When the Ashtray Comes to Life

One of the best lectures I attended at the recent National Retail Federation show in New York didn’t mention retailing at all.

It was by Laurence Gonzales, an author whom I have admired for decades for such works as “One Zero Charlie,” his memoir about learning to fly, and “Deep Survival,” a look at how people react to events that disrupt or even threaten their lives. What made the lecture such a treat was that I had no idea Gonzales would be the speaker. I was drawn in solely by the title: “Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why? Business Lessons from Disasters” (not realizing until later that “Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” is the subtitle of “Deep Survival”).

Gonzales didn’t talk about retailing, or any business (except aviation), directly. But he did talk about psychological patterns that help our brains make sense of the world, but that can also get us into trouble when misapplied.

Gonzales said that, starting in infancy, our brains assemble “mental models” of everything we see and otherwise experience: “These mental models are what your brain calls up. As soon as it gets a tiny bit of information about what it’s looking at, it eliminates the thing you’re looking at and substitutes the mental model, because that’s the most efficient thing to do.” He claimed that our brains have evolved this pattern as a matter of survival: “Your brain does not want you to see the world [as it really is]. That’s too much work. You’ll be eaten by the tiger.”

Psychological patterns help our brains make sense of the world, but can also get us into trouble when misapplied.

But this sort of patterning can get us into trouble by leading us to do things that are inappropriate, if not dangerous, in a given situation. Gonzales cited several examples. One was an FBI agent who meticulously practiced a disarming motion: Over and over, he would have his partner point a pistol at him, snatch it out of the partner’s hand, then hand it back so he could practice again.

Sure enough, when he and his partner were confronted by a suspect holding a pistol, he snatched it out of the suspect’s hand, quick as a wink...and then proceeded to hand it back. (The partner shot the suspect dead. Gonzales left it to us to imagine how they wrote up that one.)

Gonzales also recounted a personal experience: When he was a child, he regularly vacationed in Mexico at the home of his beloved grandmother. She had an ashtray shaped like a big, coiled rattlesnake. Years later, when he was out hiking, he poked through the rubble of a ruined home he encountered and was astonished to see that same ashtray. He reached for it—and its tongue flicked out. “I jerked away, I didn’t get bit, but I thought, how stupid could I be?” he said.

The point is that the habit of making assumptions is deeply ingrained, even evolved, in each of us. But what may have been good for evolutionary survival can be terrible for business decisions. Making assumptions based on only a few cues, especially if those cues lead you into an agreeable but false vision of what the world is like, is a great way to get yourself and your company into trouble.

Certainly, decision-makers have to trust themselves and their instincts. But they also have to remember that once in a while, that ashtray has a nasty habit of coming to life.

Pan Demetrakakes

Executive Editor
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