appear crude, awkward, self-centered, and entitled.

Your mood should not dictate your manners. Be mannerly regardless of how you feel emotionally. J.D. Salinger wrote, “I am always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”

Demonstrate manners; it’s the right thing to do, and you’ll be more successful in life.

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