10 Nov 2016

Stopping smart people from doing dumb things

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:25 pm on 10 November 2016
How do you stop smart people from doing dumb things?

How do you stop smart people from doing dumb things? Photo: ABC / Twitter

How do you stop smart people from doing dumb things? Our guest says 'workplaces encourage smart people to not use their brains'... and so he's created what he calls 'pop-up philosophy'.

And all it takes is a deck chair. Andre Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour and the founding director of ETHOS: The Centre for Responsible Enterprise at Cass Business School, City University of London.

He is an expert in the areas of organisational behaviour, leadership and corporate social responsibility.

Spicer studied workplaces for many years and saw that “workplaces are rife with stupidity”.

“People said, ‘I’ve got a degree, I’m a very smart person, but I don’t get to think’. So I thought, let’s go out and create a little space for people to think.”

He would set up two deck chairs in what he calls a “stupidity-intensive spot”, like outside the stock exchange or a bank. On a sign next to him is written: ‘Pop up philosophy: stop, sit and just think”.

The pop up philosophy space allows people to use a moment of free time to stop and think, rather than automatically reaching for their smart phones, he says.

“What’s in it for me is just to get people thinking. To be honest, I don’t have enough time to think. I am a busy man and often I have too much to do. The thing is I shock myself when I sit down and all sorts of things came to the fore of my mind.”

One of the things that inspired him to pursue this experiment was a study out of the University of Virginia, where people were left alone in a room for five minutes. On a table in front of them was button that if pressed, would give them an electric shock. The study found that most people would rather press the button and electrocute themselves, than sit and think for five minutes.

As for philosophical debates, or political ones in the wake of a controversial U.S. election result, Spicer has some advice.

“If you want to argue against someone’s political opinion, the worst thing you can do is provide them with lots of evidence that they are wrong. Often that will increase their belief.

“First thing is that you don’t sit back and give them loads of evidence, just sit back and nod and listen. Take their position seriously. Even if you think they are speaking a load of rubbish.

“The second thing is that you don’t give them the strongest argument you can. You hit them with the weak argument. If you do that, they’re more likely to think, ‘That is interesting, I’ve never heard that before’.”

We tend to focus on things that confirm our beliefs and prove we are right, completely ignoring everything else Spicer says.

“If you go up to your manager and say, ‘This strategy you have come up with is idiotic’, they are very likely to not listen to you. But if you say, ‘Well there are one or two small problems with that, maybe if you considered this or that’, they are more likely to engage with it. One of the reasons for that is that we tend to see big issues as a threat to our identity.”

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