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They ended up obliterated socially, permanently withdrawn, incapable of social interaction.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