Pay attention, focus on evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.


Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.

Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion,” says Chris Mooney. “Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”

Moreover, our first impressions are powerful because once we’ve formed a view, other biases kick in, like the tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe (confirmation bias).  There are multiple other including ‘disconfirmation bias’ –  we will fight tooth and nail to hold onto an idea of someone we’re invested in even if information emerges that shows it’s untrue.

Skilled manipulators know and use this. For them it’s all about the set up, finding what the other person values and then pretending to share those views to create empathy. For example, a compulsive liar will say they hate liars to deliberately create a perception that they value honesty and disassociate from the behaviour they embody. They point the finger at others, a clever way to divert attention from what they are doing.

In The Confidence Game: what con artists reveal about the psychology of trust and why even the most rational of us are susceptible to deception shows how predators prey on our propensity for believing what we wish were true.

To counter this, we have to learn to look at what people actually do and not be seduced by words because we’d like them to be the case.

Because anchoring is so powerful we should actively revisit perceptions of people, some start off well behaved to get what they want or make a good impression, rather than because it’s ‘them’.

Real character reveals itself over time and will either confirm what you signed up for or present new information to reflect on. Just as we get more facts about the shape of the world or nature of sub-atomic life and have to revise old beliefs (the earth is not flat) so too we have to update how we see others and ourselves.

An added benefit of judging yourself or others by what they do is that it stops you drifting about aimlessly. Attention is an ‘on switch’ that wakes you up and brings you out of mindlessness into the reality of what is going on.

Pay close attention to what people say (and don’t)

Having said this, it’s wise to listen carefully to what people say.

First, it will reveal the contradictions – so and so says they’re honest but I am watching them blatantly lie, what does that suggest?

Few of us have the desire to rewrite a good impression, it takes time, it takes energy, it evokes disappointment. It’s easier to pretend things are the way we want them to be. Acknowledging what’s happening is uncomfortable and can lead to more uncomfortable questions like: what else do they say that doesn’t add up?

Interestingly people also can’t help telling you who they are. For it to be worth something –

  1. You’ve got to pay attention.
  2. You’ve got to remember what they told you.

Both are doable.

Pay attention

Many years ago I worked with a someone who told me not to put meetings into my diary. After that, I made sure that though the appointments did not appear on my official calendar, I kept a list of every request and notes on a personal device so I could maintain a record.  I have followed this discipline ever since. Who told me to do that? Without realising it, the person did. I listened actively to what was said and what was left unsaid.


It’s also important to remember what people tell us and given the amount of information we receive each day and the shortcomings of memory, a good way is to write things down.

It’s difficult to make sense of things in the here and now because we experience incidents as they are happening so they may seem isolated, but over time, a larger pattern emerges.

It’s human to give others the benefit of the doubt and so we can dismiss one wrongdoing after another in the name of being good hearted. But if your notes show a person drunk and losing their temper and that goes from monthly to weekly then daily to several times a day, giving the benefit of the doubt is ignorant.

Likewise, a colleague can be late on a report or not put in the best effort but if that’s a habit rather than a once-off it needs to be managed.

We all forget things but over time records will tell you if it’s error or intent. Because they spend so much time telling different people different stories, psychopaths contradict themselves, they can’t keep up with the different versions and flare up if questioned or use bullying tactics when others expose gaps.

Writing things down is important even when there’s trust because it provides clarity. We know that communication is tricky and people walk away from meetings with completely different understandings of what’s in and what’s out.

I once had a colleague who I really liked and who was genuine and supportive but whose inputs were difficult to interpret (for me as well as others). I would get the impression that one thing was required and present it, only to be advised they had something different in mind, rinse and repeat. Clarifying outcomes in writing helped both parties.


Focus on evidence

I have always had an analytical mind but this style intensified dealing with someone whose mantra in relation to almost every issue was ‘get me the evidence’.

At first I found it frustrating because I felt we were having conversation and not conducting research in a lab (I thought). It’s easy to put some issues to bed – the latitude and longitude of Canada, the date the Golden Gate was constructed, the elements of the periodic table – but observations about politics, people or daily life don’t yield easily to a ruler. Nevertheless, I was influenced by this evidence-based approach.

I learned to go further than just backing up my statements with research because this was not considered sufficiently rigorous. Data does not exist in isolation, I was told, you need multiple examples, a baseline against which you can measure anomalies, then multiple baselines over time so you know variance is not just a once off, correlation is not causality, etc. I was pushed for more, new, better, higher-quality data.

I am grateful. Over time, it added rigour to my thinking and influenced my behaviour to the extent that I sought data long before I opened my mouth so that I could be sure to support any assertions I made.

I strongly advocate you integrate this approach into the way you live as you will find yourself adding new knowledge and challenging even your most steadfast perceptions and beliefs.

Although we are entitled to have opinions, they can be more or less informed, in particular with technical issues. A gastroenterologist may not know everything about the liver but s/he is going to know a lot more than a non-gastroenterologist for example.

If you still believe we have a left brain and right brain consider that professor of neuroscience Sarah-Jayne Blackmore says “while it is true that the brain is made up of two hemispheres … both sides of the brain work together in almost all situations, tasks and processes… you are not right or left-brained.” We should put the idea to bed.

Do you think we are living in the most violent times in history? Pinker presents significant evidence that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in our history and that the decline is not biological but due to the development of empathy, self-control and reason.

Taking an evidence-based approach to forming views means having good information, so clearly having proper research is imperative. Read. Revise.

Don’t let evidence narrow your focus

While I say that, I will add that evidence is not everything.

Science is about testing a hypothesis through experiments that can be replicated and which generate data. Scientific method is probably the best way we have right now of developing and testing theories and has had enormous benefit but it is limited by the questions we ask and the tools we have for measuring it.

For example, twenty years ago you might have had a discussion about whether it was better to use a medication to coat the lining of the stomach or one to reduce acidity to promote stomach ulcer healing (or both). Now we know more about the cause of stomach ulcers and largely treat this infection with antibiotics. Great method, wrong focus.

One way we work out the right questions is by asking the wrong questions, so it’s a valuable path. But we need to stay open enough, having asked a wrong or inadequate question, to revising it.

Let’s say you have in your mind that a particular person is sabotaging your work. You focus on implementing systems and processes that will reveal if that is or isn’t true. As a result, you don’t ask a bigger question, like are they operating in collusion with someone else or under instruction. Your original, narrow focus might give you evidence that the person is not acting with best intentions towards you but fails to give you deeper insights into what is really going on and so be of little benefit.

How do we deal with this? Maintain an open mind by going back to the data without deciding what it means but rather letting it suggest alternative patterns. What else, who else could cause these results? Be open to alternatives. Eliminate variables. Frame more than one question and pursue all options. Test and re-test your hypothesis.

There are also some things that aren’t readily testable using scientific method. Take the example of a person who stops a car falling on someone with their hands. It’s not easy to replicate the triggers that give a person superhuman strength in moments like these. What about dog whisperers? You can’t whack just any 50 people in a lab to replicate and test their methods, something else is happening. Be open. Confirmation bias exists in data analysis and research, often only studies with a positive outcome are published and we can look at research in a way that confirms our views.

So –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say if it’s in conflict with what they do.
  2. Pay close attention to what people say.
  3. Focus on evidence.
  4. Not let evidence narrow my focus.

Judge people (and yourself) on what they do, but listen carefully to what they say. Likewise, evidence-based thinking will stretch your intellectual boundaries and cause you to revise old beliefs. Most of all, do not be constrained by the questions others ask or their methodology. Let your imagination roam.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *