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.
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.
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