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Scientists Warn to Beware of Finding Problems When They Don’t Exist

As the prevalence of a problem decreases, we may find problems that don’t exist

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BY Stephen Shapiro - 08 Jan 2019

beware of non-existent problems

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Does it sometimes feel that no matter how hard you work on solving your business problems, you never seem to make enough progress? Does it seem like you are on a treadmill going nowhere?

If so, you are not alone. In fact, it is quite common for people to make excellent progress with solving a problem, yet be unaware of that progress.

What we experience in business is common in society. Although the world is improving in so many areas, polls indicate that people believe differently.

New research by Daniel Gilbert, a well-known Harvard professor, explains why.

His team found that when a problem is solved, the brain searches for different instances of the problem. He labels this phenomenon, "prevalence induced concept change."

According to Gilbert, "As we reduce the prevalence of a problem, such as discrimination for example, we judge each new behavior in the improved context that we have created...Another way to say this is that solving problems causes us to expand our definitions of them," he concluded that, "When problems become rare, we count more things as problems."

In some respects, this is a form of confirmation bias focused on negative outcomes. You are looking for problems so you find problems.

Imagine you are working on improving safety levels in your organization. In the beginning, you might only spot the most egregious issues. The big safety violations would be noticed. As you begin working on the problem and the number of incidences drops, you may subconsciously redefine what is a safety issue. Smaller, less significant problems now get magnified. By rational measures, you are making progress, but emotional measures would refute that.

The same might be true for error testing. In the beginning, larger errors might be easily found. However, after a while, when only smaller ones remain, they still get categorized as errors, and the size of them may be magnified in the mind. Of course, this is not necessarily bad. Eliminating all safety problems or defects, large or small, is highly desirable. However, there may be a point of diminishing returns.

The team conducted some interesting experiments to prove their hypothesis. "We had volunteers look at thousands of dots on a computer screen one at a time and decide if each was or was not blue," Gilbert said. When they lowered the number of blue dots on the screen, dots that were previously considered purple we now reclassified as blue. They were looking for blue and found it, even when it wasn't there.

In another experiment, when subjects were shown faces, as the number of threatening faces was reduced, "people began to identify neutral faces as threatening."

Unfortunately, Gilbert's research found that simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it, and they didn't offer any suggestions. From my perspective, in the business context, one possible solution might involve clearly defining and measuring the problem.

Why does this matter to your business? You have a limited amount of time, money, and resources to solve your problems. If you continue to pursue problems that have been largely solved or are no longer significant, you won't have the resources to invest in other, potentially more critical parts of the business.

So, the next time you think you aren't making progress towards your goal, think again.

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