How Business Underestimates the Power of Belief

The other day I had a conversation with a client about how to change belief systems in an organization.

In Hellhole, a disturbing article from the March 31, 2009 issue of The New Yorker (may be accessible online only to subscribers),  Atul Gawande writes about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners, convincingly arguing that it amounts to torture.

The story has a lot to tell us about psychology and civil rights. It feels almost like trivializing to draw conclusions from it about business, but I’ll do so anyway.   It is an object example of the power of ideology—beliefs on steroids—to overcome data. So it has lessons for changing corporate beliefs.

Gawande describes rhesus monkey experiments from the 1950s, which evoked public revulsion against animal rights abuse. The monkeys—acquired as infants—were raised like hospitalized infants of the day. They were kept in isolation to prevent infection. This meant, however, they were raised without mothers.

They ended up obliterated socially, permanently withdrawn, incapable of social interaction.

Prisoners of war put in isolation routinely describe solitary confinement as the worst form of torture. What John McCain described about his North Vietnam experience was what Terry Anderson described in Beirut: severe mental debilitation. And it is precisely what we in the US impose on prisoners—more than any other country in history, and more than our own country did only 20 years ago.

The question Gawande poses for us is:

If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

The US now keeps about 25,000 to 100,000 people in solitary confinement. Worse yet, as Gawande says, “It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years.” A federal court ruled it torture back in the 1890s.

Does it work? The overwhelming answer is, no. It doesn’t reduce violence. The UK has abandoned the approach, and now has fewer prisoners in solitary than we do in Maine alone. It is hugely expensive. Most state prison commissioners are against it. A federal study recommended against it.

Yet even John McCain won’t label it torture. Nor has Barrack Obama. Prisoner commissioners won’t speak openly against it. 

Why? Because the people—meaning the American electorate of the last several decades—don’t believe it. If a politician were to suggest isolation is torture, he or she would rapidly become an ex-politician.

Instead, the American people have come to believe that bad behavior deserves punishment. Very bad behavior deserves more punishment. And a subtle jump occurs here—from arguing that people “deserve” punishment to arguing that punishment changes people or conditions.

This is wrong, as in "incorrect." Solitary confinement doesn’t change behavior or conditions. It doesn’t cure people. It makes it all worse.

But the fact that it is wrong is a pitiful thing compared to people’s beliefs.

In today’s business, beliefs are belittled. What matters is results, behaviors, outcomes—facts. We get there by data, numbers, analytics, metrics. Great managers are data-driven.

They are not. 

Most business people are as belief-hobbled and ideologically blinkered as any other human being, which is to say, a great deal.

Worse yet, one of the strongest belief systems in business today is that centering around corporate change: that it is driven by altering stimulus and response. Not unlike monkeys, or the reward-punishment cycle in prisons. This model is true generally—often not true specifically. It matters how we handle it.

Believing that we are primarily rational creatures is one of our more irrational of our beliefs—and one of the strongest as well.

3 replies
  1. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    We all like to think we are basing decisions are based on facts, but the facts are filtered through our beliefs. I agree this is not something we spend too much time talking about.

    How would you suggest we discover our beliefs about how we do business so we are more aware of how we make business decisions?

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Great question, Scott, the right question.  And I’d like to hear your take on it too.

    My best answer is education by exposure.  We should do what we can to encourage visas for new workers from abroad; businesses doing more international business; people going abroad. 

    Nothing changes beliefs like seeing real, live people living successfully in environments with beliefs different than our own. 

    What are your suggestions?


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hello Scot and Charlie,


    One’s beliefs are often blind spots, unconscious and hsbitually manifested. The beliefs are always there…just sometimes hidden.

    There are two ways folks can discover their beliefs.


    One is by taking time in a quiet setting and journaling. The journaling is an open-ended, stream-of-consciousness-type writing and goes on until one stops….then continues at another time, and another, and another. The writing can include single-word statements, two-three word phrases and statements and sentences. Journaling can be direction by questions (which access the subconscious) such as:


    What do I believe about doing business? or Business is…

    What do I believe about the people with whom I do business? or People with whom I do business are…

    What do I believe about making money in business? or Making money is….

    What do I believe contributes to creating a successful business person? or…A successful business person is…

    What do I believe about trust in business? or…Trust means…

    What’s right about being honest or dishonest in business? or…Honesty (Dishonesty) is…

    Who are my best customers and why? or…



    The second way is to ask those with whom you do business; i.e., all stakeholders (including one’s spouse/partner who is an observer of me doing business). The operative question is, "Based on how I do business with you, what would you say my beliefs about (doing) business are?" "Why do you say that?"


    These two explorations, if done honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly, can and will reveal much about one’s beliefs around business. At the same time, such explorations will also point to one’s motives, values and intentions…often hidden as well…and can often reveal some interesting AHAs and insights.




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