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InfoQ Homepage Articles "Who Do You Trust?" by Linda Rising

"Who Do You Trust?" by Linda Rising


During Agile 2008, Dr. Linda Rising held a presentation centered on experiments conducted many years ago, presenting how deep, powerfully affecting, and difficult to avoid are human “prejudices” and “stereotypes” as seen from the perspective of psychology and cognitive science. In the second half of the session, she explained how it is possible to minimize and overcome the impact of prejudice. This article is a summary of that presentation.

The following experiment was mentioned throughout the session, an experiment conducted in 1954 and known as the Robbers Cave Experiment:

Two groups of 12-year-old boys were taken to a Boy Scouts camp, but neither group knew of the other’s existence and believed that their group was the only group in the camp. (Of course, they traveled to the camp by different buses.) During the first week, the two groups carried out their activities separately. They swam in the lake, built hide-outs, and pitched tents. The accompanying adults (who were actually the researchers conducting the experiment) ensured that there was no contact between the two groups. The members of each group bonded as a team.

After one week, the two groups became aware of each other’s presence (as contrived by the adults). At this point, despite their not actually seeing each other, the two groups began distinguishing between “us” and “them” and saying “they (the other group) intruded on our territory”. The researchers were surprised by the extremes in boys’ reactions: how quickly the members of each group had bonded initially with each other and how quickly both groups had seen the other as “the enemy.”

The two groups were then brought together. In a plan set-up by the “adults”, the two groups participated in competitive games such as baseball and tug-of-war, and the total scores for various games were recorded for each group, with the adults acting as judges. The group that won with the highest total score for the day was awarded prizes. When that happened, the losing group burned the flag of the winning group and raided their camp; the two groups were on the verge of declaring all-out war on each other.

Dr. Rising broke off her story about the experiment here and turned to the topic of people’s prejudices. Humans are born with an instinctive ability to instantly determine whether what is in front of them is safe or dangerous, edible or inedible, enemy or friend. Since this ability is instinctive, it is an ability that humans acquired through competition for survival and the process of evolution. For humans in primitive times, slowness in distinguishing whether the person in front of them is a member of their own tribe or a member of an enemy tribe was a life-or-death issue. However, because of this instinctive ability, humans also came to categorize other humans — in other words, stereotyping them — the moment they laid eyes on them.

People categorize other people: enemy or friend; family or stranger; insider or outsider. This decision is made in an extremely short period of time, and categorizing then leads to stereotyping and simplification, with people making presumptions about others based on first appearances. Prejudice has two characteristics:

  • Everyone has prejudices
  • Nobody realizes that they are prejudiced

In other words, everybody mistakenly believes that they are not prejudiced. Consequently, while people believe themselves to be making rational decisions, they in fact constantly justify their behavior and that of their friends, family, and colleagues, and constantly presume the actions of strangers and outsiders to be “bad.”

Stereotypes simplify the way people view others. Despite the rich and complex individuality inherent in each person, people label others focusing on general outward appearance and ignoring details and difficult-to-observe features. Dr. Rising gave this example during her explanation:

“People who are married tend to use presumptive expressions when talking about their spouses, don’t they? They ‘never’ tidy up the kitchen, or they’re ‘always’ complaining. This is another kind of labeling due to prejudices.”

Moreover, when supervisors and managers evaluate the abilities of the staff working under them, the same prejudices and stereotyping occurs. In many cases, a supervisor “determines” the ability of a worker in about three weeks, labeling them as either “can do” or “can’t do” workers. Once a prejudice has been formed, the supervisor views all the actions of that worker through this filter. If two workers make the same mistake, in the case of the “Can’t do” worker, the supervisor will think, “There he/she goes again, making the same mistakes,” while in the case of the “Can do” worker the supervisor will think, “Maybe he/she wasn’t feeling well.” Eventually, the supervisor can only recognize actions that affirm their prejudice.

Not only this, prejudices can also cause people to lose the capacity to demonstrate their own abilities. Here Dr. Rising introduced another experiment. In general, females are believed to be less proficient in mathematics than males (in the case of the United States). In this experiment, the subjects were given a mathematics test. If no mention of gender was made before the test was administered, there was no difference in the results between males and females. However, if comments were made about the relationship between mathematical ability and gender before the test was administered, the females scored lower than the males. Furthermore, the same results were obtained by simply having a column on the test paper for subjects to fill in their gender, without any comments about gender being made. This is an example of consciousness of their own gender activating prejudices and inhibiting a person’s natural abilities.

Prejudices and stereotyping are rooted in human instincts, and so influence everyone. However, these can also be obstacles when many people are attempting to work together to complete a complex job or reach a common objective, missing chances for people to display their individual abilities, inviting mistakes, and in some cases even lowering the capabilities of the people who have prejudices. How is it possible to escape from these prejudices and/or lessen their impact?

Continuing the story of the first experiment, Dr. Rising said:

The researchers tried to stop the conflict between the two groups, but simply making the two groups carry out activities together produced no noticeable results. The researchers then staged an “incident” in which the camp’s water supply was cut off and all the boys had to check the water pipe (more than 1 km long) to see where it was blocked. When the blockage was found and removed, the members of both groups joined together in celebrating. By involving all the boys in the resolution of an “incident” that affected the entire camp, the conflict between the two groups evaporated.

Humans can cooperate. Given a common objective, they can work together to tackle the task at hand. In a study using monkeys, the experiment was set up so that two monkeys obtained food by cooperating with each other. Initially both of the monkeys obtained food, but the experiment was changed so that only one monkey obtained food even when the two monkeys cooperated. However, even when one of them realized that it would not receive any food, it cooperated with the other, and the monkey who received the food shared it with the other monkey.

Humans can cooperate. Dr. Rising says that this human ability is also instinctive. In order to cooperate, there is no need for the two parties to like each other. All that is necessary is that one party acknowledges the efforts of the other, and the other party recognizes the efforts of the first. A relationship of mutual respect for the ability and contribution of the other party is born from that. People feel happy to be respected and trusted; such instincts are inherent to human nature.

Taking advantage of these natural human instincts, Dr. Rising points out that Agile practices are outstanding from the standpoint of enabling people to display their abilities, especially the fact that face-to-face communication promotes cooperation.

For her last slide, Dr. Rising used a very striking image, a photograph of a boss monkey eating, surrounded by females and youngsters staring intently at him. The title of the slide was “Reason for Hope”. The females and youngsters had hope because they thought the boss will share the food with them. However, I felt that was not all; I felt the photograph also contained the message that hope lies in the ability of humans to cooperate.

At the start of the session, Dr. Rising said that this presentation was the third of her “weird talks.” At Agile 2006, she examined the cooperative behavior of Bonobo apes from an ethological perspective and spoke about how “natural” the cooperative aspects of Agile are. At Agile 2007, she examined the “ability” of humans to deceive themselves, considering how this “ability” affected the preparation of business estimates.

Dr. Rising’s presentation at Agile 2008 discussed how tied up in prejudices humans are, how the capacity of teams is diminished by stereotyping, and how Agile teams overcome these negative impacts. In the opinion of the author, such knowledge cuts through the workings of the human spirit and brain and seems somehow excitingly close to the human limit.

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