An Ancient Story That Still Holds True Today
On “Banes and Biases”. Fears large and small that hold us back
First the Banes
Once upon a time, there was a king of great fortune and power.
He ruled his empire with tyrannical zeal.
History has it that he wasn’t particularly gifted in either administration or military prowess. He made a futile attempt at rebranding himself as a “philosopher-king”. He even hired Plato as an executive coach for a while. Like most tyrants, he wasn’t very coachable, so that whole thing didn’t pan out.
One day one of his pandering courtiers commented. “Gee. It must be really cool being King with all that luxury and power and stuff!”
His reply: “Oh yeah? You just try it and see if you can last a whole day!”
Note to reader: I’m paraphrasing liberally.
So arrangements were made for this up-sucker to be King for a day. Unbeknown to him, the King arranged to have a heavy sword suspended directly over the throne by a single hair from a horse’s tail. He wanted to convey the imminent and ever-present threat of fear and peril faced by those in positions of great power.
Of course, when the dude became aware of the hanging sword, he started pleading with the King to get out of the deal. He departed in shame and disgrace.
This anecdote, known as “Sword of Damocles” originated in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse around the 4th Century BC. This story has survived 25 centuries and surfaces frequently in popular culture, including novels, feature films, television series, video games, and music.
It’s one of the better examples of a “bane”.
Bane -A cause of harm, ruin, or death or thing or situation which causes a prolonged state of impending doom or misfortune. IE Superman and kryptonite, Green Lantern and Sinestro, etc.
A bane has a fear-enhancing, debilitating, and paralyzing effect.
As a kid in the days of the cold war nuclear threat, I remember drills at school where we’d have to curl up tightly under our desks whenever the siren wailed. It occurred to me that if I was to be vaporized by a Russian nuke, I’d at least like the dignity of being seated upright. My friend, weird Freddy, reasoned that the “curl-up-tight” instruction was so that we could kiss our collective rear ends good-bye. He may have been right
To this day, when I hear that certain siren noise, my heart rate goes for sprint and I’m instinctively looking around for a desk to crawl under.
In an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 1961, JFK said:
“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
– John F. Kennedy
Eventually, Kennedy’s message took hold. The threat of mutually assured mass destruction via a superpower grudge match subsided. Corrective steps were taken through detente and nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
It wasn’t that long ago we were all about to be fried to a crisp by that massive hole in the ozone layer caused by aerosol overuse and bovine methane emissions. That was about the same time the world was about to be thrown into complete mayhem by the Y2K bug.
These days, the new “bane of our existence” is more about rapid global warming, being awash in a sea of our own garbage and the specter of rogue AI.
It’s worth noting that the true fear factor of the sword and the siren represent possible harm.
“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than reality.
Nothing close to the extreme outcomes that were portrayed actually happened. The mere prospect raises primal fears.
Politicians, news outlets, home alarm salesmen and others understand this well. All too often this foible of human nature gets exploited by playing to our deepest fears.
There are times when the danger is very clear and present. In these instances, swift appropriate action needs to be taken.
If it’s something that only appears to be potentially dangerous, that’s a different story.
The key here is to distinguish between what’s “possible” and what’s “probable”.
Many scary things are possible. Most of them aren’t probable.
Now on to the Biases
These are much more common garden variety type fears.
“Bias” is a geometry term referring to a slanted line. These days it’s better known as a reference to a slanted viewpoint based on emotions
or misplaced beliefs that misinform our decisions and actions.
“Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
My crack at the explanation:
Because we’re inundated with tens of thousand bits of data and we can only process about 40 concepts at a time, our brain goes into “hack mode” and automatically starts spitting out answers from our caveman software memory bank.
• We all have firmly held beliefs that aren’t necessarily factual
• We all don’t know everything.
• Therefore, some of those beliefs are incomplete, misguided, or wrong.
This applies to everyone, including me. Admitting I’m wrong about something I firmly believe means admitting I haven’t fully thought things through. Herein lies the ultimate stuck-ness.
Fully aware that I’m wrong about something, but unable to admit being wrong about anything. Huh!
Biases cause great ideas to get stymied, resolve to evaporate and produce unreasonable anxiety over one’s capabilities.
Our friends at Wikipedia have listed approximately 200 plus biases. Workwise, I run into some of these all the time. The Ostrich bias and Information bias come up a lot.
Most of these biases adversely affect belief formation, business and economic decisions, and human behavior in general.
The “Knowing-Doing Gap” was one of the first leadership books that explained at a granular level how individual and group biases actually prevail in preventing knowledge to be turned into action.
Sometimes it’s a bias for the plain old status quo can derail ideas and thwart progress.
Does “but we’ve never done it that way before” sound familiar?
Ok if the status quo is working well. Not ok if it’s not.
Admittedly, I have a few personal biases that may not be listed anywhere that I believe are useful.
For example, I have a firm bias against standing in a long line up for coffee at you know where. (starts with S)
It’s my Life’s- just- plain- too short- to -stand in line bias.
Another useful one is my Anti – BS bias.
I can usually dial my BS detector down around teachers, nurses, farmers and pilots because their personal incentive to deceive is near zero.
Then again, there are otherwise good, honest people who spout nonsense and promote wild ideas based on beliefs that are shaped by the power of fears, paychecks or social status.
In conclusion, – banes and biases. We all have them. Once you know exactly what they are, you can name them, face them and develop some workaround strategies that move you forward.
Until next time.
Got any cool or unusual biases you care to share?
Shoot me a note or leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it.
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