During his recent webinar “What’s Kind Got to Do with It: Measurement, Social Well Being, and a Way Forward” MIT Sloan Professor of Applied Economics, Roberto Rigobon, explains that humans often measure the wrong things at the wrong time. The result being that we under-invest in the ideas that are going to solve the world’s most important problems.
We’re obsessed with measurement – but Roberto states we do a consistently horrible job with it. In fact, there are four ways in which we typically fail:
- We measure infrequently: A lot of social data is often measured only annually. Since we are not measuring data in real time, it becomes impossible to accurately learn from it, understand the causes, and take relevant action.
- We tend to measure only extreme events: We often measure the final extreme outcome of a metric versus the many more subtle instances that could be categorized under that metric. For example, when measuring drug abuse, the focus may be on recorded overdoses. Measuring that metric alone would provide an incomplete perspective of the issue – and it also means we’re measuring too late. By the time we’re measuring overdoses – the harm has already occurred and we’re not any closer to understanding why it occurred in the first place.
- We lack a diversity of information: A lot of individuals get their information from the media, but these days the role of most media outlets isn’t to keep us informed, but to get us to click. The more we click, the more we continue to be fed similar stories and points of view. So if we need to learn something that’s against our “clicking behavior” there’s no guarantee we’ll organically be exposed to that information. Furthermore, the news cycle has a very short attention span. Think of a human rights issue like Syrian refugees. Just because the news is no longer covering it, doesn’t mean the issue has been resolved.
- We create a false sense of accomplishment: We’ll often create statistics that have the possibility of making us feel good while the problem persists. For example, let’s say a company notes that women make up 50% of their high level roles. They might proudly point to that as an example of equality and empowerment. However, this statistic tells us nothing about how these women are treated – which would be a more accurate measurement.
With all this in mind, the idea that we are even capable of making good decisions is a miracle! So how can we start to move forward? Right now, the largest attribute Roberto believes needs to change is our openness to having diverse conversations. Polarization has become extremely harmful. Before we can begin to measure anything properly, we need to fix this first.
The holidays are around the corner and most people shudder at the thought of politics or other “controversial” topics at the dinner table. However, he argues you should be talking about politics with family – because if you can’t talk about the issues that are important to you with the people you love – who do you talk to? If you’re looking to change any behavior, you have a better chance of making a breakthrough with family who already know you versus a random stranger on Facebook.
To start what can still be a difficult conversation, Roberto suggests an exercise he frequently uses in his classes – 50 Things. Each person writes down the fifty attributes of what they want to see for their country. (No repeats are allowed – so “justice for women” and “justice for immigrants” would just be “justice”). Every time he has students do this exercise – at least forty attributes are the same across the board.
We like to argue about the ten we disagree on instead of first working together to promote the forty we have in common. By focusing on what we have in common we realize that there is value in building things together. He stresses the need for more kindness, empathy, and understanding. We need to start these conversations instead of just assuming the other person is ignorant and throwing our hands up in defeat, never to talk to them again.
While Roberto covered a lot of ground in 30 minutes, there were many wonderful questions from participants that we couldn’t address in that timeframe. However, we collected them and curated their answers from Roberto. He dives deeper into the concepts on which participants had the most questions below.
What’s driving polarization on issues?
It’s human nature to try to associate with people that think alike. We also don’t consume news the same way. Back in the day, there were only four channels on TV, which made reporting much more balanced. Now with social media and internet news sites, they can tailor the content to me and my preferences. Over time I get exposed less and less to people different from me – polarizing me more in one direction.
When you give the 50 Things exercise in your class – are there any forty items that are consistently on the list of commonalities?
That’s a fantastic question – and I’d counter back with asking which do you think are the forty that would be common? Make some assumptions, then do this exercise at home and I bet you’d nail it. (In other words, I’m giving you some homework).
While it’s great that we have forty things in common – what if those ten items we disagree on are “deal breakers” or very extreme? How can we reconcile that?
First, when you think something is a deal breaker, it’s because you feel the other forty are not worth fighting for. And I would severely disagree with that statement. There are fifty things you want for society – fifty things worth fighting for – and you’re going to disregard forty of them because you can’t agree with someone on 5-10 items? Isn’t it worth putting aside those differences temporarily and actually fighting for the other forty? Yes, of course! And those forty tend to be things like fairness, progress as individuals, fulfillment for our kids, and no crime. We’ve been discussing what we hate about each other versus what we have in common with each other.
And politicians and populists like to highlight the ten we disagree on - what we hate about each other. They’ll say the only way out is to destroy the other group. It’s a simple message that’s unfortunately a very appealing message to about 50% of population. Politicians and populists will highlight these differences and focus on a destructive agenda versus a constructive one.
But when individuals write out their fifty items – there are truly no deal breakers. Why? To have a deal breaker means you have absolutely nothing in common worth fighting for - and this would be very hard to do as individuals, much less as a society!
Are there any best practices for ways to move the conversation forward within different stages or groups? How do you start breaking down those barriers and not letting emotional instinct take over?
The best way to start is to not presume. Walt Whitman said “Be curious, not judgmental.” We need more curiosity and less judgment, to be honest. This goes for everyone - this is the part we’re missing.
I try to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone, because I honestly think beauty is everywhere. And that’s my other piece of advice I’ll leave you with. My mother told me “You can find beauty everywhere if you just search for it.” So, instead of presuming the worst on any individual, presume the best. Even if the person is actually a jerk - you still might learn from them!
However, it’s very comfortable for us not to try and have those conversations. I’m a little different. Someone holds an extreme point of view? I actually love having conversations with them because I love to prove them wrong – even if I agree with them! (My wife can’t stand this – because I do love to argue). When someone says a statement that I call a “terminal” statement like “ALL men are pigs” or “ALL republicans/democrats are idiots” – that’s when I like to go in and try to tear down that logic.
These extreme statements may give us a sense of security and belonging to a group, but it divides us into “us versus them.” I learned this from my mentor Ricardo Hausmann (now at the Kennedy School). We keep classifying people and creating systems where it’s difficult to create any social solidarity. And this rhetoric that divides us is everywhere – even built into government policies.
We need to start making statements that are more humble and we need to start calling out this inappropriate behavior and dismantle it in order to move forward. That’s your call to action.
You may also be interested in Roberto's courses:
Economics for Business
Strategies for Sustainable Business
Understanding Global Markets: Macroeconomics for Executives
Guest post by Elaine Santoyo Goldman