Interesting Stuff About Conflicts of Interest

When there is a conflict of interest, people can easily abandon their ethics and serve their own needs. Even good people. Not because they are complete jerks (or jerks at all), but because they don’t actually see what they are doing.

In this clip, Dan Ariely tells a story about why you shouldn’t trust your dentist. The dentist has something to gain from selling you dental services / products but you don’t necessarily NEED the service / product. Gray / silver colored fillings are functionally the same as white once yet the white ones tend to be sold first.

The entire conversation is great, shocking actually. But it gave me some insight into why I despised selling supplements when I was a trainer – because someone was gaining from them being sold and it usually wasn’t the person who buys them.

So what?

By knowing that your service providers are capable of shifting their ethics when they stand to gain from a particular outcome that they can influence, you will maintain a level of objectivity that will empower you to make the decisions that are right for you. Keeping this in mind is always the correct thing to do, particularly when faced with the fact that they may not even be aware of their subjective bias.

Their lack of knowledge is actually what obligates you to maintain your objectivity as it serves your best interests and helps them to maintain their ethical identity.

Why is it so tough to call someone on their bias?

As Dan states in the video “once you meet someone face to face it is incredibly unpleasant to mistrust them.” It can seem like (and be received as) a slap in the face to them and it serves as a reminder that we can’t actually trust ourselves when it comes to vetting bull-crap. The second point is true for everyone so the first point is irrelevant – so what if they or you feel mistrusted, the science supports the fact that people CANNOT be trusted when there is a conflict of interest. When someone stands to gain something, there is a very good chance that they will lie without realizing that they are lying.

Your call to action

Stand-up for your best interests. Ask them for the proof when they make a claim. If something is described as better, find out if this is based on evidence or is just an opinion. Educate yourself. Perform your due-diligence before you buy. Learn to accept that bad feeling you get when you say “no” to someone by realizing that you can buy later. Notice the way you feel when being engaged by others and become aware that being manipulated feels like something; if that feeling is triggered, understand what is happening and move on.

Your Brain Talks To Their Brain

Let’s take a moment to consider what is actually happening during a conversation; we’ll take a few passes at it striping away the layers of narrative to reveal something wonderful.

Two people are talking, exchanging ideas and information.

The ideas and information are created, stored and processed by the brain. The ears and mouth are the tools the brain uses to transmit and receive information.

The sound waves are manufactured by the vocal chords based on the nerve impulses that represent the information the brain is trying to transmit. The sound waves are received and shake the ear drum of the other creating nerve impulses that are channeled into the brain for processing.

The brain is the center of all information processing, the body is a tool that the brain uses to give-out and take in information.

During a conversation, two brains are interfacing to trade information. Any other distinction we add serves only to complicate what our understanding of what is happening.

So what?

This simplifies things. The fact that you are talking to the other persons brain, and that it is actually your brain talking to it, opens-up the ability to alter the way the other persons brain processes the information. The brain does not do the same thing with all the information that comes in. First off, different parts of the brain do different things with information. These parts are all interconnected so the combination of possible routes through the brain is limitless. Next, not all parts of the brain are active all of the time – the ramifications of this are that certain types of information / information processing services may not be available all of the time. This can be due to lack of fuel, chemical inhibition, or the conscious by-passing of processes.

It also complicates things. After all the narrative stuff has been stripped away we’re left with two of the most powerful information and pattern matching machines interfacing to exchange ideas. But how often does one really consider this fact during a conversation? Rarely. For most of us, there are two people, separate from each other and their environment. They are talking, exchanging stories, facts and feelings. They likely believe that what they are talking about is important and of significance in their lives. The impact of these narrative layers is powerful and it can bias the way the information is received, twisting the way one perceives facts. Imagine, for example, the impact a volatile relationship can have on the stories one tells their brain about what the other person is doing.

What does this mean?

