A British man fell asleep while making a pan of bacon. When he awoke he saw the image of Jesus Christ burned into it. How does this relate to leadership? After all, I'm a leadership scholar. What do I know about God?

I recently wrote about the research of Dr. Alice Eagly who suggests that women have greater leadership potential than men because women, as a group (of course) tend to have better people skills, are more transformational, and more ethical than men (generalizing, of course). That post touched a nerve with some people who held firmly to the belief that men are the better leaders. Some discussion threads pointed to empirical evidence (and that's good). For example, men start more businesses than women (although I argued that entrepreneurship is not the same as leadership; women are discriminated against in venture funding, when they've been allowed to obtain funding or own a business - historically a 20th century phenomenon). But others were upset because they simply held to the belief in men's leadership superiority (one discussant said, "Jesus Christ was a man, by the way"). This all started me thinking about the psychology of why and how people believe.

As social scientists we strive to be as objective as possible and seek empirical evidence to discover knowledge. Based on this evidence (which is gathered through systematic, objective methods, over long periods of time, by multiple scholars), and our interpretation of it, we develop explanations of the evidence (theories). Of course there are always alternative interpretations/explanations, but we try to rule out alternatives by engaging in theory-testing research (good theories yield testable hypotheses).

That is the approach that Dr. Eagly took in determining that women have less access to leadership positions (evidence of biases that favor men in promotions and opportunities to lead), and attempts to rule out alternative explanations (the evidence doesn't support that all of the discrepancy is due to women's choices, abilities, qualities, for example).

Open-minded thinkers operate like this. They gather evidence, evaluate, consider alternative explanations, look for evidence that supports or refutes different explanations/interpretations, and then develop a set of beliefs.

Many people search for evidence but without the same openness. They seek only evidence that confirms their already-held beliefs. That's where we get to Jesus in the bacon. If you already believe that Jesus Christ (or whatever non-corporal entity, such as ghosts) exists, then when you look in the bacon pan, you interpret what is really random variation (the detritus of burned bacon) as proof that Jesus Christ exists and is trying to provide evidence of his existence. (I actually thought it looked more like my college roommate, George). [Look at Dr. Michael Shermer's work on religious beliefs.]

The problem with this sort of "evidence-based" thinking is that it seeks to confirm what is already believed rather than considering alternative explanations. In addition, the "evidence" is chosen because it supports strongly held beliefs, or interpreted in a way that supports strongly held beliefs (hence Jesus in the bacon). Finally, one person's "evidence" is not systematic; it is based on one individual's experience rather than planned, precise, systematic observation - the method used by science.

An even greater fallacy in thinking occurs when people simply rely on what they feel ("I believe that Jesus is in the bacon pan because I feel his presence."). Emotion-based beliefs make us feel good; they are particularly difficult to challenge and change because changing them hurts. That's why some readers were upset when we presented evidence that women might have greater leadership potential than men. It contradicted their feelings of male superiority.

So, I ask you, is it Jesus in the bacon, or just a random pattern that is interpreted as evidence of his existence?

Follow me on twitter


Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Most Recent Posts from Cutting-Edge Leadership

5 Steps to Great Leadership

How do our leaders measure up?

5 Reasons We Follow Bad Leaders

Is it them or us that’s the problem?

Why Your Friends May Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

... and why it's as much about what you miss as what they spot.