Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Experience Builds Bias

Us tree burners love belt buckles and their not so subtle significance. A buckle says: “This is where I paid my dues.” How many office pants are held up by a Shot Crew buckle from over a decade ago? I’m not bagging on this; my buckle has wings on it and I rock it proudly. I’m just pointing out the significance we place on experience.

We value experience above all else. To prove to each other how much experience we have, we stand around in circles to tell and re-tell “I told ‘em” stories. You know: “I told ‘em that fire was comin’ outta there, but they didn’t listen to me!” Everybody in the circle takes a turn telling their favorite “I told ‘em story” and then someone sanctifies the gathering by delivering a well-rehearsed speech on how “Ya gotta have experience!”

Can Experience Be a Liability?
I challenge you to take an objective view. Is it possible experience has some downsides?

Is there a certain point in time—or certain situations—where experience is more of a liability than an asset? Can your “slides” screw you over?

The answer, of course, is: Yes. And not simply through the lens of “they got away with bad decisions enough times to make them think they were good.”

I’m talking about how the slides are colored in the first place. How any experience you have tends to create and solidify bias.

If you spend enough time in any culture you learn the customs, perspectives, and ethos needed to fit in and thrive. We use this knowledge to seek out confirming evidence.

The all-time classic is the Hotshot Crew that hates _____ (fill in the blank: Type 2 Crews, Smokejumpers, Overhead, etc.). A young crewmember learns all the right things to say and think about “The Other.”

Every time this new crewmember interacts with “The Other” they look for evidence to confirm their stereotype—and they find it. This interaction then becomes proof of “The Other’s” lower status. This is basic confirmation bias.

We do a version of this with fires as well—desert fires, mixed-con fires, median fires, etc. In fact, there isn’t much we don’t try to put in a box as we gain salt points. Before we know it, we know everything about everything.

The Space Between Slides and Reality
What happens over time is we lose the ability to see what is actually going on in front of us.
We have so much “experience” (built-up bias) that we’re almost incapable of seeing anything other than the slides in our head due to their clarity and attached emotion. To make matters worse, we are less likely to listen to anyone who sees it differently, especially if they have less experience. That’s a trap and-a-half right there!

A well-cited Zen saying goes: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.” This supports the practice of “beginner’s mind”—intentionally trying to approach a situation from the view of a beginner in order to minimize preconceptions.
I’m not sure if that’s helpful. I’m just trying to point out that others have thought about this dilemma.

Here’s What You Should Do
So, what should you do with this mish-mash soup of theory and ideas? Here’s what:
  • Next time you’re circled-up at the staging area trading “I told ‘em stories”—think about what bias you are re-enforcing in yourself. If you hold the view that you’re always the one who saw it coming, how open to listening will you be when you’re the one about to be blindsided?
  • Next time Salty McSalty Dog is holding court about whoever is currently doing it wrong consider how many years of bias building has gone into what they are currently saying. Make a real effort to tease-out the useful nuggets and look beyond some of the more blatant labels and type-casting.
  • Teach younger folks about all of this. Let them know how valuable their perspective is. Don’t give into teaching them the stereotypes. Be the one mentor who insisted that not everything is black and white and that experience is a double-edged sword.
Dig On, Tool Swingers!

Travis Dotson is a Fire Management Specialist with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

The article is reprinted from the summer 2017 edition of “Two More Chains.”

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