Gorillas and the absence of altruism

Back in September, Heather Yaxley launched a fascinating and heated debate on the role of PR under the fairly tame title “A radical view of PR“. One thread of the debate centred on whether the PR professional should be representing external views to management or simply representing the organization’s position.

 I would like to revisit the topic by introducing research from two other fields: visual perception and evolutionary biology.

Many of you have probably seen the video of white-clad and black-clad people playing basketball.  When audiences are asked to focus on the white-shirted players, a very large proportion of people completely fail to see to a gorilla that walks very prominently into the scene for several seconds. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness” and seems to be related to another phenomenon called “change blindness”. In both cases, researchers have noted a striking failure to report an object or event that should be quite visible, if the subjet’s attention is diverted. Such discoveries have caused researchers to totally revise their ideas about how our vision works and help us understand how prestidigitation works, why eye witnesses so often tell differing tales, and how an entire financial system can fail to acknowledge blindingly obvious home truths.

The second point that I would like to raise is the definition of altruism.   Our social definition implies doing something for others with no apparent gain for the doer. However, scientists have recently shown that altruism in fact makes us feel good. Brain scans show that the pleasure centres are more active during an act of altruism than they would be otherwise. This is probably because of something biologists already knew: apparent altruism in nature is just another survival tactic. In some cases, biological altruism helps increase the ability of the organism to pass on its own genes. In other cases, the benefit accrues to the community or species. But there is still a payback.

 Combining these two things and applying them to the world of PR, I would argue that this is what stakeholder relations is all about: perpetuating the organization’s chances of survival by using stakeholder perspectives to help overcome inattentional blindness. If management is staring at the white shirts, a stakeholder looking at the black ones might hep them see the gorilla before it’s too late.

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7 Replies to “Gorillas and the absence of altruism

  1. Kristen,

    I still remember the first time I saw this video; in fact, I’d argue that it was one of determining factors in my choice to pursue a degree in psychology.

    I side with your comment about being better at spotting the gorilla at the beginning of your job. I liken it to a martial arts analogy I often use: the most dangerous martial artists aren’t the experienced ones, but the beginners, because they know nothing of restraint.

    Vision and perception, though, are two very different things, and where the novice may see clearly, the experienced may perceive, react.

    The answer? A healthy mix of new blood and experience. That, and a bushel of bananas.

  2. Hi Toni, thanks for enriching the debate. My point about altruism making us feel good is that nature has found a way to physically reward (through pleasure) actions that don’t seem to have a direct payoff for the actor. I was not implying that we should do these things because they make us feel warm and fuzzy. Quite the opposite. These findings have questioned my belief of whether there is such a thing as pure altruism or whether there are just unrecognized rewards.

    In the case of organizations, I don’t think there is any shame in recognizing that stakeholder relationships serve the organization’s interests, as long as those stakeholder relations are conducted in a sincere and non-manipulative manner. So it is OK to listen to stakeholders and choose not to heed them, as long as you do not imply that they condone your course of action.

  3. A very stimulating post, Kristen, which goes straight to the core of stakeholder relationship governance which is one of the issues I had hoped to dig in to one day or another:

    1. if the public relator has the role of representing stakeholder expectancies (not merely external, but also internal and boundary stakeholders which, as organizational porosity increases, are more and more relevant) to management, s/he first needs to identify them very carefully by performing an encompassing boundary spanning exercise, but aimed at a specific organizational objective; followed by a careful segmentation of active and potential stakeholders, separating the two amongst themselves as well as from influentials and opinion leaders, recognizing -from the very beginning of the exercise- that this is not a before-or-after task but a continual one…. as the dynamics and the substance of stakeholder expectations are, in this fragmented society, both very quick in changing. I will not indulge in this phase, but it is important to underline here that all the which follows seems inane if the identification is not effective.

    2. in order for this reflective role to be truly ‘strategic’, it is essential that these stakeholder expectancies be interpreted by the public relator to management before the organization determines its specific business decisions. Otherwise, the interpretation is still relevant, but belongs more to the traditional Bernays-led scientific persuasion mode (I listen to your reactions to my actions in order to improve my communicative performance and better persuade you…which is all fine and dandy and essential but pertains to the normal managerial and operative roles of the public relator). To the contrary, if the interpretation reaches management before it takes its decisions, it is very likely that the quality of these decisions will improve and it is also likely that their times of implementation will significantly accelerate (and this -of the time of implementation of organizational decisions- is today the number one management conundrum that all social, public or private sector organizations are dealing with…. to the paradoxical point that the quality of a specific decision is mostly determined today by the speed of its implementation…).

    3. the next step is the listening phase of active stakeholders and implies, at the very least, a three pronged approach: a) collecting the data as objectively as possible; b) understanding the data as objectively as possible; c) interpreting the data, this time fully in line with the organizational objective and culture.

    4. This is by far the most delicate and sensitive part of the reflective role and this is where Kristen’s inattentional and change blindness issue come strongly into play. There is much to learn also from psychotherapy… in that the analyst, to be effective, needs in the first two phases to get rid of her/his personal as well as organizational values, beliefs, stereotypes… only to reintroduce them in the final interpretation. Yes, it is bloody difficult and tiresome to do this, but there are a number of available and adaptable techniques to be learned in order to achieve satisfactory result, because if we listen to stakeholders only in reflecting our own values and beliefs and stereotypes the interpretation is bound to be highly subjective and we would be mirroring our own selves, or -even worse- our organizational self and when decisions fail to reflect other expectancies besides our own the decisions are bound to be wrong, if not for other reasons because they do not consider stakeholder expectancies.

    5. I also like your reference to altruism. It is important to add here that certain substances have been found and tested which, when adequately absorbed by individuals, increase their levels of altruism. Even more so, scientists have recently proven that by artificially stimulating certain human genes generosity tends to increase in individuals. Amazing!

    6. Having said this, I do not think it is necessary for us to use the ‘altruism makes us feel good’ argument, although it is undoubtedly a very relevant one, if not for other reasons because it evokes our ‘normative’ (sorry Jim….) self. Don’t you think it is sufficient to argue that the adoption of the reflexive modus operandi improves the quality of organizational decisions and speeds up their time of implementation?

  4. But there’s a challenge: how do you keep the eyes of the gorilla spotters fresh? In theory, that’s a PR role, but the longer you are in your job, the more you start looking at the players in the white shirts. I just left a job after 7.5 years, and although I knew the technical stuff much better in the end, I was better at asking the “stupid” questions (Hey, did anyone just see a gorilla walk through here?) in the beginning.

    So how do you build relationships with the stakeholders that don’t draw them too close?

  5. Heather, as always on the money.
    The big gorilla I see is the one that is changing the nature of organisations.

    If anyone in an organisation can link up to any other to create a nexus of relationships to affect how the organisation operates (internal wiki’s, blogs etc) they change the power balance. Organisation are changing as a result and no one seems to notice.
    When such groups include external people in the nexus, management theory looks pretty old fashioned. Who now has the power and influence?

    The second gorilla keeps asking managers ‘Which is worth more the value of relationships or the value of cash?’

    To me, these two gorillas brought the banking industry to its knees and made Twitter a phenomenon.

  6. Kristen,

    I love the input from other disciplines – and also the connection to something we all recognise, even if we don’t necessarily know its psychological term.

    The challenge though is to be able to spot the gorilla.

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