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By Steve Kelman

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Terrorism, the government and bias

marathon probe

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 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Wed, Apr 24, 2013 Richie

"'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."
Can't agree you more!
Especially about the political issues in our society , lots of people choose to hear or see their favorable color and ignore the others no matter what the rational reasons are.

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