Technological advances are changing our lives at a dizzying pace. Things that did not exist a few years back now play significant roles. The Internet, invented in 1990, is now indispensable. Google, an invaluable research tool, only came online in 1998. Facebook arrived on the scene less than eight years ago. It now has so many members (800 million) that if it were a nation, it would have the third largest population in the world.
Technological revolution calls for changes in thinking. Business strategies that were based on how people act in the real world must now be modified – people behave differently online. Executives must plan for the coming year knowing that they cannot accurately forecast part of their revenue stream. IT professionals constantly have to take people’s Internet behavior patterns into account. Marketers need to adapt their messages to a multitude of communications channels. Unfortunately, most people - including senior managers - find that changing thinking patterns is far from easy.
Why it’s so hard to “teach an old dog new tricks”
This challenge is only made more difficult by the fact that, as research shows, a large percentage of senior managers’ foundation beliefs were established when they were in college or shortly after graduation – often a number of years ago. The familiar axiom about learning “new tricks” is backed by science. Respected social psychologist and textbook author Dr. David Myers writes, “The teens and early twenties are important formative years (Krosnick & Alwin, 1989). Attitudes are changeable during that time and the attitudes formed then tend to stabilize through middle adulthood.” Research beside that quoted here by Dr. Myers bears this out. For although some adults clearly change their opinions and beliefs, convictions formed during the college years have proved remarkably resilient.
Researcher James Davis (2004) combed through the National Opinion Research Center archives and found, for instance, that Americans who reached age 16 during the 1960s became more politically liberal than average and maintained that view for many years.
This validates a groundbreaking study conducted with students from Bennington College. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Bennington students were primarily women from wealthier, more conservative families. The young professors who taught them leaned toward leftist political views. Their influence was strong and its effects long-lasting. Bennington women back then became much more liberal than others from similar backgrounds. Some fifty years later, in the 1984 presidential election, while college-educated women in their 70s voted Republican by a 3 to 1 margin, 75% of Bennington alumnae of the same age voted Democratic. Dr. Myers noted, “Their views embraced at an impressionable time had survived a lifetime of wider experience.”
Should your convictions go on trial?
Decisions executives must make affect many – coworkers, stockholders and customers alike. It’s important to ask ourselves if a belief we’re sure of really is true – or carries more weight because we learned it at an impressionable age. Sometimes it pays to question our convictions. Many have enduring power that can stand up to testing. But others may no longer apply as they once did. We benefit from checking our opinions against objective research. As Matt Round, then a Director at Amazon.com put it, “Data trumps intuition.”
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