There is a difference of judgment in any activity depending if we are an actor or an observer (Malle, Knobe, Nelson 2007). I realized this fact when I was practicing martial arts, long before my studies in psychology. The audience, usually parents, downplayed the difficulty of the discipline and very often judged the activity incorrectly. One of the most common expressions was, “but it is only dancing.”
This comment annoyed many of the new practitioners, but not the more experienced who knew that this was a gross misjudgement. You could see the difference when these same people decided to try the discipline once. As you can imagine, most did not usually go beyond the first attempt as it was physically demanding and much more difficult than they had imagined. Their judgement of the activity observed radically changed when they became an actor.
In our everyday life, we alternate between the positions of observer and actor. In both situations, we make judgments and many of the various decisions we take are based on them. As an observer, we can judge incorrectly the behavior of others. As an actor, we take into account the judgment of observers. It is important to recognize these situations and act accordingly.
Let’s take a concrete example: starting a business. This is a subject dear to my heart as I far too often watch the growing disillusions of entrepreneurs when they take in the reality of things. As the disillusionment grows, only those predisposed (very rare) or those working for pleasure keep going.
The reality is that entrepreneurs work very hard and take on tasks that we would probably never have agreed to do as an employee. You must also be aware that very few projects succeed at first; most stop after the first failure.
When we see talented entrepreneurs in the newspapers, we think it’s easy and as simple as registering a domain name, writing 10 lines of code and then selling your company for millions. The reality is that most successful people have worked hard, often in physical and psychological pain, for many years and have faced all kinds of problems. They made the difference by persevering. All my successes have been preceded by hard work and pain.
It is difficult to realize this when you have not been there yourself. But how do you know before you make a judgement or take an important decision?
The first step is certainly to become aware of any bias and take it into account. It is very difficult as these behaviors are unconscious and judgment is rooted in how we operate.
When you realize that you are in an observer’s position and about to judge and eventually take a decision, you should not be satisfied with the information available. As you may have noticed, observing is insufficient to get an opinion, even if one is aware of the bias. Failing testing it yourself (and you can’t start a business as a test in the same way you can attend a single martial art class), the only solution is to ask questions of the actors. Those who have experience in the field or are in the situation. Do not just question one of them. The more people you question, the more relevant your information.
The only concern with this approach is that it can block you from moving forward. Indeed, if you ask too many questions you can start to stagnate. Everyone now knows that one of the primary qualities of an entrepreneur is his ability to move forward quickly. Many are also characterized by a certain impulsive trait which will be discussed in a future article.
Awareness of the actor / observer asymmetry is directly related to critical thinking: identifying biases, separating fact from opinion and analyzing data. Awareness of our mental functioning is, again, the key.