Superstitious behavior, or, the elevator didn’t listen

This week’s edition of the Encephalon brain blog carnival includes a timely, rambly post by Kylie Sturgiss about Women and Superstitions.

She’s looking at beliefs that are inconsistent with the laws of nature, or with what’s generally considered rational. As she points out, superstition in a broader sense can mean finding a link between behavior and outcome when none actually exists.

(That should bring the connectivists out of the woodwork.)

My own favorite examples of superstitious behavior (in the Skinnerean sense) are ones I’ve exhibited; probably you have, too:

  • You approach an elevator. The “up” button’s already lit. You wait… and eventually press the button.
  • You walk into a familiar room and flick the light switch. Nothing happens… so you flick it again.

What's up?In a sense, these behaviors are rational. You’ve built up a history with elevators and lights: when you press the button, the elevator comes. So if the button’s already been pressed, but there’s no elevator, why not press again?

Maybe it didn’t hear the first press?

I mention this not just because of the connection between Halloween and superstition. (And, actually, the traditional superstitions — witches celebrating, All Hallows — are vanishing; only recently are we leaving behind more recent superstitions about booby-trapped candy.)

I think there’s a lot of ritual or even superstitious behavior in the workplace. I’m most familiar with training and learning, though that behavior occurs in many other places as well.

We don’t always have time to look for evidence that something works. Organizations tend to be pragmatic, but they also tend to follow Newton’s laws, which is why it takes so many organizations so long to change practices and processes.

Change for a quarter?My division of GE developed a phobia about lengthy PowerPoint presentations. Sadly, one of the most widely-adopted solutions was the “four blocker” — four data-laden slides crammed onto one, like the quartering on coats of arms.

I suppose they were intended to store information for later reference, though no one ever included a magnifying glass. The intended outcome, I guess, was something like “people skilled in or well-informed about X” along with “fewer PowerPoint pages printed.”

In reality, the behavior of creating the four-blocker led mainly to the outcome of “handout never consulted again.”

What superstitions occur in your work environment?  A colleague who shared my skepticism about Myers-Briggs said his type was GFNJ.

Guy From New Jersey.

Multidirectional elevator button photo by bob.fornal.
Arms of the Duke of Norfolk from Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Superstitious behavior, or, the elevator didn’t listen

  1. Kia ora Dave!

    Thanks for this – I laughed at your reference to the “four blocker”. There are several variations of this ancient development. A mutant form is dropping the font size to permit more text to be printed on a page.

    Over four years ago at my workplace of over 500 employees, we had a computer audit. It was sparked by alleged malpractice in the use of the Internet. An insignificant number of employees were caught by this – less than 1%. But it had an effect on some people that was not far removed from superstition.

    Within the workplace, a significant number of people refused to use the Internet, depite assurances given by IT, and the evidence of filters and blockers being (appropriately) installed so that the environment was ‘safer’ to use.

    Some had valid reasons to hold their opinion. It’s complex. But to cut a long comment short, most people did not really know how ‘safe’ accessing the Internet was in the workplace. Neither did they know the extent of the danger, and they did not know how to control those limits for themeselves.

    Now, years later, most look back on the computer audit incident with humour and stories to tell.

    Superstition originates largely because people don’t know enough, or don’t know how to find out enough. I invariably refer to Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detector Kit. It is a wonderful process for dispelling superstitions.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. “Complexity is bad.”

    Often the result is that features and products that are complex to implement but would result in a much less complex, more intuitive user experience get shelved. My arguments normally go something in the line of “of course it’s complex when you think about it — that’s why we let the computers do all the number crunching!” :)

  3. Ken:

    I thought the four-blocker was a satire until I encountered the steely corporate glare of a manager who saw this insanity as just the right tool.

    Along with your welcome suggestion of the Baloney Detector Kit, I’m a big believer in as a counter to friend and especially relations who send feverish, sky-is-falling emails.


    You are so right. I’d go further to say that complexity ain’t necessarily bad, but tedium sure is. Let the damned computer do the tedious stuff.

    At Amtrak, I had to fight far too long to change the interface proposed for Auto-Train (a service to take your car with you on the train from the Washington DC area to Florida). The programmer called for model, make, and year of car — this information helped plan how the car-carriers were loaded.

    But, at least in the U.S., nobody thinks of his car in terms of model, make, and year. (I have never considered my car to be “Civic, Honda, 1995.”) The programmer’s solution? “The reservation clerk can switch the information around.”

  4. Podblack: you wouldn’t have to read many of my posts to see that “rambly” is not necessarily a criticism…

  5. I think it might have been the anecdote about an unnamed person doing the Skinner pigeon-dance in a NY bar… that was fairly silly, on more than one level. :)
    I don’t seem to get track-backs, btw. Something about there not being enough space with all my ramblies.

  6. Podblack:

    Speaking of Skinner, and of his student Tom Gilbert, you might enjoy this account of Gilbert’s study of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. It includes the terrific quote, “My boys is dumber than pigeons.”

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