The paradox of power and the nature of human bias.

The paradox of power and the nature of human bias.

A behavior analyst’s notes on Uber, Tesla, Wells Fargo, and multi-systems change processes.

Orignal post to March, 2017

As a behavior analyst my attention is often drawn to cycles of behavior. Where there is a pattern, there can be prediction and change. In recent news, I have seen repeated criticisms of Uber, Tesla, and the “Bro-culture” of Silicone valley’s tech industry. These complaints of misogynistic culture are further situated in the wider news environment depicting large-scale divisions across racial, sexual preference, political, and socieoeconomic divides.

In most cases, we learn of these issues only when an incident arises that is of sufficient magnitude to serve as a catalyst. These incidents are generally quite costly for all involved; whether a lawsuit, a death, or a war – everyone pays. In this situation it may be easy to assign blame but I argue that for the most part businesses like Uber, Tesla, Wells Fargo, and the like, are simply experiencing the natural unaddressed impact of their contexts on their employees and organizations. These companies are not exceptions or ‘bad apples’, instead they are the natural result of unaddressed conflicting contingencies. For the Uber’s executives, board, and its employees these issues unaddressed will likely contribute to further financial losses, public relations nightmares, and continuing branding problems.

Let’s look in further detail at the example of Uber to further examine: 1) the nature of in-born human bias as it plays out on the interpersonal, organizational, and multi-systemic levels, and 2) what we can do to prevent harm and promote wellness on the interpersonal, organizational, and multi-systemic levels.

1) The nature of human bias:

            The nature of human thought, language, and behavior naturally pulls for bias (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Homes, & Roche, 2001; Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). This can be observed on every level of human experience from our ‘internal’ worlds, to our interpersonal behavior, to our effect on our environments. Additionally, none of these exists in exclusion from the others. We are essentially bound environment-to-behavior – on multiple levels – in any moment, as well as to our past experiences through the quirks of human language/thought. This leads to loops of interacting behaviors so large that no human mind, alone, can track them.

This accounts for the vast majority of complex human behavior, and yet, our biases interact and cause literal reductions of awareness (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). We are, essentially, unaware of our own blind spots as we meet them in daily life.

For clarity, here’s a list of a small number discussed in non-behavioral for the lay reader:

  1.  ‘Reward’, ‘punishment’, and ‘pairing’ – Though sacrificing a great deal of technical detail here; much of our response to our environment is a response to how certain behaviors have been rewarded, punished, or paired with other experiences that were experienced as rewarding or punishing.
  2. Coherence – This refers to our tendency to see, perceive, remember, and seek out what ‘makes sense’ based on our own experience.
  3. ‘Self-as-idea’ and ‘other-as-idea’ – This refers to our tendency to form internal ‘stories’ about who we, others, and even organizations ‘are’.
  4. ‘Rules’ – Humans are sense making, predictability seeking creatures, and must learn from each other. One primary way that we do this is through the description of if-then relationships and concepts. This is a huge advantage to human-kind, who can learn through instruction to reach ‘reward’ and avoid ‘punishment’ socially.
  5. ‘Believing’ the idea or rule – In our efforts for predictability and sense-making we tend to ‘believe’ thoughts, perceptions, and ideas that made impressions on us. This is necessary to organize our experience of the world and allow adaptive interaction; however, it often also creates emotional attachment, and paradoxically, blindness – to what is not described by the rule.
  6. ‘Difference bias’ – This is a collection of biases around how we perceive ‘similar’ and ‘different’. Humans are prone to categorizing, simplifying, and, unfortunately, fearing what is different.

The interaction of these biases play out in many ways interpersonally, organizationally, and multi-systemically:

Let’s return to the example of Uber’s most recent public relations conundrum. On Feb. 19, 2017, former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, posted an account of sexual harassment she reportedly experienced by her direct supervisor on her blog. This material, still searchable by her name at this point, is of special interest as the writer focused on her experience with the organization and several layers of organizational process over time.

For Uber and any organization undergoing change in a competitive environment, what she describes should serve as a preventative guide and an action plan towards change. As Susan reports and Uber’s stock and business profiles confirm, Uber has been in a period of rapid development. Uber, founded only in 2009, is now worth approximately $68 billion dollars. This exceptional rate of growth, paired with the competitiveness of their business sector [tech, services, etc.] as well as their existence in technology development ‘hot-spots’ nearly assures both internal and external competition for ‘rewards’. As Susan describes, companies experiencing this rate of growth will generally experience competition between employees, shuffling of work assignments as market demands fluctuate, and political shifts. Organizationally, the natural tendency will be to respond to the chaotic competitive market and competitive interpersonal dynamics by rewarding behavior without attention to process and placement of rules meant to minimize risk. In organizations, this usually takes the form of actual organizational policies [rules], or stratification of power and access [organizational hierarchy; also functioning as a rule]. Organizational hierarchy thus amplifies comparison dynamics  [including power dynamics] that amplify further amplify any culturally-bound biases (e.g., socialized gender biases).

