The overblown implications effect

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The Overblown Implications Effect is the title of a paper by some woke hustlers (i.e. professors) out of Wharton (UPenn) and Cal-Berkeley. Pretty vetted names. Cool.

The standard concept is that, well, let’s say you make a batch of cookies. You burn them horribly. As the person who made the cookies and burned them (“the actor”), you assume that anyone in the room/kitchen now thinks you are universally a bad cook. Like, because you burned these cookies, you cannot make an omelette or even a piece of toast. You done, boy. (Girl.)

Whole thing is detailed in this summary article.

Obviously this is colliding contextually with “first impressions,” which I’ve surprisingly only blogged about once really. (OK, maybe twice.)

There would seem to be many work implications here, yes?

Yes. Even more in the modern coronavirus moment.

Let’s say we’re in a normal business time, i.e. not now. You give a presentation at work. The presentation sucks and bombs. People are legit sleeping through it. Well, you — as the actor — may now assume everyone thinks you are a horrible employee, very dumb, and bad at presentations. Some people may think that, sure. But most won’t, and in reality, most people have three more meetings and presentations to attend after yours. By the end of the day, they will barely remember what presentations they sat through as they curl into the fetal position and watch Tiger King. We know the drill.

OK, now let’s say we’re in the present and we’re looking at a pandemic and economic uncertainty and the very real threat of and reality of layoffs. Well, now we’re in a spot, as employees, where we don’t want to “swing for the fences” — because if we swing for the fences and miss terribly and look dumb in the moment, well, are we signing up for a layoff list? That’s the fear many have. So in these moments, the “Overblown Implications Effect” probably leads to safer presentations, rote decision-making, and general plodding along. I would guess.

Why do we put people in boxes so quickly?

That’s kinda the name of the game in life and at work sometimes. All of the stuff I am discussing above is tied to the bad employee myth.

Some managers violate the above: while they probably attend 7–8 worthless meetings per day and forget the content of most/all by EOD, they sometimes get very hair-trigger about how they manage and approach their people.

This is usually not about the content of presentations and perceptions of intelligence, no. It’s usually about attitude and whether someone talks back/pipes up.

That stuff — a perceived bad attitude — can get you in real trouble during a heightened layoff season.

Now, “attitude” is not a fixed characteristic. Many people are assholes when cut off in traffic, then beautiful to their friends and family. Attitude is inherently contextual. But managers often throw that out the window. If you talk back once, or push back on an idea once, you get piped out of the system. (Laid off.)

So, in that way I’d argue “Overblown Implications” can be true for managers and employees on questions of attitude, insubordination, etc.

The other elephant in this tiny room

Social media.

A lot of times, you get into threads on massively-contextual-and-divisive topics, i.e. “race relations,” with people you have never met in real life and know literally nothing about, aside from whatever they are saying in the thread and their profile picture.

We make a lot of assumptions about people on social as a result. Plus, social is essentially nameless and faceless, even on Facebook. People will attack you and say stuff to you that they’d never have the personal courage to say in-person.

So, on social media, there are definitely overblown implications. You say literally one small thing that another person on the thread doesn’t like, and boom. Now you are “the thread idiot” for one small comment. That’s overblown implications.

Does this mean we need to be nicer? Have more empathy and understanding?

Ideally, yes. But in a time of rampant confirmation bias, that’s challenging. The good news is, you can teach empathy to adults. So that’s a win, albeit also a challenge.

But it more broadly means — if you are presenting something or looking for approval and you mess up, which happens to all of us, it doesn’t mean the whole game is over. Sure, on social media someone might call you an idiot or whatever. Great. Or a boss might try to fire you because you talked back once. Great. In the grand scheme of stuff, those are just momentary blips. We overcome those. The bigger way to think about these things is: No one is judging us based on just one experience, in general. We can grow and make mistakes and persevere, even in times of a pandemic. It’s OK.

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