Conflicted Interests

Shifting outcomes requires shifts in our thinking about what works

The science journal Nature recently published a thought piece looking asking the question: Does psychology have a conflict of interest problem? The article looks at psychologists who consult as well as research and whether or not they should declare the income obtained from the products generated from their scientific research (e.g., speaking engagements, consulting contracts, books sales etc..) as a conflict of interest.

The focus is on not only protecting the public from misaligned interests of psychologists, but also the profession of psychology itself. As one editor interviewed points out:

“Even the appearance of an undisclosed conflict of interest can be damaging to the credibility of psychological science,”

Scott Lilienfeld, the editor-in-chief of Clinical Psychological Science (CPS)

Lillienfeld goes on to state that: “The heuristic should be ‘when in doubt, declare’,” when psychologists are publishing their work. The risk is that people will lose trust in the objectivity of psychology if some of its greatest proponents are invested in the things they created such as ideas, products, and services.

My experience is that people will defend the things they create more than anything else. This might be things like their ideas and theories or it could be more fundamental like their family, their sense of self and identity, and their sense of history. This defense is what makes people passionate and committed to certain courses of action (including change) and a reason for their resistance to having them threatened.

Defense of creation is not about rationality, it’s about us as creators.

Name recognition

Theories and ideas die hard. If the value of ideas (which include practices, policies, and procedures) were judged solely on rational merit and evidence, change would be much easier to create than it is.

We don’t see our theories of the world as they are, we see them as we are.

It is about name recognition. Our name.

A 2014 issue of Health Psychology Review featured some provoking thoughts on the durability of thinking about psychological theories and their generation. Well-used theories like the Theory of Planned Behavior were recommended to be discontinued from use (along with other theories) providing a rare glimpse into the debate around what constitutes value in theorizing human behaviour.

If we were to look at theories of change (or innovation) we would find that relatively few would stand up to the kind of evidence we’d demand from engineering, medicine, or biology. Psychology has suffered from a replication crisis in recent years. Theories are not matching evidence. Is this a problem of the research or the theories supporting the research? It likely is both and largely because the theories we derive are from humans with immense stake in their success.

The Nature article cited above points to psychologists that have earned much in money and reputation from their work. It’s hard to conceive of someone who’s made a name for themselves based on certain ideas and research to appear at a speaking engagement and say: “I was on the plane coming here and realized that there are some serious flaws in my theory and it just doesn’t work.”

It doesn’t happen. The stakes are too high.

Changing your perspective changes your world. For highly successful creators this means dismissing their creation — the idea, products, and identity — all at once. It’s why change is so hard. It’s not just the idea that we’re seeking change, it’s much more.

Changing the stakes

A examination of the history of science and innovation finds plenty of examples of great discoveries emerging from failed experiments, happenstance, and just plain luck. In spite of that apparent randomness and failure there are some who can consistently make discoveries, change systems, and invent new things.

Robert Scott Root-Bernstein’s examination of the factors that influenced why the most influential scientists in modern history (e.g., Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein) were successful found that they had a different perception of success, ownership, and discipline. Among the perceptual positions and habits of mind that they adopted were:

  • Focusing on the data that failed to support the hypothesis first, not just the trends
  • They tended to switch disciplines (and thus open themselves up to new knowledge domains and the vulnerability that generates)
  • They were not tied to disciplinary names and titles
  • They created a rich life in other areas of practice that were not tied to their work (e.g., sport, music, art).

For these scientists success was tied less to their ego and more to their ideas. They were willing to fail and embraced situations where failure or social exclusion were considered byproducts of the journey forward. This isn’t to suggest these individuals were all ego-free and didn’t care about their theories or success, it’s that they were willing to actively suspend or relax their attachment to their ideas in the service of their work better than their peers.

By being willing to change the stakes and take the risks associated with giving up their beliefs. This means living with conflicted interests: wanting to succeed, be recognized, and achieve on one hand while being critical, challenging, and skeptical of our work on the other.

A new look at outcomes

In innovation work the only outcome that can be guaranteed is learning (if the work is set up properly). If the proper data is gathered and processes for making sense of the data and reflecting on its meaning in context are put in place, and changes made to future efforts based on this, any innovation attempt can be a success.

By changing the risk levels attached to our creations we can reduce (not eliminate because we’re dealing with humans, after all) the pressure people have to stay the course when it makes sense to change or adapt. By emphasizing learning as the metric for success we open up the possibility to consider value in changing direction, pivoting, and building greater quality of understanding, not just quantities of data.

When we adhere to outdated theories or ineffective models we reduce our capacity to understand and our ability to act toward outcomes. It’s of little surprise that so few organizational (or personal) change initiatives fail to produce the desired outcomes: they are based on the theories that don’t make sense. These theories and models contribute to program designs that don’t make sense.

We need to decouple our efforts as scientists, leaders, change-makers from the theories and tools we use. We bring perspectives, but we don’t need to have theories or models that are tied our work. Try a check of your own work and see what kind of theories, models, ideas, and tools that you identify with (not just support). Once we change our perceptions and understanding of what it means to succeed we open the door to real success, not just ideas of success.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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