2 Figurines Talking

Salient Myth versus Quiet Reality

As I am sure many of you know, we learn through differences. This is why extreme examples in our experience stick in our minds whereas average and typical experiences blend into the background. When learning a new schema, we see how it is different from other things we know and define it according to those differences.

My Take

Unfortunately, that can get us into trouble, semantically speaking. When something stands out we remember it better. And then subsequently we suffer from availability bias. The exceptions are what come to mind most easily and we jump to the incorrect conclusion that they are the most common.

A great example of this was shared recently by Jeffrey Pfeffer in Time. He cautions that when we think about good leaders, we think of good stories rather than the truly good qualities of a leader. We love stories about authentic leaders, virtuous leaders, people we aspire to be like. But if you look across the board, many of the most successful leaders do not display these characteristics.

The reverse also seems to be true. The obsessive, overbearing, intimidating leaders also become legends of leadership. But they don’t represent the majority of effective leaders either.

The most effective leaders seem to hide below the surface. They are in part effective because they don’t hog the limelight. They let their team shine instead. When faced with one of these leaders directly, or even better when we work for one, we notice that they are special. But as soon as we walk out the door and are asked for an example of a good leader, Steve Jobs is the name that comes to mind.

Developing a good metacognitive awareness of this tendency is a valuable skill. It can save us from making mistakes that can be extremely dangerous. Confusing salience and availability with truth can lead you to implement the rarely effective but celebrated solution to a problem instead of the best or more likely to work solution.

Your Turn

Do you have any good examples of when a salient solution or exemplar was assumed to be the norm or best choice? I would love to hear your stories. And if you make your story salient, it might be the only one we remember.

Image Credit: ed_davad

One thought on “Salient Myth versus Quiet Reality”

  1. There are three interesting ideas in this post; the nature of leadership, the reverse RPD process, and the role of stories in spreading knowledge.

    The nature of leadership; people talk a lot about this but I rarely read anything that offers insight. I was once tasked with critiquing a leadership program to be taught by the University of Melbourne. It was all about the rational processes of program management and nothing about how some individuals (my dissertation advisor, Stan Roscoe, for example) could stimulate ideas and energy and get people focused in a productive direction and then keep them energised.

    Reverse RPD; to be good at RPD, you need to be an expert in the domain. We are all experts at something and it is easy to drift into the belief that we are expert in other areas as well. That is where this can break down.

    The role of stories in spreading knowledge; it has become popular to promote stories as a vehicle for spreading knowledge. While a good story can make a point, people also use stories to spread disinformation and can be very effective at. Think of the anti-vaccination movement, for example. As another example, think of Malcolm Gladwell. A wonderful storyteller, promoting intriguing ideas, but fast and loose with his evidence. There are many presentation gurus who say you should tell a story when you present. TED has this is one of their presentation commandments. I have a chapter on this in my presentation book (not yet published) and would be happy to share that chapter with anyone who wants to read a little more on this.

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