The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

June 11, 2017

You’re Not As Rational As You Think, Part 1

You think you reason based on facts.  You don’t. We’ll prove to you your mind isn’t as logical as you think.  And you still won’t believe it, because … well, you’re not as rational as you think.  And the “why” will surprise you.  But what does this mean for the workplace?  Here’s what Jim & Steve think (irrational as it may be) …

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Voiceover: It’s a Northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is, or has, a boss. This is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Steve Motenko: Hi there, welcome to The Boss Show. Today on The Boss Show, you are not as rational as you think. We will prove that to you by the end of the show today. You still won’t believe it, because … well, you’re not as rational as you think. Hi, I’m Steve Motenko, I’m The Psychology Guy. I’m a leadership coach as well as personal development coach right here in the Seattle area where we record the show in the shadow of the Space Needle.
Jim Hessler: So we’re going to destroy any sense of certainty today that you might have about your place in the universe, the meaning of life, whatever. We’re just going to throw it out the window. I’m Jim Hessler, I’m the–
Steve Motenko: Gosh, it’s going to be fun.
Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler, I’m The Business Guy. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development and the author, along with my co-host, of the book Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face. And this is the show for anyone who is, or has, a boss.
Steve Motenko: Jim, we all think that we reason based on facts, but the fact is, facts don’t change our minds. And that’s not just about the opposite political party; it’s you, and it’s me. It’s our minds which simply are not as logical as we think they are. Thousands of studies – not just a dozen studies; thousands of studies – over the past 50 years have proven this fact. You’re not as wise as you think you are, because your mind isn’t as logical as you think it is. Now, when the first studies produced this finding in the 1970s, the results were pretty shocking. But nowadays it’s so obvious to psychologists that nobody’s surprised anymore. If they could only convince the rest of us that it’s true, but that’s difficult to do because our minds are faulty.
It all started in 1975 when two groups of Stanford students were given a bunch of purported suicide notes, and they were asked to determine which of them were real and which of them were fake. Stay with me here, it’s a little bit complicated. Group A was told that they guessed right most of the time, that most of the suicide notes that they said were genuine were in fact genuine, and Group B was told the opposite: that they missed, that they guessed wrong most of the time. And then they were told that the whole experiment was a setup. That in fact, they told Group A, “You didn’t guess right most of the time.” And they told Group B, “You didn’t guess–“
Jim Hessler: So all of the suicide notes were made up.
Steve Motenko: I think they were all made up, yeah. Either that or they just kind of randomly assigned the groups. I’m sure they made up the suicide notes. So then they clued them in. “We lied to you. Group A, you didn’t actually get them right. Group B, you didn’t actually get most of them wrong.” And then they asked Group A and Group B how they thought they really did in guessing which were genuine and which were fake; and guess what happened, Jim?
Jim Hessler: That Group A thought they were better at it than Group B, even though neither of them had any evidence to support their assumptions.
Steve Motenko: That is exactly what happened, and it made no sense. So Group A believed for a very short time that they were good at the task, and even confronted with the fact that they weren’t, they still held on to that belief. And as much as you are going to hate to hear this, it’s true for all of us. Once you have a belief, even when you get that belief completely contradicted, that belief is remarkably sticky, despite data to the contrary. Even when the evidence for the belief has been completely refuted, you still tend to believe it. So again, we’re all much more irrational than we think. And this time in our political history … You know, Jim, you and I have pretty much assiduously stayed out of political conversations on the show, but regardless …
Jim Hessler: We don’t want our tires slashed when we go out to the parking lot.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, that would be good, although we do pre-record the show.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, that’s true, so nobody really knows when we’re here.
Steve Motenko: It’s not a big threat, and yet our minds may still believe it. But without taking sides in politics, whichever side of the political equation you’re on, I bet you think that the other side is pretty much nuts; and I bet that even though you’re hearing evidence throughout this show for the fact that you’re not as rational as you think you are, you probably won’t really believe it. Your previous belief will stick. That is the belief that says that you think rationally.
