August 26, 2020
Ear of the Beholder

The comedian Lenny Bruce shared a story in his memoir How to Talk Dirty and Influence People about the first televised debates in the presidential election of 1960:
A person only hears what they want to hear, Bruce opined.

Forty years later, in 2006, an academic study codified Bruce’s observation.

Researchers placed subjects of the study in an MRI machine to monitor their brain activity.

The subjects then listened to positive and negative remarks about their preferred political candidates in the 2004 presidential election between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

How the subjects’ brains responded depended on whether they agreed or disagreed with the remarks. Republicans preferred positive remarks about Bush, while Democrats favored positive remarks about Kerry, and vice versa.

Nothing new here.

Yet, it was how the subjects’ brains responded that was so revealing.

The “reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when the participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored,” wrote Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

Put another way, when people hear information they disagree with, particularly in the political context, their brains won’t absorb and process the information.

Bruce called this his “ear of the beholder” philosophy; nowadays, it’s known as cognitive dissonance.

With the 2020 presidential election drawing near, it’s worth taking note of this blind spot.

None of us are immune to it, and it can’t be cured.

But knowing it’s at work is one antidote to mitigate its effects.

John J. Maxfield, editor in chief of Bank Director
/ ideas, insights and perspectives on
Former astronaut Michael Massimino sees many parallels between the coronavirus-induced challenges associated with remote work and the training and preparation he received to spend time in space.

“We are away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives right now; that’s the way it is in space as well. You can do some really thoughtful, quiet thinking about what life is about while you’re in those situations.” — Michael Massimino, former astronaut

Kiah Lau Haslett, managing editor for Bank Director