Well, if you have the self-awareness to realize that there’s a lot going on in your brain and that you are only aware of a small portion of what it’s doing, you’ll see that there is a big difference between knowing this to be a fact and not knowing that it is a possibility. Those that know gain insight and control over their thinking simply because they accept that the brain is a machine and that consciousness and spontaneous thought are just consequences to it being a brain. Emotions are other consequences and they reflect a match of a pattern that is significant for some reason. Pattern matching isn’t perfect, and miss pairings are very simple given the amount of sensory input flowing into the brain while something is happening. Realizing that you are your brain is liberating. We can learn new patterns / pairings, we can stop thoughts at will and direct our mind onto the things we want, we can accept that some of our automatic behaviors are based on poor information collected years ago and we can replace them by doing the things that work for us.

Those that know that they are their brain are at a distinct advantage when they engage other people because they know how the other person can approach the world – as self-aware or not. This distinction is very important when communicating effectively with others. If a person doesn’t have much self-awareness, you are talking to their mind, their understanding of the world, all the assumptions and lessons they hold. With a self aware person, you are talking to someone who realizes that their mind can add or remove the different levels of narrative (those mentioned above when describing what is happening during a conversation) so you are able to engage the each other in the most effective way – your brain talking to their brain.

You Are Seeing What You Want To See

Rachel was talking to me about people watching. She was relating a story about an interaction between a man and a women that was fairly innocuous but extremely passionate if you watched their body language. When I asked her who she thought the two people were to each other she laughed and said that isn’t why she does it. It’s interesting for her to watch without trying to create their identities or piece together the lives they may be living. I wondered about this for a minute because while I like people watching and tend to pick up on some of the more subtle aspects of the interaction, I’m always trying to piece together who is who and why they are doing what they are doing. I started thinking about how this tendency may be corrupting or biasing what I actually perceive.

Human beings have a very good reason for trying to make predicts about people’s intentions and behaviour. We are social creatures so historically speaking our chance of surviving are increased if we are well liked by others because they will let us become part of the group. Apart from being social creates, we are also rivals to those in the same peer group – we need others to survive, but we also need to compete against others to thrive. Anything we can do to give us a leg up on the competition is most likely going to help us. To this end, we make predictions about people when we see them. In “Blink” Gladwell referred to making these predictions as thin slicing and uncovered a number of instances when they are very accurate. The fact that we have this innate ability that is often correct indicates a survival advantage to having it so it’s natural that we do it.

I’d assume that because it presents us with a survival advantage, we’re going to be better at predicting things that could hurt us and less effective at determining things that have nothing to do with survival. Rachel watching the two people in the coffee shop is an example of a situation that isn’t going to impact her life from a survival stand point. As a consequence, she has gained the ability to shut off the natural tendency to make predictions. What she lets into her brain is the raw sensory information and from there it is not interpreted. It simply exists as information and it is encoded without biases.

For the predictors, they thin slice a situation and begin to collect data that confirms their prediction. This can have disastrous consequence to the accurate interruption of events. There are countless stories of doctors making bad calls about stuff even in the face of imperial evidence that indicates an alternative cause. Doctors need to stay open and assess all of the information they collect in order to make the best guess about the cause of an illness – there is a reason why they are called educated guesses.

The issue with making predictions about stuff is compounded by the fact that we try to be right and will go to great lengths to BE right whenever we make a guess about something. For example, people who are betting on horses at the track will report a big boost in the confidence about their bet as soon as they put money down. This more complete buy-in after making a prediction likely helps us to conserve mental energy because we no longer need to think about the subject and buy-in is needed for the formation of survival rules – if you fail to believe the rule you created you are not going to modify your behavior and will have learned nothing.

Those prone to make predictions and seek to validate them need to pay particular attention to collecting ALL of the information and remaining open to new information that may become available. New information SHOULD change your opinion, either to reinforce it or to detract from it. Otherwise the accuracy of the predictions will always be suspect.