The Bias Trap

by Jim Stovall

Like many people of my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of 60 Minutes broadcasts every Sunday night.  Whether you liked or didn’t like 60 Minutes, and regardless of whether you believed in their slant on a story, it was—and still is—hard not to watch.

For many years, 60 Minutes did three news magazine-type features followed by a brief commentary by Andy Rooney.  Andy Rooney could be best described as an off-beat, out-of-date curmudgeon.  This is exactly what made his commentary so poignant.  No matter what the topic of his commentary, and regardless of your own personal experience, Andy Rooney could look at any issue from a totally unique perspective.

We lost Andy Rooney not too long ago, just a short time after he retired, having worked into his 90s.  He had an amazing career that spanned from being a war correspondent during World War II through the formative stage and golden years of network TV, up to a point long past where most of his colleagues had retired.

Andy Rooney was fond of saying, “People will generally accept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they already believe.”

It’s easy for me to believe that everyone else, including Andy Rooney, would come to an issue with a bias.  What is hard for me to admit and grasp is the fact that I, also, have a bias in every situation.

My late, great mentor and friend Paul Harvey told me that the most honest he could be as a reporter was to admit his personal bias up front.  We succeed in our personal and professional lives by making good decisions.  We make good decisions by honestly evaluating the situation and our various alternatives.  This honest evaluation is dependent upon our ability to set aside any bias we may have.  In order to set aside our bias, we must admit we have one and clearly define it.

If you’re looking at a choice, a decision, a debate, or controversy, the easiest way to clarify and get rid of your own bias is to argue the other side and present the other position.  This keeps your logic strong and gives you the benefit of an opposite perspective.

During the formative years of my company, the Narrative Television Network, I had the privilege of interviewing many classic film stars.  Among these were Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  These two superstars were the best of friends who seemed to have virtually nothing in common.  For years, they starred on Broadway playing the lead characters in Neil Simon’s production of The Odd Couple.  Jack Lemmon played the persnickety, neurotic neat freak Felix Unger while Walter Matthau played the irascible slob Oscar Madison.  Both of them told me, on separate occasions, that they brought strength, originality, and freshness to their roles because, once a week, they would switch parts, allowing Lemmon to play Oscar while Matthau played Felix.

The late, great favorite son of my home state, Oklahoma, Will Rogers, who was a Native American, was fond of saying, “Never judge a man unless you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”  Mr. Rogers understood that a different perspective would change your focus and eliminate your bias.

As you go through your day today, try to gain knowledge and apply it in the form of wisdom by eliminating your own preconceived bias.

Today’s the day!

Financial Fact and Fiction

by Jim Stovall

It is difficult to make good financial decisions even under the best of circumstances.  There are a myriad of tools and an endless supply of information available to us, but it’s difficult to sift through the debris and get to the true treasures that lie underneath.

In listening to one of the recent political debates, one candidate who felt his opponent was bending the truth was heard to say, “My opponent is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.”

As we try to boil down financial news into information we can utilize, we must separate the fact from the fiction.  Here are a few examples.

If you follow the news reports and talk shows, you might think that rich people don’t pay enough taxes or don’t pay their fair share.  This fiction would paint a picture of idle rich people frivolously spending hoards of money without contributing to the tax burden.  The facts are that the wealthiest few percent of people in America pay the majority of taxes while over half of working adults pay virtually no tax at all.

The fiction one might derive from the media would tell us that most U.S. consumers buy and consume goods that were made in China.  While China has a robust, thriving economy and will certainly play a significant part in global financial matters for the foreseeable future, the financial facts are that only 2.7% of goods purchased by Americans were made in China.  Over 88% of American money is spent on goods and services provided in America by American companies.

Another Chinese fiction would have us believe that China owns virtually all of our government debt which they might refuse to refinance at any point in time, putting the American economy into a tailspin.  The financial facts are that China owns 7.6% of our U.S. Treasury debt.  Our own government owns three or four times more than China, and state governments, municipal governments, and private investors like you and me own more than anyone else.  Our growing national debt is a concern, and once again, China is a factor, but when we’re evaluating the situation we must deal with fact, not fiction.

An alarming fiction tells us that the majority of the energy that the United States uses to keep our economy and defense going is imported from unstable or unfriendly governments in the Middle East.  While the amount of oil imports is certainly a concern and we can all agree that energy independence would put the United States in a more stable position, the fact is that currently the United States imports 9.8% of its oil from the Middle East.  This is down nearly a third over the last decade.  Almost half of our energy is produced right here in the United States with twice as much coming from Canada and Mexico as comes from the Middle East.  This means that approximately three-quarters of the oil consumed each day by the United States comes from right here in North America.

There are plenty of facts to be worried about without creating anxiety over fiction.

As you go through your day today, make good financial decisions based on facts, and eliminate the fiction from your thinking.

Today’s the day!

Mice and Men

by Jim Stovall

Recently, there was a university study done using white mice as the subjects for a psychological experiment.  The mice were put into a cage with a red light and a green light on opposite sides of the space.  The experiment was designed in such a way that when a bell rang, a mouse could rush to the red light or the green light to receive a treat.  The treat was only presented for a few seconds, so that if the mouse guessed wrong and went to the green light when the treat was being presented at the red light, the mouse didn’t have enough time to rush across the cage and get the treat.

