Friends, now that we are a couple of weeks into what I think of as the Great Experiment in Distance Learning, all these thoughts keep crossing my mind about various theories and research that I use all the time for myriad purposes have taken on a whole new significance. This Coaching Letter is about one of those big ideas—sense-making—and I plan to write about others in future CLs.

It seems like every article I read about the C-19 crisis points out that, not so very long ago, President Trump was dismissive of the very notion of an epidemic—there were only 15 cases and then it was going to disappear, it was just like the flu, it was a hoax. And then, all of a sudden, it was real, and it was vicious. Tempting as it is for some people to use this as evidence of the president’s idiocy, incompetence, or mendacity, he is only the most public example of someone struggling to make sense of information that is outside his or her frame of reference. For example, at another part of the ideological spectrum, Mayor de Blasio of New York City made several public comments downplaying the significance of the virus; I don’t think it’s coincidence that, despite the fact NYC is the epicenter of the crisis right now, it’s Governor Cuomo who has become the face and the voice of leadership in fighting the disease.

The hard reality is that almost all of us were not able to predict where we are today—I include myself in this category, even though I understand the concept of exponential growth, I have read several books about dangerous epidemics (see the books about the 1918 flu, ebola, and cholera in this list), I am pretty well versed in the sciences of prediction and behavioral economics, and I am a heavy consumer of news and politics through a variety of newspapers, magazines and podcasts. Even three weeks ago when we already had a lot of data, many of us were still resistant to taking serious measures against C-19 when we could see what had happened in China and what was happening in Italy. And some of us are still able to proclaim that the problem is being exaggerated—although I see that the New York Times is now reporting that the Florida governor has just woken up. This inability to predict what seems, in hindsight, to have been obvious for a couple of months, afflicts experts as much as anyone else—see, for example, this article on the FiveThirtyEight website.

The best resource I can share for how to think about this lagging of our understanding behind reality is Karl Weick’s book, Sensemaking in Organizations. While most of it is a technical book about organizational psychology, it opens with a very striking example—I can still remember the first time I read it:

The battered child syndrome (BCS) was first suggested in 1946 by John Caffey, a pediatric radiologist, in an article based on six cases where parents gave “histories” that were silent about how the injuries, seen in X-ray photographs, had occurred. Some cases in the article were reported 8 years after they had first been observed. The author speculated that the accidents may have been due to parents not fully appreciating the seriousness or “intentional ill treatment.” The article was published in a radiology journal rather than a pediatric journal, and nothing more happened until the mid-1950s. Articles appeared in 1953 (3 cases reported by Silverman),1955 (12 cases reported by Wooley and Evans), and in 1957 (again by Caffey), but the medical profession remained unconcerned about this “professional blind spot.”

Awareness did not change until October 1961 when Frederick Silverman chaired a panel, “The Battered Child Syndrome,” at the American Academy of Pediatrics. What made this event significant is that data from a national survey of 77 district attorneys and 71 hospitals were reported, and in this report 749 cases were identified. The results and an editorial were then published in the Journal of the American Medical Association under the title “The Battered Child Syndrome.”

Public reaction was prompt, and within a few years, laws in all 50 states required that suspected cases of BCS had to be reported. By 1967, when better reporting channels had been established, it was estimated that there were 7,000 cases. This estimate climbed to 60,000 by 1972 and to 500,000 by 1976 (Westrum, 1982, p.392).

We all engage in sensemaking all the time, but as Weick points out, “Sensemaking is tested to the extreme when people encounter an event whose occurrence is so implausible that they hesitate to report it for fear they will not be believed. In essence, these people think to themselves, it can’t be, therefore, it isn’t.” And “Experts overestimate the likelihood that they would surely know about the phenomenon if it actually were taking place. He calls this ‘the fallacy of centrality’: because I don’t know about this event, it must not be going on.” Further: “One might well argue that part of the resistance of pediatricians to a diagnosis of parent-caused trauma was an inability to believe that their own evaluation of parents’ dangerousness could be seriously in error.” In other words, realizing that you may be wrong could actually be a barrier to becoming right, if the prospect of admitting that you were wrong elicits a defensive reaction—see, for example, this New York Times articles about how face-saving played out in China, or watch Chernobyl on HBO (or not—it’s really grim).

All sorts of other factors play into our failure to make sense of what’s really going on. The credibility of our source is one. The suspicion that ideology is at play is another—that’s a big topic all by itself. Psychological safety is a third—Chinese health authorities created a system for reporting disease data in China after SARS, but in the coronavirus outbreak, people failed to use it because they feared the consequences. We have all kinds of cognitive biases—hundreds of them—you might read this article in The Atlantic for a useful introduction to the field.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to sense-making, however, is our existing mental models, which are heavily, overwhelmingly influenced by our previous experience. For examples of this, read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (I linked to this video of Taleb in a previous Coaching Letter and told you not to bother watching—it’s a technical discussion and he’s borderline arrogant—but plenty of people clicked on it anyway, perhaps just to see how obnoxious he really is). One of the examples he gives of this is the seawall protecting the Fukushima power plant, which was built to withstand the largest earthquake that had then been experienced; the engineers failed to consider the possibility that a worse threat could exist. (I think he gives a name to that bias—the inability to recognize that something could happen that is more significant, whatever the metric, than something that has already happened—but if he did I can’t find it, and my copy of the book is in New Haven right now.)

I have tried to keep track of my sense-making through this crisis. To begin with, I struggled with separating this from the flu. Then I listened to The Daily interview of Donald McNeil, and his explanations helped me get my head around it—he used the Spanish Flu as his anchor, and talked about the similarities with C-19, and how almost everyone at that time knew someone who died of Spanish Flu. That resonated with me, because my mother’s mother lost a close relative in the 1918 pandemic, and talked about her to me many times. After that, we made a list and started shopping. That was at the end of February; the closing of schools still took me by surprise; and it is only recently that I feel like I am getting a handle on how awful this is. Two things have really made me think differently just recently: this graphic, COVID-19 vs. Top 15 Daily Average Causes of Death in the U.S., and this blog post by a graduate school friend who lives in New York—how heart-wrenching. The worst thing I have had to deal with is that the supermarket didn’t have frozen peas today. I cried anyway.

As Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling towards Happiness, our optimism bias is so strong that the only people who don’t see the world through rose-colored spectacles are clinically depressed. Or, as my dad is wont to say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you—people who were super-cautious last month look decidedly prescient today. Or, as Robert Redford says in my favorite spy movie, “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain. Before the rain.”

I wish all the very best for you and yours. I’m going to start signing off the way my dad signs his emails. I’ve never really understood why this is how he does it, but all of a sudden it seems right. Love, etc., Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
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