Jim Hessler: Well, I guess after we come back, I’d like to ask you … You’re using some generalizations that you don’t normally use: “We all,” “You,” meaning us, all of us. Are some of us better at this than others? Are some people more inclined to this sort of thinking, and others less?
Steve Motenko: I think it’s a great question, and I think you can train yourself to kind of counter the fallacies that your mind produces. We’re talking today about how faulty your mind is.
Jim Hessler: Can you start using “our” instead of “your?” It’s like you’re not including yourself in the group here.
Steve Motenko: All right, fair enough. We’re talking today about how faulty everyone’s mind is except mine. I want to talk a little bit … And this is abstract and theoretical, so bear with me, but it’s just so intriguing to me. I wanted to say a little bit about why; why our minds are not as rational as we think they are. A theory came up in a recently published book called The Enigma of Reason. A couple of cognitive scientists suggest that the reason that our minds tend not to work anywhere near as logically as we think they do is that we have a faulty belief about how our minds evolved, like we think our minds evolved to solve problems, to arrive at best possible solutions to challenging issues from …
Jim Hessler: Building the pyramids.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, to combating the saber tooth tiger to agriculture. So how to do that, how to plant things. So we think that our minds evolved to create solutions. And these cognitive scientists say that actually reason evolved to help us be more effective in our social interactions. So if we’re hanging out in the cave and we’re hunter-gatherers and we want to go out and hunt, we need to convince everybody that it’s in their interest to face the danger of going out and hunting. We need to convince everybody that they shouldn’t be lazily sitting in the cave and reaping the benefit of everybody else’s hunting. So reason evolved in order for us to be …
Jim Hessler: Give reasons to other people, to persuade.
Steve Motenko: Exactly, regardless of whether the fodder for the persuasion is objective or not. So it was more important for us to be compellingly subjective – even irrational – if we could actually persuade other people, than it was for us to be fact-based or objective.
Jim Hessler: So even if we were telling an outright lie in our own self-interest, there had to be something that at least gave off the ooze of reason in that effort, right? Boy, that explains all kinds of things about human history, doesn’t it? And the business world.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and I want to know what you were going to say about the business world, but the current political situation, as we briefly mentioned in the first segment. If Trump got elected not necessarily because he was fact-based and objective in the things that he said, but because he was compellingly subjective, and the quality of his persuasion was such that he got elected President of the United States. So it’s not only caveman days. Tell me what you were thinking of in terms of the business world.
Jim Hessler: Well, I think a lot of people advance in their business career … Think about advertising. Advertising is hugely irrational, and yet it’s presented in a very rational way, that we’ve thought this through and we think that you should buy this copper bracelet for your ankle and it’ll make your knees feel better. And there’s no evidence …
Steve Motenko: Now we’re going to get letters from the copper bracelet manufacturers.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, right, right. All those sponsors that we have selling those copper bracelets on the ankles. But yeah, I guess what shows up for me is not only are there people that are really good at doing this, at creating reason that seems reasonable – I guess I’ll call it that – but there’s a desire we have to want to be influenced, don’t we? I mean, isn’t that part of it? There’s a leadership question here. How much do we want to be led, even if the person who’s leading us is feeding us a bunch of bull crap?
Steve Motenko: Yeah, what that ties into for me is another significant reason that our beliefs are faulty, and that is we want order and control in our worlds. Chaos means threat to us, so if there’s a leader that pulls us toward him in a way that makes us feel like the world is predictable and ordered, we want to have that belief; we want to follow that belief.
Jim Hessler: So here’s what I’m thinking about from our conversation so far, Steve. The fact is that we talk a great deal in our workshops, and your coaching, and the mentoring kind of work that I do, about the importance in the workplace of attending to people’s emotional needs and emotional lives. And the fact that leadership is largely a relational skill which has to do with getting people on board and engaged and–
Steve Motenko: Connected.
Jim Hessler: Connected to each other. It sounds like at core, that’s potentially, at least, a very manipulative way to get what you want.
