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  Andy Rooney could be best described as an off-beat, out-of-date curmudgeon.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!

Selling Snow Cones To Eskimos

The financial services business is… interesting.  It’s not entirely devoid of good intentions and well-meaning people, but there is no question whose interest is the top priority—and it ain’t yours!  To paint you a picture, I’ve included an excerpt from The Financial Crossroads; the story of how I first entered (then temporarily left) “the business.”

From Chapter Seventeen: Everyone Is Biased:

Snow-cone-210x300 “Everyone is biased.”  Those were the words of a mentor of mine shortly after I entered the business of financial advising.  I had already been working in the financial industry for several years, but this was the second time that my idealistic view of the objective, trusted financial advisor received a healthy dose of reality.  The first time was about three years earlier.  I had just finished celebrating my rite of passage into the stock brokerage world—successful completion of the “Series 7” examination that allows one to sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds, options, and various other securities to the public—when I left my entry-level back office job at a reputable brokerage firm to join a successful team of stock brokers at another firm as a “junior broker.”

I showed up the first day, bright and early, in my token blue pin-striped suit, starched white shirt, and bold power tie.  I sauntered into the team leader’s office to await my very first “Morning Call.”  I listened intently and began feverishly taking notes as a man’s voice rang through a small box detailing the economic events and non-events that were expected to influence the stock and bond markets that day, as well as the state of the current “inventory” that the company held.

As the call wrapped up with a dose of encouragement—akin to a team chant before a football game—I took a deep breath, a final swig of coffee, and moved forward onto the edge of my chair, eagerly awaiting the golden wisdom from my suspender-bound leader as I set out to save the populous from their deviant financial ways.  He stood up, glanced out over the magnificent view of the Baltimore harbor visible from his corner office, and invited me to walk across the hall to get comfortable in my new confines.

He grabbed a three-ring binder, six inches thick, and opened it to the first page.  Then he told me to write down the only note he had taken during the morning call:  “BGE 6.5% Preferred.”  My mission was to call the first number attached to the first name (of many) on the first page (of many) and begin a conversation to help bring whoever answered the phone to the conclusion that they could simply not go another day without putting some of their hard earned money to work for them in this bargain basement deal with an unbeatable yield on this new issue of the bedrock Baltimore utility company’s preferred stock.

I was told to start by putting a smile on my face, because my joy would better translate through the other end of the phone.  I should talk and talk and talk until the voice either transitioned into a static dial tone or submitted to my plea to “talk to the resident expert” in house (my team leader), at which point I should put them on hold and alert the big shark that we had a fish on the line (I’m not stretching the metaphors here; that’s really how they talked).

This was my dream??  Several weeks later, driving home from a client lunch with my leader, I got up the nerve to ask him a question, the answer to which I was dying to know:  “What drives you?  A genuine interest to guide a client to the path of financial success or a pure love of the sale?”

I appreciated his honesty as he let out a “hrmph” and retorted, “The sale—of course!  If this business dried up, I’d sell snow cones to Eskimos!”

He was the resident trainer for the company’s new breed of financial advisors that would guide (or pester) the residents of the Baltimore metropolitan area.  I talked to him a few days later and told him that I felt we had a “philosophical disconnect” in the way we viewed the business.  He agreed, saying, “Yeah, some people just aren’t cut out for the phone,” and we parted on good terms.

The celebrated entrance into the business I had dreamt about since the eighth grade ended in disappointment after only two months.