April 28, 2014
From presidents to parents, we are all leaders. Every day we make choices that matter. In this multipart series, we encourage readers to consider their choices as leaders using HopeLab’s Questions for a Curious Leader. The goal? To spark honest reflection that supports greater clarity – that is where new possibilities emerge.
Storytelling isn’t bad. Quite the opposite. It’s how we make sense of our experiences. The trouble comes when we believe the stories we tell are the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We confuse our stories with reality. One way to loosen up our belief that our perception of things—our story—is “the truth” is to imagine that the opposite of our story could be as true as our own.
Consider the following:
February, 2011: Piedmont, CA:
Disturbance of the peace: 3 AM. Woman calls to report neighbor’s dog is barking loudly, disrupting the entire neighborhood. Woman reports the barking has been going on for over two hours. Officer responds to call and finds the barking dog belongs to the caller. She did not realize her dog had been locked outside.
July, 1984: A man brakes into Jennifer Thompson’s apartment. Alone, Thompson is held at knifepoint and raped. Thompson manages to escape. The man chases her, threatening to kill her. Ultimately, Thompson finds safety at a neighbor’s.
Reporting to the police, Thompson provides a description of her assailant and a composite image is generated. Police then gather photos of potential suspects. Thompson picks Ronald Cotton’s photo out of those shown to her and later picks Cotton out of a police line-up. Thompson goes on to testify against Cotton in court – testimony instrumental to his conviction and sentence of life in prison plus 55 years.
Throughout, Cotton claims he is an innocent man.
After a decade in jail, Cotton’s lawyers prevail in a motion for DNA testing of the semen specimen collected during the investigation. The test reveals the DNA in evidence does not match Cotton’s. He is not the rapist.
Police visit Jennifer Thompson to tell her of Ronald Cotton’s innocence. Confronting the opposite of her story leaves her feeling like she is “drowning in a sea of confusion.” Cotton’s verdict is thrown out, and he is released from prison. In the ensuing months, Thompson arranges to meet Cotton and asks him to forgive her, which he does.
From the trivial to the significant, our minds are masters at playing tricks on us. If we’re not attentive, it is simply flabbergasting the things we will miss or invent. And from our flawed perceptions of the world, we create stories about the way things are and then label them as “the truth.”
An experiment at Harvard University involving an “invisible gorilla” provides further evidence of our need to be open to looking at the opposite of our stories.
Participants in the experiment were shown a video featuring six people. Three of the people were on one team, wearing black shirts. The remaining three were on another, wearing white shirts. Teammates were passing basketballs to one another.
Participants were instructed to watch the video and count how many times the white-shirted team passed the basketball.
At one point in the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit ambled into view, turned toward the camera, thumped its chest and then moved off screen. The gorilla was clearly visible for approximately nine seconds.
Do you think you’d notice the gorilla if you were watching the video? Would your perception—your story—of what was on the video include a description a chest-thumping gorilla? Well, in the experiment over half the people who watched the video, counting the passes as requested, missed the gorilla entirely. It was as if the gorilla did not exist for them. They simply did not see the gorilla, so the gorilla did not appear in their story.
How on earth do we miss a gorilla? How do our minds make a gorilla invisible to us?
And if we are capable of missing a chest-thumping gorilla, what else are we missing in the world? And what might that tell us about our stories, our perception of reality, our belief about what is “the truth”?
As psychologist Christopher Chabris explains, “This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.”
When those participants who had not seen the gorilla were told of its existence, they could not believe it. When shown the video, some still did not believe it. They assumed a different video was being shown to them the second time. We like to cling to our stories, our truths, even when it makes no sense to do so.
Are you holding tight to any stories at the moment? Is it possible the opposite of those stories could be true?
This blog series is based on the writing of Pat Christen, Susan Edsall, Chris Murchison and Richard Tate. In creating Questions for a Curious Leader, we’ve benefited greatly from the contributions of several colleagues and partners. To learn more, please download the quick reference guide.