Steve Motenko: Well, if you’re doing it just for the sake of getting what you want, then yes. But I think most of us know …
Jim Hessler: What if what you want is profit? What if what you want is sales growth? What if what you want is to create power for your company and market dominance?
Steve Motenko: So the question there is what values are you holding in highest priority. If your highest priority values are market dominance and profit, then you will manipulate other people, because the value of being authentic and being honest and having healthy relationships with other people, empowering other people, those values will come second. So then it becomes a matter of values. I mean, you can always use this notion that our mind’s reasoning is ultimately faulty, but the question is what are you using it for.
Jim Hessler: Well, but you used the example earlier of a caveman who has to convince other people to leave the cave with him and go out and do this dangerous hunting thing. Well, on one hand, that’s the most rational thing imaginable. We have to eat. And so I’m appealing to their … Maybe a lot of other things: their sense of pride, their warrior spirit, their sense of camaraderie, wanting to take care of each other, whatever. But the fact is we’ve got to get get some food. So I’m kind of struggling with the idea that there’s this underlying irrationality to it all, because it’s very rational to say, “We have to eat, so let me see what I can do to influence other people to get me to go find some food, which is in the best interests of our community, of our tribe.”
Steve Motenko: Right, so then you’re not only prioritizing the value of eating and surviving, but also in the mix there has to be prioritizing the value of teamwork toward that goal in the cave.
Jim Hessler: Right, but this would be the argument of the conservative side, which is, “As a business owner, I’m a job creator. I’m ultimately creating benefit to the community by rationally pursuing my own financial objectives,” right? So I guess what I’m trying to take … We have this cognitive bias. The point you’re making in this show is we’re not as clear-headed and rational as we’d like to think we are, right?
Steve Motenko: Right.
Jim Hessler: But isn’t … I mean, maybe I’m making your argument for you. Isn’t running a good business a supremely rational thing to do?
Steve Motenko: I don’t know how to answer that question, because nothing is in and of itself supremely rational, because the point that we’re making here today is that our minds are faulty. So our minds can be led down pathways that aren’t necessarily based on reason. But let’s get more practical. Let’s talk about specific workplace examples. So in our book, for example, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face, which is a leadership primer, really, that works for all levels of the organizational hierarchy, we basically say that it’s not enough to be right.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, we talk a lot about influence. It’s the one word synonym we use for leadership frequently, and the fact is that so much of a business’s engine is driven, I guess you could argue, by irrational thoughts. A lot of our buying habits are driven by irrational thoughts.
Steve Motenko: You know, psychologists will say emotions are at the source of all decision-making; even though you may be the world’s greatest researcher and the world’s most analytical person, and you’re going through every piece of data you can imagine, ultimately your decision is an emotional decision. It comes from “I do want to do this” or “I don’t want to do this.” And when we think in business terms about convincing people about a course of action, or leading people toward a certain vision, for example, we think about doing it with facts. And what we’re saying in the show today is facts don’t necessarily change our minds.
Jim Hessler: Well, and we talk a lot about vision. We talk a lot about the need for leaders to have a vision. And what’s, I guess, striking me about this conversation we’re having today is just how irrational that vision can be. Our current President got elected with the slogan “Make America Great Again” which you could have asked a thousand people what it meant, what does that mean, and you would have got a thousand different answers. But the universality of it was that it appealed some way to a need that people had to recapture something that they felt they’d lost. So we talk about a corporate vision as having to have an emotional payoff. It can’t be “We want to increase sales 15% and return money to our stakeholders.” That’s not a vision. I guess what I’m coming out of this is your vision for your business almost needs to be irrational. It needs to be emotionally driven.
Steve Motenko: Exactly. I wouldn’t necessarily say that rationality and emotion are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t have to be irrational, but it does have to consider the emotions of the people whom you’re trying to lead toward that vision more than it considers facts.
Jim Hessler: Well, I would agree with that, but unfortunately sometimes the vision, because it can be irrational, drives people to do irrational things in pursuit of it. So if your vision is stated in emotional terms, then a rational pursuit of that might get lost. You might just have a whole bunch of energy directed at something that has an emotional payoff that doesn’t necessarily have a business payoff.
