Holy war vs common sense, or how not to follow a misleader

Hello. My name is Vladimir Kochetkov, I’m a team leader at Nexteum. I want to talk about three important things in work (especially for the programmer) – the culture of technical discussion, cognitive distortions and critical thinking.

Sometimes it’s much easier to connect with a computer than with a person. Especially when new people join the team – this is fertile ground for the holy wars of misleaders. I will analyze all these concepts and tell you how to avoid destructive communication.

Holy war or discussion?

Let’s define terms:

Holy war is an argument between people who don’t want to change their mind.

Discussion is an argument aimed at finding the truth.

Holy war and discussion are often traits of behavior of each participant. It happens that each participant thinks that they are involved in discussion, while their opponent leads a holy war.

Cultural path from holy war to discussion:

  • Understand that you may be wrong or not know something important
  • Listen carefully and understand your opponent
  • Update your world model
  • Provide your arguments

It’s not that easy to make these steps. First of all, we need to consider cognitive distortions.

What is a cognitive distortion? Sometimes our brain perceives information not the way it really is. Here is a list of cognitive distortions, each of which is proven by statistics:

Reassessment of the value of your own opinion

Effect of the known object

If we know something, we consider it as the best option. Our brain will refuse to accept another variant.

Blind spot in understanding distortions

People see distortions in others, but it’s difficult for them to notice distortions in themselves.

Prejudgement and selective perception

We’re trying to protect our knowledge and world model. We carefully perceive new information. And we will resist information that goes against our knowledge. 

Obedience to authority

We are sure that we need to follow the idea from a certain book. But it can happen that this idea is no longer relevant. 

Effect of mainstream passion, conformism

If everybody is doing something, it’s not the best idea to follow them blindly. 

Fundamental mistake of attribution

We tend to believe that a person’s actions are connected with his/her character. If a developer has failed a project, it means that he’s a bad person. At the same time, we explain our failure in an absolutely different way: the failure of the project was caused not by my personal qualities and actions, but by the circumstances. 

This approach is also interesting in terms of success. If someone has achieved a lot, it means that he’s a good specialist. But if you ask the person directly, you might hear that this success was influenced by many external circumstances and factors.

Bonus: Communication in a text chat

There are no emotions in text messages: we can’t hear the intonation. Therefore, the same message might sound completely differently in a chat and live communication. So it’s better to start communication at least with voice messages.

Who are the misleaders?

I will illustrate the “technical part” of this concept by the following examples.

Incorrect use of something

I’ve seen examples of using patterns without understanding what they are. One developer has told me that joins or regular expressions can’t be used because they work slowly. That developer had a task in which the volume of data would probably reach at least 1000 records in five tables in total in many years.

And when we lose the context of some statement, we might make wrong decisions and give others wrong advice.

Mandatory use of something

I will give an example. A repository has a very simple idea – to take the “Hello, world” program and apply everything possible to it. It’s important to understand what we are writing and whether we need to use all the smart words we know and accumulated knowledge for each task. If we don’t care about the context, we can lose time, nerves and money. 

Looking for truth

What is the difference between truth and verity? Truth is what a person considers to be close to verity. But sometimes it can be wrong.

What are the sources of truthful lies?

First of all, the dynamism of the industry. We develop software and every couple of years we have something new. We need to learn it quickly, but we have no time for this. And why study the new technology deeply, if another one appears tomorrow and I’ll have to spend time studying it again.

Secondly, marketing. When someone needs to sell something, they tell you how good their product is. And believing these stories, without going into details, you can get a wrong statement.

Thirdly, cognitive distortion. This is the situation when we are so confident of something that we don’t want to remove it from our heads.

And fourthly, the “pass on” technique. When we haven’t fully figured out something, and then someone asks for advice and we answer “do it this way”. This person passes this dubious knowledge to others.

Critical thinking

Basically, we should doubt everything. But of course, within reason. First of all, it refers to our own knowledge.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind the probabilistic nature of knowledge. We know something, but we are not 100% sure. Tomorrow a new piece of information may appear and we will have to rebuild what we’ve had in mind for many years. In this case, I recommend to refer to the original sources. For example, we read an article that is based on some other article written by a copywriter, which was also based on some other article that was based on a 50-year old book. There is a possibility that something could be distorted during these transformations. If you find out where it all has come from, perhaps you will understand better what it’s about.

By the way, what are the variations of contexts where 2 × 2 isn’t 4? There is an option called synergistic effect. For example, if we double the number of developers, they will not always be able to double a product. Productivity may even decrease for various reasons.

Another example. When, due to an increase in the number of developers, the productivity of each of them will increase as well, we get 2 ×  2 > 4. And if the team has distributed responsibilities and increased the concentration of their work at some parts, then the productivity growth won’t take long. It turns out that in real life no one knows what 2 x 2 is.

So, when we discuss a problem, the first thing to start with is to formulate a thesis as accurately as possible. Ideally, when all our concepts and arguments in a dispute are expressed in the format of numbers that are significant in our context.

In order to expand our perception, we need to try to understand people and their point of view. That’s why flexible thinking is so important.

To sum it up, I want to point out that any holy war is a holy war of misleaders. Most likely, both sides have not fully understood the question.