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About that Reality Distortion Field

December 31, 2011

The last few months have provided a fascinating opportunity, albeit one borne out of a personal tragedy, to reflect on the value of unbridled optimism.  In the weeks after Steve Jobs’ all-too-soon demise at the age of 56, a surfeit of blogs, YouTube videos , television shows, print media, and even a rushed-out biography have provided a chance to survey a man’s life in full, and helped to distill the essence of a person who, through the devices that his company made, unquestionably touched the lives of millions throughout the world.

Throughout all the eulogies and commentaries, one question has framed many discussions of Steve Jobs’ life:  What prompted his success? Was it the unique blend of his Buddhism and counter-culture sentiments stirred with natural business sense and cunning?  Was it his ability to recognize the art that could emerge out of technology?  Was it simply being born at the right time and the right place?

One aspect of Steve Jobs I am unfailingly asked about is his ability—through passion, aggression, and charisma—to spin a “reality distortion field” that enticed engineers to believe they could create unachievable products under impossible time frames, or incited customers that they were buying gadgets representing no less than inflection points in civilized history.

On occasion, reporters call because they have heard I am an expert in people holding unrealistic beliefs to unreasonable degrees, and they want to know how to teach others how to achieve that—since, in their view, the best way to gain success and happiness in life is to directly adopt excessive confidence that both will happen.

Let me make two points about such reality distortion fields—especially to those reporters who wish to train others how to acquire them.

The first point is that, typically, people need no training at all.  If there’s any central theme to self-judgment over the past three decades in psychological research, it’s that people are doing just fine spinning such fields for themselves.  In one of my favorite examples, Todd Zenger in 1992 went to two high-tech firms in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked engineers to rate their performance.  In one company, 32% of engineers rated their performance in the top 5%; in the other, the figure was 42%.   It is crowded at the top of the distortion field.

In a more chilling example, over 90% of continuing-care patients suffering from hypertension claimed they knew when their blood pressure was up or down.  In reality, there is no way to tell.  Hypertension is infamous as the silent killer, leaving no symptoms in its wake.  Patients being interviewed knew this official line (over 60% asked the interviewer spontaneously not to tell their doctors about their claimed skill), but they still held fervent impressions that they knew their body best.  Of those who felt that hypertension medication improved their “symptoms,” 70% followed the prescribed drug regimen.  Of those who felt their medications did nothing for their symptoms, only 31% adhered to their doctor’s prescriptions.

The second point is that Steve Jobs’ use of the reality distortion field seems borne not out of optimism but out of pessimism.  His distortions did not lead him to a breezy certainty that everything was going to be okay, that he could sell anything his engineers could slap together, so that he could go easy on his underlings.

If anything, it appears that Jobs was driven by a paranoid pessimism that his products may not be good enough.  Thus, his employees had to produce something that was simpler, sleeker, smaller, lighter, cheaper, faster, better—and put into production more quickly before the competition could react.   In essence, Jobs distorted reality not in service of some unwarranted level of unworried confidence, but rather out of an agitated drive to remove any risk that his products were less than perfect and, thus, more likely to fail in the marketplace.

I think this last point is the important one.  Adopting a confident attitude—even an unrealistic one—may be beneficial under some circumstances, but there are other situations in which such an attitude may carry significant costs.  At times, being unduly pessimistic instead might be the ticket to producing an outcome that’s insanely great.

In other words, being wise about confidence, including unreasonable confidence, might take something like a new serenity prayer—that is, a plea to charge ahead when confidence will help us reach the impossible, to realistically turn away from challenges that will only end in tears, as well as the wisdom to know the difference.  I do not think research psychology has cleanly traced all the circumstances underlying such a prayer.  I hope in the next few years it makes this question more of a priority.

But, in the meantime, it suggests that no simple grand answer to reality distortion will do.  At times, you don’t get to proceed with the reality you want, you have to proceed instead with the reality you’ve got.

Reference

Dunning, David, Heath, Chip, Suls, Jerry M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 5(3), 69-106, doi:10.1111/j.1529-1006.2004.00018.x <http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1111/j.1529-1006.2004.00018.x>

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