By Steve Kelman
Investigators looking for clues and evidence after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. (AP photo)
Everyone knows the phrase "seeing is believing." It suggests a nice, comforting relationship between data and conclusions. We look at the data, and then draw conclusions.
But the distinguished organizational studies scholar Karl Weick has suggested that people's minds often don't work that way. Instead, our minds often work the opposite way – "believing is seeing." If we believe something is true, we notice evidence for it; if we don't, we don't notice the same evidence.
There's a classic lab study in social psychology where one group of college males is shown the picture of an attractive woman, the other group a picture of an unattractive woman. Both groups then listen to a recorded interview with a woman's voice and are told the interview is with the woman whose picture they have seen. Both groups hear the identical recording. However, the students who have seen a picture of an attractive woman rate the interview content as friendlier, more intelligent, and the woman as having a nicer voice than the other students who heard the exact same interview.
I believe this applies very much to our reactions to information about government. I blogged recently about a failed IT project cancelled by a private company. Most people believe IT projects are generally successful in the private sector, and go bust in government. So I'm guessing that most people don't hear the story of the failed private IT project and say "typical for companies." But most do, I suspect, hear a story of a failed government IT project and sigh, "typical for government." Believing is seeing.
I think something similar applies to how many people reacted to the quick apprehension of the Boston Marathon terrorist suspects. With the help of social media, government investigators were able within less than three days to publish high-quality images of the pair that turn out to (apparently) have committed the bombings. As in the London subway bombings from a few years ago, people were caught very quickly.
How do people react to this, given that most people believe "government" is incompetent? Some might not even notice that the police successfully moved very fast on this case. I suspect, though, what is more common is that few people assimilate this success into the category of "government" – that is, "here is government being competent." That category hardly exists for many. So they don't see it. And that is too bad.
I should note that different beliefs produce different things you notice. A day after the bombings I got a note from a friend in Singapore, a country where people generally believe that government is highly competent. The note asked impatiently why the terrorists hadn't been caught yet.
Incidentally, I was amazed and pleased to see that Yael Bar-Tur, a student of mine who graduated from the Kennedy School only last year, has a blog and a consulting business on how the police can better use social media.
Posted on Apr 23, 2013 at 2:57 PM1 comments
Yes, it's (possibly) true. Many who like me have lived more or less our whole lives in the large cities of the Northeast feel we are sophisticated and global, but sometimes we may know and understand London, Paris, or even Beijing better than we understand parts of our own country outside the coasts.
I have been reminded of this inconvenient truth the last few days visiting the Martin School (public administration and public policy program) at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. I realized that this is only the second time I have ever visited Kentucky at all –- I was in Louisville once around 25 years ago to look at the GE Appliances customer call center -– and that my knowledge of Kentucky culture or traditions is minimal. The University of Kentucky is an important part of the city, but this is not a university town –- its population is around 300,000 (three times the population of Cambridge, Massachusetts).
I guess a lot of my impressions fall under the rubric of seeing that many of the elements of coastal "sophisticated" urban culture have made their way to a mid-size city with a substantial base of highly educated people that is in Kentucky, not on the coasts. Two dinners to which I was invited by faculty colleagues at the Martin School were truly superb. One was at a wine bar outside the city that served its own local wine, where the rare duck was actually some of the most tender and flavorful I've ever had. (I will confess that the wine was only a good try, but still.) The other was at a bistro downtown, quite crowded on a weeknight, where I ate -– again superb -– seared tuna with a chile plum sauce. In addition to that, the downtown and campus areas had at least one Thai and at least one Mexican restaurant.
So what else? Longtime faculty members told me that over the past 25 years the regional accents of their Kentucky students (half the class) had softened noticeably. The public administration program is now filled with Asian students, mostly from China and Korea, and the university now does a training program for Korean mid-level government officials. I was surprised to see the airport gift shop prominently advertise their selection of New York Times Bestsellers, with the Times logo. A last surprising similarity with my own area of the country was that housing prices were not cheap, perhaps only 20 percent (if that) below those in the nice Boston suburbs.
So is anything different? Yes. There are horse farms everywhere. The most famous house in the city is owned by the university basketball coach. The downtown -- Lexington is a very old city -- had a strange feel to me, with old buildings (both commercial and residential) that were neither renovated and yuppified, the way similar buildings often are in old midsize northeastern cities, nor dilapidated and collapsing, like so many urban cores 30 years ago. They were somewhere in the middle, and downtown did not hang together but rather seemed more like a collection of random structures. (It didn't help there was a grassy empty area in the center of town, the result of some historic buildings having been torn down for construction of a Marriott Hotel, which then got waylayed by the 2008 economic crisis.)
And -- on the nice side -- it seems as if the large majority of public administration students go to work for government or nonprofits. Often to the state government, but sometimes to federal agencies where the school has connections (mostly GAO it seems).
Oh, and by the way, I felt a lump in my heart when I saw flags at half-staff at the entrance to the university, and even at a local McDonald's, in honor of the Boston victims. Yes, we are one country.
Posted on Apr 19, 2013 at 12:43 PM1 comments
Whether it's Silicon Valley or a New York yogurt factory, the vitality and energy immigrants bring to the U.S. economy are tremendous assets.
Many, especially in the tech world, are familiar with the contributions of immigrants to high-tech business in the United States -- according to some estimates, some 40 percent of NASDAQ-listed tech firms were founded by people not born in the United States. But a fascinating and inspiring article recently appearing in the Financial Times of London about Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who brought Greek-style yogurt to America, reminds us that these contributions to our country are not limited to the high-tech sphere.
Ulukaya came to the United States in 1994 to study English, started working on a farm in upstate New York, and in 2002 opened a small plant making a Turkish-style cheese. He started his yogurt company, Chobani, in 2007 when he bought a yogurt plant that had been shut down by Kraft Food. His idea was to bring a more-natural, less-sugared yogurt onto the market. (And it's worth noting that he got a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration to buy the plant.)
Several years later, Chobani yoghurt sells a billion dollars a year of product, and the company employs 2,000 people. It all started by getting one supermarket on Long Island to sell his yogurt.
There is an important message here, which seems to be becoming more and more accepted in political debate: Immigrants are a source of amazing vitality and energy in the U.S. economy. We should be lucky they want to come here.
With the sad news coming from my hometown of Boston this week, Ulukaya's story is something to cheer us up about the human spirit and about the United States.
(By the way, I'd like to thank all the friends, former students, and others who contacted me either on Facebook or by email to express sympathies for our loss here in Boston.)
Posted on Apr 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM2 comments