Don’t let bad endings control how you feel about an experience

I asked a friend about his experience at a chamber music concert. His first response (and his only response until I pressed him) was, “During the final song there was a terrible, loud noise that just ruined the concert. I’m not even sure where it came from.” I asked him about the other 57 minutes (the concert lasted an hour). “Oh, the rest of the concert was terrific. Beautiful music played well.” Interestingly, he chose to remember the negative part of the evening, though it represented only a small fraction of the total event.

I asked a friend about her vacation. Her first response was, “When we checked out of the hotel, they tried to stick us with a surcharge that we had not agreed to. I had to escalate the situation to the general manager to get it resolved. It was a very distasteful encounter.” I then asked about the previous six days and 12 hours. “Oh, we had a great vacation,” she said, “very relaxing and satisfying.”

Notice that my friends chose to focus on how their experience ended and fixated on a negative aspect. We all tend to do this. 

We are inclined to remember how an event ended.

In a psychological research project, subjects each immersed a hand in iced water at a temperature that causes moderate pain. They were told they would have three trials. While the hand was in the water the other hand used a keyboard to continuously record their level of pain. The first trial lasted 60 seconds. The second trial lasted 90 seconds, but in the last 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree (better but still painful). For the third trial, they were allowed to choose which of the first two trials was less disagreeable, and repeat that one.

Eighty percent of the subjects who reported experiencing some decrease in their pain in the last 30 seconds of the second trial chose to repeat the 90-second experience. In other words, they chose to suffer for an additional 30 seconds because the ending of the experiment was more satisfying. 

Many similar experiments have revealed that people’s remembrance and assessment of an experience are based on the peak (best or worst moment) and how the experience ended.

We are inclined to remember negative events more than positive ones.

We are predisposed to allowing negative experiences to impact us more than positive ones—an inclination we must actively work to resist. For instance, when the stock market suddenly drops and we lose money, that impacts us more than all the months in which the stock market gradually rose. This may cause us to rashly (and unwisely) sell our stocks and make us reluctant to invest in the market again.

The antidote for both dilemmas is reflection and gratitude. After an event is over (and even when it’s happening) take time to reflect on the entire affair (concert, vacation) and balance the positive with the negative. Thoughts and expressions of gratitude help us concentrate on positive aspects, which enhances and lengthens their influence. 

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Sometimes, all of us are not smarter than one of us

All of us are smarter than one of us—unless you’re dealing with an issue that “all of us” know little or nothing about and “one of us” knows a lot. Sloman and Fernbach

One of my favorite leadership mantras is: All of us are smarter than one of us. Particularly in the complex world in which we live, no one person is smart enough to lead unilaterally. That’s why a collaborative leadership style works better than a Lone Ranger mentality. Leaders should build a diverse team of informed, committed members and then engage them when making major decisions.

But sometimes, all of us are not smarter than one of us.

Here’s an extreme, hypothetical situation that illustrates the point. Imagine five professionals (lawyer, accountant, business executive, professor, and engineer) sitting around a table, discussing a particular issue, trying to discern the best thing to do. But the decision involves a medical issue. In walks a physician, and suddenly, “one of us is smarter than all of us.” Granted, there’s a lot of brain-power in the group of five, but they’re all uninformed relative to the topic at hand.

Here’s an actual example. Years ago I was part of a group at work that interviewed candidates for a position we needed to fill. Everyone in the group was intelligent, but none of us knew anything about interviewing techniques, HR practices, tests that are available to evaluate candidates’ abilities, or the intricacies of developing a balanced and diverse team. Some of us were not even particularly insightful individuals. Together, we made a unanimous but wrong decision.

Now think back to the hypothetical case in which the five professionals are tasked with making a medical decision, but this time, the five people include an oncologist, cardiologist, surgeon, anesthesiologist, and a psychiatrist. That group will probably make a better decision than a single doctor would.

Granted, sometimes a diverse group is advantageous. For instance, when you’re exploring a radical idea or an entrepreneurial pursuit, it might be helpful to have an anthropologist, mathematician, artist, salesman, and a librarian brainstorm the idea. Each member of this disparate group will see the issue differently and can contribute in unique ways.

I see several factors at work here.

