Challenge Assumptions

6 vs 9

Psychologist Jonah Lehrer noted, “When the brain is exposed to anything random, like a slot machine or the shape of a cloud, it automatically imposes a pattern onto the noise.” Thomas Gilovich agreed, “Nature abhors a vacuum. People spot patterns where only the vagaries of chance are operating.” That’s what pattern recognition is for, although often the brain’s motto is, ‘Close enough is good enough.’ Chabris and Simons agree that our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences and to believe that earlier events cause later ones.

In his article ‘Becoming Famous Overnight’, Larry Jacoby wrote of his research into memory illusions caused by this cognitive convenience. Remember, cognitive processing is hard work and anything the brain can do to ease that strain, it’ll try doing. Participants were shown some names of people, including David Stenbill. Sometime later, and in a supposedly unrelated activity, they were shown a list of names and asked to tick those that were celebrities. David Stenbill, despite being fictitious and not in a celebrity way, was ticked more often than not. If they thought about Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, or Margaret Thatcher, they could probably find a few facts in their memory about them and why they were celebrities. There’s no genuine way they could do that for David Stenbill. All they’d have was a sense of familiarity. And for people, that’s all we need. Words, and anything else we’ve seen before, become easier to see again. And it’s not just seeing; it’s any kind of experience.

If years ago you had a conflict-ridden relationship with an employee named Toby and tomorrow you’re being assigned a new employee whose name also happens to be Toby, that’s not going to affect your impressions of Toby II, is it? Maybe you should give him a nickname as soon as possible?

Psychologist Robert Zajonc did a study on whether old married couples start to look like each other. This section is not about that study but it is quite interesting. It was suggested that, given the empathy couples must have shown each other over the years, much of which is conveyed through facial expressions, they develop similar wrinkle patterns. Be sure and mention this the next time you’re at Gran and Pop’s place.

The other Zajonc study I’m looking at here is on the mere exposure effect and links nicely with Jacoby’s familiarity work. He ran newspaper advertisements on the front pages of two Michigan universities using five made-up words:


Word Times Used
kadirga 1
saricik 2
biwonjni 5
nansoma 10
iktitaf 25

He then surveyed the student population with a simple question: Were each of these words bad or good? The words used more often were considered good more often. He replicated the study using symbols, shapes, and faces with the same result. Familiar was perceived as good. Familiar is safe. Zajonc suggests this may be a result of evolution as the survival prospects were poor for animals not suspicious of novelty. New things could eat you. Maybe the anti-change person you’re leading isn’t being bloody-minded? Maybe they’re being safety conscious?

A downside of familiarity is the illusion of representativeness and how that bias impacts our thinking. We expect a librarian to look like one. The regression fallacy is where we sometimes choose to believe that non-typical results will continue. Over time, results regress to the mean. A workplace example might be when a slightly below-average performer performs especially poorly. You respond by yelling at them. Their next performance is better therefore you assume that yelling at them improved their performance. Far more likely is that their performance regressed to the mean. Golfers, you know what I’m talking about.

[An excerpt from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss: Adding serious value through employee engagement’ ]


I’m trialling a self-directed course I’ve developed on personal effectiveness. One of the ten lessons within it is on critical thinking, an essential element of which is challenging assumptions. You get all five of my books (in eBook format) when you sign up. If that sounds of interest, you can learn more at .

All 5 3D

#onlinelearning #onlinetraining #personaleffectiveness #criticalthinking

Expert trainer / coach / speaker. Interactively online or in-person. Fast-track your personal & professional effectiveness or leadership development with practical business tools and thought leadership.

About Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

I'm all about engaging people and helping you engage yours to influence behaviour to improve results - at work and at home. Maybe you're a manager, a salesperson, a leader, a parent, a presenter or an event organiser? You need to grab your people's attention, create some rapport, be memorable and influence behaviour change. How can we do that? I'm originally a trainer by trade, turned manager, turned comedian and partway back again. Author of 'THE GUIDE: How to kiss, get a job & other stuff you need to know', I write and speak about how to engage people, be they employees, family or yourself. How can we connect with people’s own internal motivations and help them use their own inner passions to drive towards productivity, success and happiness? And hopefully have a few laughs along the way... As a trainer facilitating learning and development in others, I find myself drawing on my own extensive business experience. I specialise in the delivery of high impact, customised training solutions for organisations that are serious about improving the performance and lives of their people.

Posted on May 25, 2020, in Employee Engagement. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: