Forget About The Known Unknowns, It’s The Unknown Unknowns That Get You Every Time

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There’s an old adage that stipulates “generals are always fighting the last war.” This says more about the stultifying effects of age and experience than it does about military acumen.

As we live our lives, we accumulate knowledge. We use this knowledge to provide convenient short-cuts when we make decisions. That’s a good thing.

But those short-cuts assume a certain kind of status quo that cannot exist. That’s a bad thing.

Since we’re on the subject of old adages, there’s one from ancient Greece which warns “you can never step foot in the same river twice.”

At first that makes no sense. Why, just about any GPS will lead you to the same river time and time again. You can even dip your toe in each and every occasion.

Ah, but is it really the same river? Has not the water you touched that very first instance traveled far down the river and probably emptied itself into some larger body of water?

You see, a river is like time. It is constantly moving. The only way to make it stand still is to Continue Reading “Forget About The Known Unknowns, It’s The Unknown Unknowns That Get You Every Time”

Blackballed Again: Are You Prepared?

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Be honest. If the title had been “Are you prepared to be cancelled?” would you be reading this first sentence? Or how about “Are you prepared to be de-platformed?”? Would that have lured you in? Or does it sound too geeky?

The fact is, those modern-day synonyms merely reflect an awful tradition that dates back centuries, if not to the beginning of man’s time on Earth.

Indeed, there’s a really bad 1986 movie called The Clan of the Cave Bear. It stars Daryl Hannah, whose main character is ostracized from her Neanderthal family. As far as I can tell, they blackballed her because, unlike all the brunettes in the clan, she had blonde hair. (Of course, being caveman times and the lack of adequate shower facilities, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe her as a “dirty blonde.”)

In terms of good cinema, there’s always Looney Tunes’ 1953 cartoon “Bell Hoppy,” featuring Sylvester the Cat voicing the phrase “Blackballed again” when the Loyal Order of Alley Catz Mouse and Chowder Club declines his membership.

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of being left out. It usually happens when Continue Reading “Blackballed Again: Are You Prepared?”

How Divide and Conquer Works (And How To Avoid Falling Prey To It)

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While getting his MBA from Duke, a college classmate of mine was asked by a visiting speaker why my classmate thought he (the speaker) preferred hiring ex-athletes?

Now, my classmate was the perfect person to ask this question to. He’s played hockey from his youth to well into his adult years. He is the ultimate athlete, the ultimate team player, and the ultimate performer. I don’t know if the speaker knew his background prior to asking the question, but he could sure guess it once my friend offered his answer. This is how the young MBA candidate responded:

“You prefer to hire ex-athletes because of the following traits: alignment toward a common goal, teamwork, communication, trying to perform your best, etc.”

The speaker said that was all good, but it wasn’t the biggest reason he hired former athletes. As my friend later retold the story to me, the speaker continued, “No, but the biggest reason I hire them is because they know how to lose! They evaluate what went wrong, what to do to avoid repeating those mistakes, then accept it and move on. You can’t dwell on a loss. You learn from it, then regroup for the next challenge. You can’t afford not to put it behind you. To succeed, you must look forward. Plus, the motivation from the sting of the loss often pumps up determination and performance in the next event.”

Truth be told, that’s only half the story. You must not only face a loss with stoic maturity, but the same holds true for how you face victory. In other words, you should not be a sore loser and you should not be a sore winner.

Coaches teach their teams this all the time. Why? Because sport is just as much mental as it is physical. In team sports especially, psychological strategy and tactics can easily become part of the game plan. It’s used not only from the attack side, but also from the point of view of defense.

Think about it. Teams talk trash for a reason. That’s the offensive tactic. You try to rattle your opponent. You try to get him to question his last play, his overall strategy, and, ultimately, your own confidence.

But there’s a broader objective in team sports. Your psy-ops campaign not only attacks the individual, it attacks the opposing team itself. To be most effective, you employ a “death by a thousand cuts” tactic. You don’t aim to smack an out-of-the-park homerun. Instead, you target the weakest link (i.e., player) and drip, drip, drip a steady stream of base hits.

When it works, the other team begins to question the abilities and value to the team of the targeted player. Other players on that team take sides. Eventually, they start arguing with themselves.

At this point, not only did your psychological campaign bear fruit, but you know you’ll likely win the game.

This is called the “divide and conquer” strategy. It’s used in any arena involving organized groups. That could include sports, businesses, political parties, and even entire nations. It’s a quite effective strategy and, because of this, nearly all leaders, no matter what their field of battle, consider it among their arsenal of offensive weapons.

