- Information Manipulation Game
Tweak the numbers and you tweak the decision. Edit video and you edit context. Control the narrative and you control what information seems relevant. Truth is the first casualty whenever we assume that everyone manipulates information so we have to as well….since “that’s how the game is played.”
“Their response [when tweaking numbers] is that they’re doing what the system allows them to do. They feel, ‘I’m within the rules. I’m applying the rules to my benefit but I’m still playing within the rules.’”
When we characterize work, government, or other personal interactions as a competitive game we invoke game “rules.” As long as politics is considered a battleground, war rules apply and truth is the first casualty. Why not review the rules with Sun Tzu’s Art of War? The battle metaphor is a disaster for truth seekers. In a war/game, withholding information, promoting disinformation, suprise attack and active misdirection are not just acceptable but honored as good tactics. Whenever I facilitate high-level budget meetings, I always ask the question – how do you calculate your budget requests? Eventually I hear, “we figure how much we need and double it, or add 30%,” or whatever distortion each group’s norms justify. When I ask:
“How can we possibly make good decisions if our norm is to lie to each other?”
…it is usually the first time the group has asked themselves this question. The resulting conversations reveal the obstacles we impose on ourselves every time we characterize a budget meeting as a battle or a game. We play by rules that guarantee to distort our collective understanding of Big T Truths. Truth is the first casualty the minute we unconsciously expect there will be winners and losers, because it means that helping the other side tell the truth is the fastest track to becoming a loser.
Granted our judicial system wouldn’t work if lawyers were asked to collaborate – but there is no reason this adversarial approach should be our primary method for seeking Truth. While there are laws about sharing information in the judicial system, few lawyers call attention to evidence that helps the other side. An adversarial system for seeking truth incentivizes a battle mentality that rarely assembles various points of view into one big picture. We limit our truth to the one who wins, rather than the one who has the most integrity, experience, or good intentions.
“Another example is where data can be selectively manipulated. That’s a strong word for what I’m describing, but I’ve seen instances where selective use of data can basically get you to a different conclusion. They are protecting their own territory. The conclusion they are going for – let’s assume we are looking at a particular feature on a product – it’s a strong desire from one group in the company to have this feature. Another group…may not feel it’s that important…It becomes a judgment call. You are adding cost, adding weight. The one that wants the feature will tend to collect data and present data that would enhance the attractiveness of that feature. On the other hand, other people will be tweaking the numbers the other way.”
People (and now, algorithms) that assemble, interpret, format, and relay information into “meaningful” chunks edit out what seems unimportant (from their point of view) in order to feature what is important (from their point of view).
“So you’ve got a subculture that is trying to go for their optimum, which is counter to the big-picture good…What actually happens in the interchange from human to human is that they refuse to look at the big picture. They tell you flat out in a meeting… I’ve made the request that we look at the big picure and their response back [to me] is that they don’t get measured to do that, not paid to do what. ‘I’m only measured on meeting this objective and that’s what I’m talking to you about.'”
Any “fight” for truth means welcoming truths we dont like as well as the truths we do like. Denying unpleasant realities doesn’t make them untrue, it only distorts our ability to find solutions. That’s what I meant when I titled my last book “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.” I didn’t mean to suggest it was a guide to crush someone else’s truth with a truth you like better. I thought it would be obvious to those who study storytelling that the real wins are only found in Big T Truths. I guess I need to keep working on that.