Boo! – Perceived Reality

“Help!” squeaked a mouse. “He’s coming!”
Who’s coming?” asked a frog.
“Big Bro,” said the mouse.
“He’s rough, he’s tough, and he’s big.”
“Big?” said the frog. “How big?”
The mouse stretched out his arms as wide as they could go.
“This big,” he cried, and he scampered off to hide.

This is the opening of Jez Alborough’s book, “Watch Out! Big Bro’s Coming!” Once the mouse has alerted the frog to the impending threat, the frog hops off to warn the parrot. The parrot flies off to warn the chimpanzee, holding his wings wide while describing how rough, tough and big Big Bro really is. Chimpanzee is no chump, he runs off to warn elephant. Elephant has no idea who Big Bro is, but he’s scared. They all run off to hide and wait, and wait and hide. Everyone’s hiding and no one wants to sneak out to see if Big Bro is actually coming.

What is reality for the animals in this story? Here are some of the facts: They all live in the same jungle. They know scary animals live in the jungle with them. They know those scary animals are big, rough and tough. They know there is safety in numbers. They instinctually know they need to hide. And, the name of the big, rough, and tough animal is Big Bro. This is their reality.

Leaders must operate in reality, they cannot turn away from it, but what is reality for a leader? Neuroscientists are gaining a better understanding of how our brains actually perceive “reality” by studying a person’s “sense” of reality. We process reality based on our five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. These are the inputs we process. However, in order to save energy, especially when we feel threatened, our brains will use previous inputs to process our current view of reality. This combination of actual inputs and previously experienced inputs combine to become a person’s perceived reality. A person’s perceived reality comes from their beliefs, their identity, and their experienced model of the world. However, a person can become so attached to their perceived reality, or their existing bias, that when confronted with contradictory information, that does not support their reality, a threat can be perceived. Meaning, if you are unwilling to take in new information, or listen to someone who may have experienced the same situation differently than you, then your decisions may be driven by fear.

The mouse in Alborough’s book exhibits leadership strength by identifying a future threat and immediately thinking about the protection of others. He communicates clearly about the threat, allowing others time to spread the facts about the nature of the threat. He supports others in finding safety. But, because the nature of the threat is being communicated in such a way as to confirm an already existing bias, (all of the animals have experienced what it means to meet a big, rough, and tough animal in the jungle) they don’t think to ask more questions or to gain a different perspective on what “big” might mean to a mouse. The already existing bias is sometimes referred to as our cognitive bias. All of the animals in this story interpret “big” based on their own experiences, not mouse’s experience. Both fear and success can blind a leader to their own biases, blocking them from seeing the future environment and its conditions clearly.

A friend of mine recently attended a leadership conference where participants had a session on cognitive bias and its effect on leadership. In one of the exercises participants were asked to write down all of the animals they could think of that began with the letter P, without consulting with anyone else.  Then one person compiled all of the animals listed.  As might be expected, many people wrote down the same animals.  There were some who came up with 5 animals, some with 10, some with 15, but once all of the animals were combined into one list, with no duplicates, there were over 50. One of the ways we can combat our own mental models or cognitive bias is to seek input from others. If the mouse, frog, parrot, chimpanzee, and elephant would have all written down animals that they considered big, rough and tough, I’m sure their lists would have looked very different.

Mouse finally says he’ll go and look. He sneaks out slowly, looking this way and that, then yells, “He’s coming! Hide!” Everyone closes his eyes as Big Bro stomps closer and closer. When Big Bro gets right up to the bushes where everyone is hiding, the little mouse yells, “Big Bro!” One by one the animals open their eyes.

If reality is truth, yet our brains can only process a limited amount of information at one time, then how much of what we perceive of reality is actually true? Neuroscientists are debating just how much of our perceptions are actually made up by the brain (our mental models) and how much of them are based on real-time experiential inputs (new information). In other words, when do we rely on our mental models and when do we allow in new information? Recent books, such as Thinking Fast and Slow by the psychologist and Nobel prize winner in economic science in 2002, Daniel Kahneman, share the research on the systems we use to pull from mental models and the systems we use to evaluate new information. Our fast system, our gut, our instincts, they refer to as system 1, and our slow system, our more logical, thinking, evaluative processes as system 2. It is these two systems, working together, that create a remembered self, based on those experiences. So, what does that mean for leaders?

The frog asks, “Is that Big Bro?” The parrot says, “He’s tiny.” “Teeny-weeny,” said the chimpanzee. “He’s a mouse,” said the elephant. Then, Big Bro looks up at them all and says, “Boo!” All the animals jump as Big Bro says, “Come on, Little Bro. Mom wants you back home now!”

As Little Bro walks away with Big Bro all of the other animals agree that he is indeed rough and tough. Little Bro then looks back over his shoulder and says, “And I told you he was big!” For mouse, his system 1, fast reaction, mental model, cognitive bias was perfect for the situation. For all the other animals, their system 1 models for being scared of those who are rough and tough will stay in tact after this experience, but next time, perhaps, once they found safety, they might ask around for input and see just who everyone thought Big Bro might be.

Until we gain a better understanding of reality, there are ways to practice being open to new information and not solely reliant on your own cognitive biases or allowing your past successes or fear to become your perceived reality.  The next time you find yourself wanting to yell, “Watch out! Big Bro’s Coming!”, pause and,

  • Ask for input;
  • Think fast and slow based on the situation; and,
  • Evaluate your sources of information

before a “Boo!” scares you.