The experimenters designed the study so that 80% of the time, the treat was presented at the green light.  After a short period of time, the individual mice became aware of the discrepancy between the results of guessing the red light versus the green light, and they would only go to the green light when the bell rang.  In this way, all of the mice—by only going to the green light—were successful in receiving a treat 80% of the time.

The conclusion of the experimenters was that the mice were relatively intelligent and acted in their own enlightened self-interest.

Then the plot thickened when a similar experiment was done with human beings.  Individuals were put in a room with a red light and a green light on opposite walls.  When the bell rang, they could collect chocolate candy directly beneath one of the lights, but they had to guess correctly between red and green as there wasn’t enough time to get across the room if their first guess was wrong.

Like the mice, after a short period of time, the humans observed that most of the time, the chocolate candy was presented directly beneath the green light; however, unlike the mice, the humans tried to outguess the pattern and rushed toward the red light periodically.

The mice, by recognizing a prevailing condition and only going toward the green light, were rewarded 80% of the time.  The human beings, by trying to outguess the experimenters, were only rewarded 67% of the time.

By any measurable scale of intelligence, human beings can out-think and out-reason mice; however, human beings are susceptible to the thought that they can out-guess a prevailing system.  One need go no further than a casino to see relatively intelligent human subjects participating in a system where they intellectually know they cannot succeed on a long-term basis.

As you go through your day today, think like a mouse when you have no control over the conditions, and think like a human when your effort, energy, and ingenuity can make the difference.

Today’s the day!

Customer Service and Survival

by Jim Stovall

Customers are like teeth.  The only ones you need to maintain are the ones you want to keep.

I hear news stories and ongoing news media coverage about how bad the economy is and how consumers are not spending money.  You wouldn’t know this from going into the average retail establishment today.  The majority of businesses you might enter to purchase a product or service do not provide a level of customer service that you would expect from someone that is not having enough retail revenue.

There is a local establishment near my office where we purchase sandwiches for lunch.  They do not deliver, so we go across the parking lot and pick them up.  They have asked us to fax our orders to them.  This was acceptable, except they explained that they don’t often hear their fax machine receive an incoming order, so they asked if we would call them after we fax in the order.  We set up an account so our staff can simply sign for the lunch when they pick it up.  I mistakenly assumed they would bill me monthly, but when I did not receive a bill for close to a year, I contacted them and had to go through an accounting nightmare simply to pay for all the sandwiches.

One day it occurred to me that I’m working way too hard in a bad economy to spend my money.  If I have to write down the order, fax it in, call and alert them they have an order, and provide them with accounting so I can pay my bill, I’m doing everything but making the sandwich myself.  This situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so commonplace.

I travel often for speaking engagements and movie or TV business.  A polite and professional flight attendant is rare enough that you really notice it when you get one.  This is unfortunate because, due to rising fuel prices and the economy, the airline industry is struggling.  Most airlines’ flight routes and fares are just about the same from one airline to another.  The real differentiating factor they have to offer would be great service, but this is not the case.

In most customer surveys, good service and a polite, professional staff rank high in the criteria prospects use to make buying decisions.  In most cases, great customer service and polite, professional attitudes don’t cost anything but a little effort and energy.  In fact, it is invigorating and enjoyable to serve others.

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to make it easy for people to do business with you, feel good about spending their money, and want to tell others about their experience.

As you go through your day today, determine to separate yourself from the crowd by providing stellar customer service.

Today’s the day!

Persistence and Procrastination

by Jim Stovall

Down the street from my office is a very large media complex containing a TV station, several radio stations, and a large conference center.  At one corner of the massive building, there is a large fenced area where several radio and TV broadcast towers soar hundreds of feet into the air.  Thousands of people drive by this complex every day and have seen the towers so many times they don’t even notice them any more.

Several months ago, a troubled young man—for reasons of his own—decided to scale the fence and begin climbing one of the towers.  By the time anyone noticed this young man perched on a precarious ladder hundreds of feet in the air, it was too late to stop him.  Police, ambulances, and emergency rescue workers were called to the scene and began efforts to persuade the young man to climb down from the tower.

The young man either ignored them or periodically threatened to jump.  As will happen with any large gathering, the media was soon on the scene.  TV, radio, and newspaper reporters began around the clock reporting of the ongoing activities of the young man who became known as The Tower Guy.

This went on for days and, somehow, the reporters found things to talk about.  The young man became dehydrated, sunburned, and appeared to be disoriented.  Finally, one heroic rescue worker was able to communicate with the young man and talk him into coming down.

The final media reports described how persistent The Tower Guy was in remaining on his perch for many days.  It’s important that we don’t confuse persistence with procrastination.  It is easy to think that persistence is doing something repeatedly or constantly while procrastination might be thought of as doing nothing at all.  In reality, too many of us are like The Tower Guy in that we persist in doing nothing of importance which, in reality, is procrastination as it relates to the things in life we know we should be doing.

Practice does not make perfect, in spite of the old adage.  Practice makes consistent.  Only perfect practice will make something perfect.  Persistence is only a virtue if we are persisting at doing things that matter to us and make the world a better place.

Most people perform activities today because they performed the same activities yesterday and will do it all over again tomorrow.  Before you do anything as a regimented part of a routine, make sure you know why you are doing it, what it will accomplish, and when you will be done.

As you go through your day today, make sure you’re investing every moment wisely and not just repeating mindless activities because that’s what you’ve always done.

Today’s the day!