Absence Blindness

Here’s a curious fact about human beings: we have a really hard time realizing that something isn’t there.

When I worked in P&G’s Home Care division, one of my first projects was testing the viability of a product that essentially prevented things from getting dirty. You still had to clean, but it took more time for things to get dirty again.

Once the product went into testing, it was apparent that the idea wasn’t feasible. The product genuinely saved people time and effort, but the user didn’t realize it - they had a hard time believing anything was actually happening, since they couldn’t see the product working. After the test phase was complete, the project was cancelled.

Implications of Absence Blindness

Great management is boring - and often unrewarding. The hallmark of an effective manager is anticipating likely issues and barriers and resolving them in advance so the team can make progress as quickly as possible. Some of the best managers in the world look like they’re not doing much, but everything gets done on time and under budget. The problem is, no one sees all of the bad things that the great manager stopped from happening. Less skilled managers are actually more likely to be rewarded, since everyone can see them “making things happen" and “moving heaven and earth" to resolve issues - even issues they themselves created via poor management.

Prevention is under-appreciated. In the case of the product I was working on, people had a hard time believing something they couldn’t see working was actually efficacious. If you’re trying to sell the absence or prevention of something, you’re fighting an uphill battle, even if your product is great. Always state benefits in positive, immediate, concrete, and specific terms by focusing on things the user can directly experience.

It’s uncomfortable to do nothing, even if doing nothing is the best course of action. Often, the best course of situation is to choose not to act, but it’s difficult for humans to accept that on an emotional level. The current economic crisis was essentially created by a lot of people in the financial sector doing stupid things, primarily due to government policies that made doing stupid things highly rewarding. The best course of action is for the government to stop continuing to reward bad behavior by ceasing the actions that created the issue, but that’s psychologically uncomfortable - after all, “we can’t sit here and do nothing while the world burns, can we?" As a result, people typically prefer the government to continue to act, even if the acting ultimately makes things worse.

Overcoming Absence Blindness

Absence blindness is an example of a cognitive bias, and the only semi-reliable way I’ve found to overcome it is checklisting. By thinking in advance what you want something to look like and translating that into visible reminders you can refer to while making decisions, checklists can help you remember to look for the absence of qualities in the moment.

So make a note to remind yourself to handsomely reward the low-drama manager who quietly and effectively gets things done. It may not seem like their job is particularly difficult, but you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

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Published: February 13, 2009Last updated: February 13, 2009

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