Paranoid About Perception

Andy Grove once wrote a book called "Only the Paranoid Survive." Over the years that statement has been both the butt of jokes and an aphorism for leaders who question everything. Growing up, I was never the paranoid type. I used to trust my judgment and take things at face value. But all of that has changed.

I haven't read Grove's book, but I assume when he speaks of paranoia he is implying that you shouldn't let your guard down. Most paranoid people I know who are in business (as opposed to the ones who are locked up – just kidding) constantly think something bad is about to happen. They think their competitors are conspiring to spring something new on them, customers or employees are planning to suddenly leave, the economy is about to tank, or something similarly bad is going to happen. My paranoia stems from a different place. Like Grove and others, I am paranoid that I will be wrong about the outcome of a certain decision or the direction of a trend. But my paranoia comes one layer before theirs. I am paranoid about my perceptions.

Several years ago when I first became interested in Artificial Intelligence, I decided to learn more about how the brain works. I read a book about brain diseases, and became fascinated by the story of a woman who had Charles Bonnet Syndrome. She had damaged part of the visual cortex in her brain and as a result, had a large blind spot called a scotoma. In this area of her visual field, she would often see cartoon characters. Obviously they weren't "real," but she couldn't tell that from the way she perceived them. Later on, while reading a book by Thomas Gilovich called "How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life," I came upon the following fascinating study.

A dramatic illustration of our facility with ad hoc explanation comes from research on split-brain patients. In nearly all of these patients, language ability is localized in the left cerebral hemisphere, as it is in most people. The one difference between split-brain patients and other individuals is that communication between the two hemispheres is prevented in the split-brain patient because of a severed corpus callosum. Imagine, then, that two different pictures are presented to the two hemispheres of a split-brain patient. A picture of a snow-filled meadow is presented to the non-verbal right hemisphere (by presenting it in the left visual field). Simultaneously, a picture of a bird's claw is presented to the verbal left hemisphere (by presenting it in the right visual field). Afterwards, the patient is aked to select from an array of pictures the one that goes with the stimuli he or she had just seen.

What happens? The usual response is that the patient selects two pictures. In this instance, the person's left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) might select a shovel to go with the snow scene originally presented to the right hemisphere. At the same time, the right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere) might select a picture of a chicken to go with the claw originally presented to the left hemisphere. Both responses fit the relevant stimulus because the response mode – pointing – is one that can be controlled by each cerebral hemisphere. The most interesting response occurs when the patient is asked to explain the choices he or she made. Here we might expect some difficulty because the verbal response mode is controlled solely by the left hemisphere. However, the person generally provides an explanation without hesitation: "oh, that's easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Note that the real reason the subject pointed to the shovel was not given, because the snow scene that prompted the response is inaccessible to the left hemisphere that must fashion the verbal explanation. This does not stop the person from giving a "sensible" response: He or she examines the relevant output and invents a story to account for it. It is as if the left hemisphere contains an explanation module along with, or as part of, its language center – an explanation module that can quickly and easily make sense of even the most bizarre patterns of information.

To add to that, I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, whose work on memory shows that it isn't that accurate and is easily influenced by after-the-fact events. Now, to me this information was world-changing. It crushed much of what I believed in and change the way I viewed the world and myself. In my opinion the sum of this research is that human perception cannot always be trusted. I mention this stuff to people often and am usually met with the response "wow that is neat." No, it isn't neat, it is disturbing. I think we lie to ourselves a lot, but we don't realize it. Why this doesn't bother people more is beyond me. It bothers me to no end to think that the way I perceive things may be entirely wrong. My memory, my senses, my emotions – to some extent they are all lying to me. That is why I am paranoid about perception.

You see, in the process of starting my own business, I have been paranoid every step of the way about what I think. Will people pay a certain amount for our service, will they drive to this area for it, am I cut out to manage this place, is my business partner trustworthy? It is easy to answer all these things, but it isn't easy to know if I am lying to myself or answering honestly. The more sure I am of something, the more I think I am just lying to myself. So how do I solve this dilemma?

Here are the things I do to help me deal with this struggle. I think they are good practices for any businessperson. There are downsides, like the fact that I tend to be more apathetic or ambivalent about complex issues, but so far, these tactics seem to keep me out of trouble, and away from major mistakes.

1. Keep an open mind. I seek out other opinions. I get people to play devil's advocate. I give almost any idea or perspective a chance – no matter how outrageous it seems. I read at least one book a year by someone I totally disagree with or that defends some position (business, political, or religious) that I don't believe in.

2. Don't surround yourself with "yes men" – get people who will challenge you. My business partner is one of those people who likes to mess with others and see them sweat. He is brutally honest and sometimes I think he challenges my ideas or disagrees with me just for the fun of it. I like that. It helps me to see a different point of view.

3. Try to form a broad consensus. If you hash out the different opinions and come up with a plan, it likely is somewhat close to the truth. Of course, you risk getting a half-assed hodgepodge strategy too, so refer to rules 1 and 2.

4. Just do it. I hate saying this, but sometimes you just have to go through with something – anything – no matter what the verdict. If you are paranoid about your decision and can't reach a conclusion, well do something and see if it works.

The thing to keep in mind is that business has two parts: strategy and execution. Errors in perception will primarily lead to problems in strategy, not problems in execution. If you execute well, you can be very successful even with a mediocre strategy.

I am excited about the future of brain research and what it will continue to reveal about us and our decision making processes. Those who keep up with it will be able to use it to their advantage, and those who don't will be left behind. Of course, that view of the future is based on my perceptions, so…

We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are. – Anais Nin