“A part of my job is the communication with other stakeholders in the company. Many times it happens that while leaving the meeting rooms all parties (myself and other stakeholders) are sure that we have had a mutual agreement; however in the follow-up emails we realize the agreement was understood by us differently. It usually leads to moments of frustration and extra work for everyone.”
Have you experienced similar kinds of problems at your workplaces? Or do you often find yourself arguing with a family member about what really happened in a past emotionally-charged incident? Well - the truth might be a combination of the different stories that are being presented or in fact it could even be a completely different one.
Our mind works in peculiar ways and what we end up remembering about events in our life can lead us into poor decision-making. Let me share another example. This week I was conducting a day-long training program for senior managers of a Spanish steel engineering company. Typically the logistics for such coveted workshops involve luxury and best-in-class arrangements. However, in the morning of that workshop I was told that the lunch served the day before had led to many upset stomachs. Program organizers were worried that this one bad experience would be all that the participants would remember from their training experience. In turn, they would end up providing a poor feedback to their colleagues once they went back to their company.
Such kind of a bias in our memory is a valid concern. Behavioral scientists talk about something called the ‘peak-end rule’. That is, people usually remember only snapshots or parts of their experiences. Typically, what gets remembered are the most intense (i.e., the peak) and the final moments. As an example, researchers have studied how unpleasant and painful do people find experiences of medical procedures and whether they would be willing to go through that experience again. The results: irrespective of the duration or the total amount of pain that people have been subjected to, their memory and willingness to go through that again is dependent on the worst and the final moments of pain. Hence, it is suggested that doctors be extra gentle and sensitive with the last parts of a medical procedure.
A second question to ask is how good we are at recalling things from the past. Eyewitness testimonies are accounts given by people who have witnessed a crime. Several research studies have investigated how reliable such accounts are. In one such classic study, researchers Loftus and Palmer experimented with how the language that is used altered people’s memory. They showed the same video of a car crash to a group of people. However, in the description of the accident, some participants of their study were told that the cars ‘contacted’ each other; while others were told that the cars ‘smashed’ into each other. Later in the week, these participants were asked to estimate the speed of the two cars. People in the ‘contacted’ condition estimated an average of 30 miles per hour vis-à-vis 41 miles per hour of the ‘smashed’ condition. Moreover, more people remembered a windscreen broken more so in the latter case. In reality, there had been no broken glass anyway. Here, memory had been distorted by the language and the imagery that people had created.
Memory gets constructed and reconstructed based on several factors. It is formed based on the information we put our attention to. And this, in many cases, is not the whole truth. With all sorts of different information bombarding us, we discard majority of it. Science tells us that negative things have 2 to 3 times more effect than positive events. The worst times stick to our minds faster and stronger. Moreover, we like to tell a coherent consistent story to ourselves and to those around us. And for this, we fill in the blanks based on our belief systems. We make associations with our past experiences to make sense of the new information. We make a mental imagery to process and store.
In order to avoid conflicts after team meetings, it is a useful practice to record and document the issues right away. Be aware that our mind might be fooling us and that we might be remembering a wrong version of an event. Give some credibility to another person’s story. Ancient Indian philosophy has placed tremendous importance on Anekantvada – the importance of multiple viewpoints. After all, what gets remembered is often not the full or the true story.
Dr. Kriti Jain