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OP-ED: Ergo, therefore, ego

  • Published at 01:38 am September 7th, 2021
anti-vaccine demonstration in New York
People gather during an anti-vaccine demonstration in New York REUTERS

Four standard pitfalls to attaining thought leadership

It’s no surprise that people are conscious and aware of their surroundings. What is often more of a surprise (even though it ought not to be) is that opinions on critical matters often differ despite similar external stimuli. 

Covid-19 brings this difference in opinion more to the forefront. Debate and disagreements run intense (and hot) between vaxxers and anti-vaxxers in any given community -- with each accusing the other of being sheep. Not surprisingly, this debate finds its epicentre within the borders of the United States of America, a nation that at this crucial time is anything but “united.”

Given the state of the virus and its progressively infectious variants, personally, I feel that the administration of the vaccine is vital to counter this global pandemic. Ergo, I lean, heart and mind, on the side of the vaxxers and by that definition cannot understand why anti-vaxxers propagate “inane” arguments to bolster their cause, especially on the backdrop of so many “preventable” deaths. 

My last sentence reveals a communication pitfall; I am so biased to my own beliefs (ego) and convinced that my “side” is right that I refuse to consider that the other “side” may have a pertinent argument. (They probably don’t, but I can at least admit that I have not looked at the argument from the other side without some amount of derision, disbelief, or ridicule.)

Covid-19 may be too sore a point, regardless of which side of the fence we argue from, to see the distinction. Incredibly, national politics could be considered a safer option to debate than viable Covid-19 protocols; of course, the exception is the politics in the United States, which is surreptitiously the same as Covid (again an opinion that proves that bias pitfalls are hard to get out of).

If we were to label this kind of a “pitfall,” we would have to say this was a “confirmation bias” -- arguments that support our opinion are valid and only worthy of consideration. The validity of any thought leadership communication is always tainted with the receivers’ communication bias. We believe them if we like the messenger (or company); if we do not, we suspect ulterior motives. 

The answer to what triggers confirmation bias is as tricky as it is personal. Bias usually trickles down from parent to child and is a product of the environment we live in. This bias continues to spread only until someone consciously breaks the chain.

Unless we make a conscious journey to challenge it, it is easy for confirmation bias to set in or reaffirm itself in our daily lifestyles. There are four distinct pitfalls in communication efficiency that work against thought leadership ideas:

Discovering individuality through conformity

As a rule, it is always easier to follow than challenge the status quo. Communities make individuals feel a sense of belonging. Pushing against community “values” puts individuals in a spotlight they may not wish to face or a position they do not wish to defend. 

After all, if one pushes against what the community sees as a widely accepted belief, there is the risk of alienation or, worse, ridicule. Paradoxically, teenagers push the boundaries to find their individuality by conforming with what all teenagers do -- rebel.

Algorithms dictate information at the fingertips

Most of us these days get our news or views from the internet. Before that, we got our news or opinions from newspapers. 

Just as newspapers of old towed a specific viewpoint and coloured the news with its own bias (to be subscribed by people who feel the comfort in the conformity), the internet uses algorithms to determine what type of information the surfer prefers and populates search engine results with news or opinions that conform with the individual. 

Other viewpoints may never surface to challenge the status quo or present a dissenting argument, thus reinforcing the confirmation bias since all the news and views seemingly available confirm the individual’s beliefs.

Breaking out to break back in

The situation is not much different when we consider the outliers -- the ones that challenge the status quo. In 1984, Apple challenged the status quo as the outlier company that shook the personal computing space. 

Since then, the company has pushed against the conventional way of doing things and introduced products that have redefined the space. So much so that thousands of people have bought into the aura and adopted that mantra of “challenging the status quo” for themselves and see themselves as outliers … except Apple isn’t open to allowing its users to break out of the Apple-ized conventions they have established. Cue in point number one -- discovering individuality through conformity.

In a more localized context, all the works of Kazi Nazrul Islam, our rebel poet, celebrated for his push against convention, now suffers from overzealous protectors that insist that his work not be reinterpreted in any form beyond the original rendition. Our rebel poet must be turning in his grave that the core value of rebelliousness has been institutionalized and conformed to fit a new convention.

Opinions matter most when they are shared

New ideas need to find purchase for them to find acceptance. However, deep-seated confirmation bias often makes it so that only new ideas that resonate with our pre-held beliefs find purchase in our psyche. 

Ideas pushing against conventional and accepted “community values” are disregarded as noise or wholly dismissed as damaging propaganda and “fake” news. A neat segue to a bonus pitfall: 4a. Re-considering pales against de-considering: It is easier to disregard a message that does not fit in with our psyche than reconsider our position in the context of this “new” and “radical” information being something to take into account.

For the natural communicator, the challenge is two-fold -- being aware of and finding the balance that reaffirms an audience’s ingrained social or cultural bias with enough information to introduce a new concept that gently pushes forward but does not disrespect their viewpoint. Attaining thought leadership, if it is to come, comes piecemeal.

Talat Kamal is a PR & Communications Consultant with more than 25 years of experience in corporate and media communications. He can be reached at [email protected]

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