  1. The issue. What is the topic of discussion; what decision needs to be made? Are team members qualified to address this topic? If not, the team should hand off the decision to another group, or an expert “voice” should be invited into the conversation. 
  2. The team. Are we aware of our strengths and weaknesses? Are we confident enough and have enough self-awareness to admit that we may not have the knowledge necessary to properly address an issue? Do we suffer from group-think? (Irving Janis defines groupthink as “The mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”)

Having said all this, I reiterate my conviction that most leaders don’t take advantage of the wisdom of others. We act as soloists. But every idea or plan will be improved upon when submitted to the unfiltered wisdom of others. Just be sure you have the right people in the group. 

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Beware of fake news and biased reporting

In December 2016, a screenwriter named Edgar Welch read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C., was harboring young children as part of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. Welch believed the false conspiracy theory and took it upon himself to visit Comet Ping Pong, unleashing an AR-15 rifle on the workers there. By some miracle, no one was hurt and the police arrested him. He was snookered by fake news.

In the U.K. a post on Facebook purported that places of worship are exempt from council tax—but only if the worshippers are Muslim. The post claims followers of Islam who use their living areas as a place to pray do not need to pay council tax. The image attached to the post shows a copy of the petition dated 2013. The fake story was finally expunged in 2018 when the House of Commons officially stated, “It is not possible for owners of domestic property to avoid council tax by claiming that their property, or part of it, is used for religious purposes.”

Fake news is completely false information, photos, or videos purposefully created and spread to confuse or misinform. Not surprisingly, Facebook and Twitter are the two main conduits for the spread of fake news. Fake news is not a new nemesis (consider supermarket tabloids that have been published for decades), but the internet has allowed it to increase exponentially.

I think most of my readers are astute enough to recognize and reject fake news, but many of us may be inordinately swayed by biased reporting in which a news source does report facts (or selected facts) but presents them in a biased way such that the reader is intentionally manipulated toward a certain persuasion. 

That’s why I never watch FOX or MSNBC news channels. Though they may not promulgate fake news, I find their biased reporting to be misleading. If you get a steady diet of either source, you’ll eventually be swayed to an extreme position. CNN and NBC are slightly left of center but are more careful about the stories they choose to report and how they present them. 

Here’s a good article on how to recognize a fake news story.

Here’s a graphic showing the ideological leaning of familiar news sources.

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Don’t get caught without a pencil

Capture good thoughts, even if you’re not sure how they might help in the future. —Andrew Hargadon

“The novelist Paul Auster tells a story about growing up as an eight-year-old in New York City and being obsessed with baseball, particularly the New York Giants. The only thing he remembers about attending his first major league baseball game at the Polo Grounds with his parents and friends is that he saw his idol, Willie Mays, outside the players’ locker room after the game. The young Auster screwed up his courage and approached the great centerfielder. ‘Mr. Mays,’ he said, ‘could I please have your autograph?’

“‘Sure, kid, sure,’ the obliging Mays replied. ‘You got a pencil?’“

Auster didn’t have a pencil on him, neither did his father or his mother or anyone else in his group.

“Mays waited patiently, but when it became obvious that no one present had anything to write with, he shrugged and said, ‘Sorry, kid. Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.’

“From that day on, Auster made it a habit to never leave the house without a pencil in his pocket.” [From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, pg. 29]

Several years ago I wrote a blog post on how significant thoughts can positively affect your life. A meaningful thought can change the trajectory of your life, so always be looking for them. You might find one while reading the newspaper, or talking to a friend, or listening to the radio, or (and these are the best kind) you might have an original thought that is worth archiving.

But when you come across a significant thought, you must write it down because short-term memory is unreliable.

So always carry a pen and paper. You never know when you’re going to encounter a significant thought, and if you don’t write it down, you’ll lose it. Don’t miss out on a notable statement just because you “ain’t got no pencil.”

Obviously, the emphasis of this post is on recognizing, valuing, and recording important thoughts, not on writing utensils, but sometimes the smallest things trip us up, like not having a pencil when we need one.

For instance, several days ago I read this sentence by Thomas Huxley—Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. It caught my attention, so I wrote it down, thought about it, talked to some friends about it, and now it’s part of my life. But this bit of wisdom would have been lost to me if I had not written it down.

Get into the habit of writing down interesting and helpful thoughts. [I transfer my hand-written notes into an app called Evernote.]

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.