Yet, is this an ethical way to win? That’s a question many ask. But, in the spirit of the speaker at Duke, it’s not the right question to ask.

The better question to ask is “How does my team avoid falling victim to a divide and conquer strategy?”

Face it, you may have the moral standing to remain stalwart. Your honor, upbringing and discipline may prevent you from crossing that ethical line. That doesn’t mean your enemy won’t use a divide and conquer strategy against you, though.

For that reason, the moral question isn’t the one you should be concerned with. The question you need to concentrate on, learn the most you can about, and discuss with your team is the one that addresses how to defend against an opponent who uses a divide and conquer strategy.

It’s incredibly easy to know how to defend yourself. Alas, it’s extremely hard to actually do it. The temptation to take that first step on the slippery slope is too alluring.

This truth is greater if your ethics prevent you from employing a divide and conquer strategy, for those very same ethics can be used against you. They can force you into falling into the divide and conquer trap. Worse, you won’t know it until it’s too late.

It only takes one weak link in the chain of your group for divide and conquer to succeed. When expertly exploited, the divide and conquer strategy can destroy your team, your company, your nation.

Here is a stark real-life example of how this works.

During the Korean War, American POWs were held in Chinese-run prison camps. In his book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, (Collins Business edition, 2007), behavioral psychologist Robert Cialdini says “the major intent of the Chinese was not simply to extract information from their prisoners. It was to indoctrinate them, to change their attitudes and perceptions of themselves, of their political system, of their country’s role in the war, and of communism.”

They accomplished this not by browbeating or torturing the POWs, but by using the POWs own ethics against them. It was deviously simple. It began with getting them to admit that no one is perfect.

That’s easy, right? Do you believe that anyone is perfect? Certainly not. No human can be perfect.

And if no human can be perfect, it naturally follows that no group of humans can be perfect. That group can include your unit, your branch, and, yes, even your country.

It’s that simple. The devious Chinese got many (but not all) of the POWs to write down a simple anti-American phrase like (per Cialdini) “America is not perfect.”

Sounds harmless, right? But that’s precisely the first step on the slippery slide. Did it work? Definitely.

Dr. Henry Segal, the neuropsychologist who studied the returning POWs, concluded the Chinese achieved their purpose. He said the POWs experienced higher rates of “defection, disloyalty, changed attitudes and beliefs, poor discipline, poor morale, poor esprit, and doubts to America’s role.”

Of note, the POWs at the North Korean-run camps were treated more harshly. Their American spirit remained high.

Cialdini (in Influence, Science and Practice, Allyn and Bacon, 2001), identified six areas of influence. The one described above falls under the category “Commitment and Consistency.” There’s a lot more to it than this. But it defines both the “drip, drip, drip” tactic (regularly nagging the POWs to write very small anti-American statements) and the “divide and conquer” strategy (the end result being disloyalty, poor morale, and doubts about America.”)

The best defense against this is, in so many words, to look before you leap. Cialdini says to look to your heart and your stomach. If it doesn’t feel right in either place, don’t do it. This advice might be too subtle for most of us to put into consistent practice.

Sports coaches have a better defense. Cialdini might disagree with it, but it has this one merit: it works.

A coach will tell his team two things. First, never criticize a teammate or the team, especially in front of another team. (Marv Levy masterfully turned the “Bickering Bills” of 1989 into four straight AFC Champions by doing this.) Second, if a teammate is attacked, defend him, even if it looks like he instigated it. (Watch what happens in a hockey game when someone takes a cheap shot at a player on the other team.)

There’s one final piece of advice: always be alert to the possibility someone (or some group) is trying to create a division in your group. They’ll usually target one person, the person they think is the easiest to convince you that they have a fault.

Don’t let them convince you. Stick up for your team through thick or thin.

You may lose this game. But there’s always the next game. Without a team, there is no next game.

And, please, when you are fortunate enough to win, show some respect for the loser. Don’t gloat. Don’t act superior. Don’t spurn him like he’s a pariah. Treat your opponent like you’d treat your neighbor.

I’ve written more on this subject. If you read this Commentary on our web-site, I’ll supply links to the following articles:

How to Protect Yourself From Being Hypnotized Without Knowing It |

The Effective Use of Nonverbal Communication as Related to the Game of Chess |

The Dark Side: A Review of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert B. Cialdini et al |

Don’t Be a Patsy! A Review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini |

A Book Cover to Judge: A Review of Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini |

Criminal Hubris: It Gets Them Every TIME

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Search for the term “criminal hubris” and chances are you won’t find anything (except, hopefully, this woeful column). We know what a criminal is. We know what hubris is. But there is no definition of “criminal hubris.”

