Lessons from Harvard: Learn to Shift Your Perspective (in Business & in Life!) by Curtis Battles

{4:45 minutes to read} Recently, I accompanied my daughter on a visit to Harvard University. We joined a group of her peers headed up to Boston to meet Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji.

Professor Banaji has done some well-known research into unconscious bias on how people view each other and how their impressions affect their reactions to the world. Recently, she has authored Blindspot, which is described as “a metaphor to capture that portion of the mind that houses hidden biases.”

Furthermore, in Blindspot, Professor Banaji, and Anthony Greenwald explore hidden biases that we all carry from a lifetime of experiences with social groups – age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, or nationality. 

My daughter and I were able to experience a few unique experiments during our visit.

For instance, consider this riddle: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How can this be? Who is the doctor? The answer: It’s his mother. Those who didn’t know the answer likely have the unconscious bias that surgeons can only be men.

At Harvard, we were taken down into an area called the Vision Sciences Lab where a team of scientists studies how the brain adapts to different visual stimulus. There, Professor Banaji engaged the students in some of the exercises that are part of her research:

  • We went into a closed room with all other light spectrums except yellow filtered out to give the effect of being color-blind. On the table were bowls of candies, carrots, and other things. The task was to look at the bowls and sort the items by color. Keep in mind the kids could only see in various shades of gray. The idea was to see if the kids could see enough of a difference in gradation to tell the difference between the items.
  • In the center of a screen was a single green dot bordered by dots of various colors. The kids were instructed to stare at the center dot while the outside ring moved around in a clockwise fashion. The kids then started seeing the colored dots shimmer, then flash on and off. The whole time, the dots on the outside didn’t change at all.
  • The kids were asked to hold a prism up to one eye and close their other eye. A ball was placed on the table and the kids were supposed to reach for it as quick as they could. What they found was that their aim was off to the right, then slowly adjusted to the center. When the ball was moved, the kids tried again to reach for it, without the prism but with one eye closed. When they did this, their reach was to the left. What happened is their brain shifted and adjusted based upon the circumstances.

These exercises were meant to show the kids that science is cool and those scientists are different from what they may picture them to be. Things are not always as they appear and you must be willing to challenge the status quo or your pre-conceived perceptions in life and in business. People come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives, and your ability to adapt to changing conditions and to see things from another person’s shoes will make you that much more effective.

In business, how have you adapted or shifted your perception to work with a broad range of dynamic individuals?

Curtis C. Battles