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Mindlessness at Work

Are your boss and colleagues on autopilot?

Whether or not we are employed as actors on television or the silver screen, all of us have pre-programmed “scripts” that guide our actions in many situations. This means that we can find ourselves operating on a kind of autopilot where everything from our hard-wired evolutionary psychology to the dynamics of our family early in our lives can have an unconscious influence on how we act – and can determine how we assign credit and blame. All too often, then, we may find ourselves acting in ways that, if we actually thought about it later on, would seem quite strange.

It was Ellen Langer of Harvard University, along with Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz of the City University of New York, who performed the most well known study on this topic. While the title of their paper on the subject, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1978, was “The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of ‘Placebic’ Information in Interpersonal Interaction,” it might be better recognized by something more along the lines of the “Xerox Study.” Langer and her colleagues created a simple experiment to examine how people waiting in line to make copies at a Xerox machine would react to someone who wanted to “cut” them in line. In doing so, the experimenters used three different modes of request to gauge how those ahead of them in line would respond:

1. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

2. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?

3. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

The results tell us a lot about our internal autopilots. When Langer’s cohorts used the first sentence, 94 percent of the people in line, perhaps not surprisingly, agreed that the person could cut to the front. Presumably, most people would extend credit and allow someone in a rush to cut him or her in the queue. On the other hand, only 60 percent of the people in line responded favorably when Langer and crew used the second phrase. “Well, if you’re not in a hurry, I see no reason to let you cut,” you might say to yourself. The most interesting result, though, came when the researchers used the third phrase. Incredibly, 93 percent of those people allowed the researcher to cut in line when they simply said, “Because I have to make copies.” When you consider that everyone was there to make copies, you might think that the interloper would be shot down at a rate equivalent to those that used request number two. But, perhaps the use of the word “because” was enough to trigger an automatic and mindless response in those people waiting there.

In many social contexts, all we need to know is that there is some reason why someone is being credited or blamed- even if the reason is invalid or inaccurate. Like many other dynamics we experience at work, mindlessness is relevant to credit and blame not only because it impacts what individuals and groups do or don’t do and can therefore lead to blameworthy outcomes, but also because mindlessness causes individuals and groups to assign credit and blame based on habit and haste rather than deliberation or debate. Unfortunately, in the workplace, individuals and groups may mindlessly say to one another “let’s promote Sam because he’s promotable” or “let’s lay off Gwen because she should be laid off” without rigorously examining whether those reasons are accurate or useful. In Moliere’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” the physician “explains” why opium makes one sleepy: “because it has sleep-inducing properties.” This circular explanation goes unchallenged, as do many of the nonsensical “reasons” for things that we hear every day at work.

More from Ben Dattner Ph.D.
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