Yet there is, and it’s staring at us right in the face. Metaphorically, it’s all around us. Cinematographically, it resides on the screens we watch. Its roots, however, lie within the body of literature – both philosophical and dramatic – we ought to be most familiar with.

Whether as a metaphor for real-life, a character in a story, or an actual crime, “criminal hubris” is easy to spot (if you’ve got a trained eye), hard to avoid (if you’re arrogant), and, best of all, wonderful to watch (because it hoists offenders with their own petard quite regularly).

Before I reveal the “7 Steps of Criminal Hubris” let’s explore the origins of “hubris” and Continue Reading “Criminal Hubris: It Gets Them Every TIME

So Long, Hal. We Hardly Knew Ye…

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The signs were ominous.

As I pulled into the familiar parking spot, I couldn’t help but notice the unbroken blanket of fresh fallen snow. No one had parked here. In fact, save for a long pair of footprints making a path in the snow to the door, there was no sign of life.

I glanced up at the storefront windows to see if the lights inside were on. But the blinds shuttered the windows completely, barring any spying eyes from the outside.

On one hand, the daily hours remained posted in their usual spot. On the other hand, there was neither a “We’re Closed” sign or a “We’re Open” sign.

That was strange.

I told my father to wait in the warm car and that I’d check out the situation. I got out of Continue Reading “So Long, Hal. We Hardly Knew Ye…”

OK, I’m Ready To Admit It…

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I’m finally confused.

What day is it?

Maybe it was the Holidays. Maybe it was non-stop football. Whatever it was, my internal chronometer, once an adept timepiece, can’t tell whether Monday, or Thursday, Tuesday or Saturday, Wednesday or Friday.

And Sundays? Isn’t every day Sunday now?

Lest you think this represents a sudden onset of temporal disorder, bear in mind that, for a few years now, my question has been “What week is it?”

You see, when you write for publication, you write for a deadline. That deadline rarely is Continue Reading “OK, I’m Ready To Admit It…”

We Need High-Speed Broadband, Now!

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“I would long since for the time that no votes buy our cares;
For people that once possessed command, high civil office, legions and all else,
now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

– From Satire X, Juvenal, ca. 100 AD

When the Roman satirical poet Juvenal wrote these lines centuries ago, he meant it as an expose of government corruption. It also represented a warning to a populace too eager to sacrifice freedom for immediate delights.

Unfortunately, rather than a cautionary alert, Juvenal’s “bread and circuses” has become a blueprint from which every dictator since has built his empire.

You can now add Andrew Cuomo to the long sorry list of power-mad rulers seeking to Continue Reading “We Need High-Speed Broadband, Now!”

Fandemonium: Passing the Generational Torch

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I can’t understate how many times people asked me the following question in the past week: “Chris, did you get tickets to the playoff game?”

For those of you who didn’t go to St. Catherine’s Church when people still went to church, the Carosa family has a certain reputation. Each Sunday – football season or not – one or more of us (usually more of us) stood in line for communion resplendent in official and unofficial Bills attire.

Those were our Sunday clothes. It became such a tradition that, on those rare occasions (usually in the summer) when our garments didn’t sport a Bills logo, people would notice.

This “worship” of the Buffalo Bills began long ago. My father, however, was too young to remember the original Buffalo Bills.

Incidentally, did you know the first version of the Buffalo Bills appeared in the All-America Continue Reading “Fandemonium: Passing the Generational Torch”

What 2020 Revealed About Us (And Maybe You, Too)

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“The Sea Rises,” 1894, an engraving in The Writings of Charles Dickens, volume 20, A Tale of Two Cities

It began as the best of years and ended as the worst of years. Did it?

Or perhaps it was the best of years and it was the worst of years.

If that second phrase sounds familiar, you’re either an astute historical observer or you’re well versed in Victorian literature (or both).

In 1859, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities. The novel opened with the following:Continue Reading “What 2020 Revealed About Us (And Maybe You, Too)”

What’s Your Favorite Christmas Special?

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Burgermeister Meisterburger. Why can’t I get that name out of my head? Like every kid who ever watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I despised this character who hated toys.

But, to this day, I can’t shake that name. Burgermeister Meisterburger. You just can’t stop saying it.

Here’s the thing about Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, it was produced by Rankin/Bass. They’re the same folks who made the famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I liked Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I hated Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the silly premise of the story. Maybe it was the goofy looking 1970s style young Kris Kringle. Maybe it was the fact it premiered on Sunday, December 13, 1970 on ABC.

Could this be because I had to make a choice between watching this Christmas special or Continue Reading “What’s Your Favorite Christmas Special?”