One of the areas of interest to me in my work is the number of fads and ‘one approach fits all’ solutions that we see in organisation development.
Call me cynical, but I am often bemused and sometimes astounded, at how often old concepts are re-purposed, long-standing theories are re-labelled as the latest ‘must have’ offerings and approaches long-established as without evidence remain popular. This is especially evident in my specialty area of resilience coaching where fads and simplistic fixes are both offered and received with enthusiasm. In fact, many even consider the topic of resilience at work to be a fad itself…
So how do we get hooked into popular trends and simplistic approaches when we know that little about workplace behaviour is straightforward? Furthermore, when we discuss the lack of evidence behind an approach with our clients, why can’t we dispel the myth?
A dive into cognitive science provides some explanation. These four facts can help us understand…
Fact 1. We prefer simplicity
It’s easier for us to accept a simple myth than a complicated truth. The “7 tips to achieve success” solution is much easier to grasp and straightforward to implement. We hold onto this advice despite knowing that human behaviour is complex and there are no easy answers. In fact, when we are provided with a lot of evidence (facts) there’s a risk of a backfire effect that reinforces the simpler option.
Psychological research studies often work against our simplicity preference by finishing with the inconclusive statement that “more research is needed.” While this is usually the truth, it’s not helpful for the practitioner!
Fact 2: Familiarity promotes acceptance
Hearing a piece of information repeatedly makes us more likely to accept it as accurate – especially if it comes from a credible source. The implication is that a well-researched review article in an academic journal is rarely going to be able to compete with a ‘guru’ podcast or a TED talk with millions of views. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as celebrity gained through a popular TED talk further reinforces our belief in the presenter’s view. Celebrity plus exposure equals devoted following.
If our social media feeds frequently feature a fad, this familiarity reinforces our acceptance of it. He/she who posts most and gets the most ‘likes’ wins!
Ironically, by refuting a fad we can inadvertently reinforce it through talking about it – It’s called the ‘familiarity backfire effect’. The caution here is that just because it is popular it doesn’t mean it works.
Fact 3: We believe what supports our world view
We tend to seek out information that supports our existing beliefs. Described as ‘confirmation bias’, it means that we also spend more time and energy opposing information that doesn’t fit our view. When others provide corrections (i.e. evidence) that threaten our beliefs, we are more likely to reject the information. It’s called the ‘world-view backfire effect’. This is especially the case if we have strong opinions on the subject or have invested time and money – for example in personal training or accreditation.
Joining social media groups with like-minded professionals reinforces our world view. Seeking out diverse views is critical in preserving balanced professional advice.
Fact 4: It’s hard to unlearn what we already know
Called the ‘continued influence effect’, this fact reinforces how difficult it is for us to unlearn information. If our favorite theories and models are disproven, or no longer best practice, we still persist in using them. Curiosity and a thirst for life-long learning is our antidote here.
So, as you can see it’s not all our fault that we follow the fads – our brains make us do it!