The paradox of power then – is that the more access and control we have, the less we can clearly see the problems relevant to our success.

Rules, and unfortunately, punishment are our natural response to not being able to track all important outcomes. These well-intentioned rules, including Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent announcement that any sexual harassment is considered to be a fire-able offense – often malfunction. Clearly sexual harassment should not be overlooked; however, the way in which we speak ‘rules’, in-context, change their overall function. The likely function of CEO Travis Kalanick’s statements on Uber employees, as well as the upcoming ‘investigations’ into Uber’s ‘Bro-Culture’, will almost certainly set the stage for further volatility, turn-over, and costly complaints for the company.

If the company culture was one of fear, competitiveness, change, and division both on performance status and gender – than we can only expect that punishment-based change programs will amplify these behaviors as employees try to preserve their employment. This will cause less transparency in operations as it further amplifies the ‘everyone for himself’ context. This is a real shame, as based on what Susan Fowler discloses in her blog, there is a significant but dwindling group of employees who feel great loyalty to the organization and vitality in their work.

2) What we can do to prevent harm and promote wellness:

What is called for now, based on the context and contingencies Uber finds itself in, is an intervention that embraces paradox. It is one that examines the context and contingencies that result behaviors at the personal, interpersonal, and multi-systemic levels that damage the overall organization. It calls for a focus on ‘rewarding’ adaptive behavior and creating systems where competition and change can exist in a psychologically safe context. Recent developments in assessment and intervention in organizational behavior management (OBM) better support the measurement of contingencies system and contexts system wide. With the use of Natural Language Process (NLP) to measure verbally described contingencies on mass and the ease of system wide feedback systems (e.g., normalized 360 degree feedback) to promote multi-level transparency – organizations such as Uber stand to benefit greatly from evidence-based ‘reward’ driven systems that increase stability, performance, and employee satisfaction. These interventions allow behavior analysts to functionally view the contingencies of an organization over-time to cater and refine interventions. Additionally, for the employees – these interventions guided by external parties can serve as a safe way to anonymous way to provide needed feedback to CEOs, boards, and consultants who can redirect contexts towards growth and stability.

 “The sailor cannot see the North but knows the Needle can.” – Emily Dickenson

For organizations like Uber, for our culture, and our own psychological health – a needle that points north is exceedingly rare. With the ability and willingness of organizations, such as Uber, to respond to the contingencies of employees as described organizations have the opportunity to follow the “North”  determined by an awareness of the contexts and behaviors driving each department and levels of their organization. This ability to listen to the collective wisdom of their own employees may mean the difference between disaster and growth in today’s market.

References and recommended reading:

CNN Money on investigation:

Allen, T. D., & French, K. A. (2016). Women and career advancement: Issues and opportunities. Organizational Dynamics, 45, 206-216.

Bear, J. B., Cushenbery, L., London, M., & Sherman, G. D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership, The Leadership Quarterly

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York, NY: Delecorte Press.

Biglan, A. (1995). Changing cultural practices: A contextualist framework for intervention research. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Guerin, B. (1994). Analyzing social behavior: Behavior analysis and the social sciences. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., Roche, B. (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York, NY: Kluwer/Academic/Plenum Publishing.

Hayes, S. C., Bunting, K., Herbst, S., Bond, F. W., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2006).

Expanding the scope of organizational behavior management: Relational Frame Theory and the experimental analysis of complex human behavior. Hasworth Press.

Maraccini, A. M., Houmanfar, R. A., and Szarko, A. J. (2016). Motivation and complex verbal phenomenal: Implications for organizational research and practice. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 36 (4), 282-300.

Pela’ez, M. & Moreno, R. (1999). Four dimensions of rules and their correspondence to rule-governed behavior: A taxonomy. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 8 (1), 21-27.



Angela Cathey, MA

Angela Cathey, MA

Founder, Partner, Consultant, Data Scientist

Angela is experienced in leading and coordinating the operations of research and intervention teams. She has a master’s in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston – Clear Lake. She has specialty training in measurement, intervention, People Analytics, natural language processing, and data science. Angela was the entrepreneurial lead in the National Science Foundation i-Corps customer validation program for Enso’s key products. She has a background in innovative technology problem solving, technology development, and resulting market-ready product development.