You have everything to gain by thinking outside your own box!

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Maybe you’ve been successfully brainwashed and just don’t know it. How would you? Pretend you were kidnapped by the People’s Liberation Front of Jordania, which originally attracted you by serving your favorite brand of spaghetti sauce every night of the week (yum!). They successfully brainwashed you, and now you would go on raids with them, eat with them (spaghetti!!), live with them, and genuinely believe in their cause. If someone said to you, “The PLFJ has brainwashed you,” you wouldn’t believe them. You’d go back to contentedly slurping spaghetti.

Schools brainwash us

This is more than an academic question, though it arises in academia as well. People attend schools where they learn certain ways of thinking and are taught that some thinking is preferable to others, or even that some thinking is “right” and some is “wrong.” For example, they teach that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not vice-versa. For centuries, people believed the opposite, and could even be put to death for suggesting the Earth orbited the Sun. So which is the brainwashed? Both have their belief systems, both indoctrinate new people into those beliefs, both have evidence that suffices for them, and both would view the others as living in a fantasy world.

In Business School, students are taught to do cost/benefit analyses, and many of them reframe their entire world in terms of costs and benefits. Great for balancing their checkbook, maybe not so much for making their Sweetie feel loved. “If I spend five minutes cuddling and my time is worth $45/hour…”

In contrast, philosophy majors are taught there are many ways to approach a problem, and may have a very different way of thinking about life (“Amour! Eros! Love! Let’s cuddle!”), and be lousy at balancing their checkbook.

Who’s “right?” Both are. And both have habitual ways of thinking that were taught by a school. How are the schools not brainwashing institutions?

Politics brainwashes us!

Scott McLellan, Pres. Bush’s former Press Secretary, just published a book that reveals how he now believes he had been manipulated and misled for years by Bush. It wasn’t until he left the administration, however, that he had enough perspective to question what he had been told and been living for several years.

We’re all brainwashed, all the time.

If you think about it, you’re probably the member of an exclusive club, all the way down to having your own language. Maybe you’re part of the business club, and you talk about “profits” and “margins” and “business models.” Or you’re a Swing dancer and you talk about doing a “Texas Tommy” (isn’t that illegal in 39 other states?). Or you’re a graphic designer and you know what “Pantone” means.

Now think about your organization. You probably have your own shared beliefs. Those beliefs are a form of brainwashing, and you don’t question them. Everyone takes them for granted, and those who don’t are marginalized or ignored. But the world changes! Yesterday’s “common sense” is today’s backward thinking. “Cars will never take off; they require pavement, and who’ll pay to pave a downtown when so few cars exist to use the roads?”

Sometimes, the world doesn’t even change, the conventional wisdom is just wrong. “The world will only ever need four computers.” “Customers will never buy water in bottles when they can get it free from the tap.”
“I’m really happy to listen to you talk about your ex-boyfriends, dear.”

Find freedom beyond your assumptions

In organizations, getting through your brainwashing is the key to innovation, creativity, and “thinking outside the box.” Indeed, it’s your shared assumptions that are the box!

The key to getting past your brainwashing is to seek out evidence that you might be brainwashed. Write down some of the reasons you know your business is successful:

  • People love our customer service.
  • We are the low-cost provider.
  • We hire the best and the brightest.

Now write down some of the reasons you know your competitors are doomed to fail:

  • They just don’t “get it.”
  • Our customers would never like their product.
  • We’ve locked up the biggest, most important customer.

Take the reasons you just wrote down, muster your courage, and spend some time exploring each one. If your belief is false, how would you find out? What data would you seek? What trends would you be following?

You don’t just have to re-examine your work assumptions. You can also list things you “know” about your family life. Stuff like, “my teenagers won’t listen to me” or “watching TV together is the highest form of quality family time.”

Start seeking some data. Start following some trends. Try a few alternatives. Find out where you’re following the herd, and where you’re really in touch with reality. You’ll learn how much of your life is groupthink, rather than YOUthink. You’ll find yourself thinking outside the box. Although it could scare people around you, it might open your eyes to a whole new world of opportunity. There are advantages to being the sighted man in the land of the blind, and not just because it makes it easier to button your shirt…

Groupthink, brainwashing, and politics: eek!

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