Neurotic Interventionism

April 7, 2010 Michael James

When we’re anxious about the way things are going, we have an urge to do something.  Doing things makes us feel like we’re helping, reducing our anxiety.  This is part of being human, and usually it’s beneficial.

Sometimes this urge compels us to interfere with natural processes working the best they’re going to.  Why have we had so many medical treatments that turned out to do nothing, or more harm than good?  (Some obstetricians say “The only C-section you get sued for is the one you didn’t do.”)  Why do we pay mutual fund managers to pick stocks that generally do worse than the market average?  What makes us re-push the elevator button that’s already lit up?  Why is it so hard for ScrumMasters to resist acting like project managers rather than creating empty space for self organization?  Why do we make detailed plans and detailed design decisions before the last responsible moment?  When we’re anxious we grip the steering wheel too tightly, making things worse.

Part of the reason we keep doing it is that afterwards we convince ourselves it worked.  An experiment described in _How We Know What Isn’t So_ demonstrates this self deception in action:  Subjects were allowed to punish or reward hypothetical students for arriving at class on time.  The arrival times were actually pre-programmed (thus oblivious to the subject’s actions) but 70% of subjects convinced themselves their punishment actions improved the arrival times of the “students” more than rewards did.  Since so many uncontrollable situations tend to work themselves out, it’s easy to see how we’d mistakenly credit our interventions for this.

An experiment from 1965* demonstrates how convincingly we lie to ourselves about the benefits of intervention.  In one version, people like you believed they could control whether “Score” or “No Score” lights came on, even when they were warned beforehand the button might have no effect!

The urge to intervene can compel us to say things that do not improve upon silence.  Silence is so uncomfortable we want to fill it in with anything.  So we talk over other people, try to put a happy face on everything, explain everything, or actively solicit noise.  We demand answers to questions that don’t have answers yet.  Sadly this causes us to miss the breakthroughs that uncomfortable silence might lead us to.

I wonder if you can spend 59 seconds thinking about this article without reading another word.

–mj

* Jenkins, H. H. & Ward, W. C. (1965) Judgement of contingency between responses and outcomes. Psychological Monographs, 79 (1, Wole No. 79)

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