Steve Motenko: Right, right. So they have to be intertwined.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, which may describe why some companies fail, because there’s not enough fundamental rationality behind their business model. I see this all the time.
Steve Motenko: Right. So if you want to have more influence, regardless of your position in the hierarchy, if you want to have more influence, you have to be clear that facts alone won’t necessarily change beliefs; that in fact it’s more important, if you’re a boss, to be that boss who inspires people than it is to be that boss who convinces people.
Jim Hessler: Yes, I think that’s true, but then we get back to the question is, “What is your underlying value, what are your underlying ethics, what is your underlying integrity in that pursuit?” Otherwise, you’re just manipulating people with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Steve Motenko: So here’s the thing: In a nutshell, there’s too much information for our brains to hold it all, even on a single workplace topic. There are too many ways to make meaning of the information that’s available to us, and we don’t have enough time to explore all the data and all the possible interpretations, and even if we did, our brains don’t have room to hold it all. So we have to make sense of the world, and we do that through the power of beliefs. I want to briefly tease next week’s show. We’re going to do a part two next week where we’re going to talk about specific what are called “cognitive biases,” which means specific ways in which our minds play tricks on us, and some examples of those. So that’ll be fun. A little less philosophical, and maybe a lot more fun. But for now, the question that you might be asking yourself is, “Okay, if I can’t trust my own beliefs, then how do I operate in the world?” We don’t want to get a lot of suicide notes to our email address, which by the way is
Jim Hessler: We can refer you to a counselor, yeah. It’s potentially discouraging, and I used the word dystopian during a break, that it kinds of seems hopeless to say that we’re so irrational that seven billion irrational beings living on this planet right now; how much hope can there be that we can overcome that and have belief and spirituality and emotion live side by side with science and rationality? I think this is maybe one of our fundamental challenges as human beings on this planet right now.
Steve Motenko: And the practical question might be, “How do we make decisions if we don’t know that our beliefs that underlie the decisions are faulty or not?” And what I would say to that – and Jim, I want to turn it over to you as well, of course – is that you have to keep making decisions, and you have to keep making decisions based on the best evidence that you have available to you, even though you know that your reasoning might be faulty. And part and parcel of that puzzle is not only do you have to keep making decisions, but you want to push yourself a little bit to gather more data so that you can challenge those too-sticky beliefs, and just look at more sides of an issue before you make a decision, if you have the time to do that.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, I think that what we don’t want people to do is take this as an excuse to be intellectually lazy or uninformed or …
Steve Motenko: Or not to exercise influence at all.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, to just say, “Well, nothing we can do. People just are what they are and they can’t change,” because that’s been proven wrong. A lot of beliefs have changed in our lifetimes about race, about gender, and a lot of other things. So we don’t want any listener to say, “Oh, that’s just how I feel and that’s okay. I’m going to run with that.” We still want you to be smart. There is a balance point here.
Steve Motenko: Right, and while you’re being smart, listen. Listen to other people, listen to other perspectives, know that your beliefs maybe have more power over you than they probably ought to. So look at as many sides of an issue as you can. Jim, I have a question for you. Which hamburger meat would you tend to buy: One labeled “75% fat free” or one labeled “25% fat?”
Jim Hessler: Probably the fat-free one, yeah.
Steve Motenko: So we’re talking today about how illogical our minds are in ways that are really kind of difficult to acknowledge. And in next week’s part two, we’ll refer to specific what we call “cognitive biases;” in other words, specific ways that your mind plays tricks on you such as the 75% fat-free hamburger versus the 25% fat hamburger.
Jim Hessler: The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership, and our sound engineer is Kevin [Dandrola 00:21:19].
Steve Motenko: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at It’s also where you can go to subscribe to the podcast. You can also do that from iTunes, from Stitcher, from SoundCloud. We’re on all the major platforms. And also on our website,, you can contact us to maybe bring us into your workplace.
Jim Hessler: Thank you for listening.
Steve Motenko: And don’t forget …
Jim and Steve: Rule number six.

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