Millennials and cognitive bias

By John Helmer August 27, 2015

Photo of glasses correcting blurred vision of treesIt’s been a learning experience for me working on our insight paper Leadership, Learning and the Connected Generation, not least because of the open-ended, enquiry-led approach to the subject we took.

Such an approach is always fraught with risks, of course. Outcomes can be a bit unpredictable. And so it proved: what we found out was surprising – and even counter-intuitive.

We had gone in driven by certain assumptions about the characteristics of Millennials that turned out not to stand up to scrutiny. We had swallowed whole the media image of this generational cohort as lazy, entitled narcissists who shirk responsibility – and on that basis, set out to see what disruptive effects this might be having on leadership learning within organisations.

I have already documented on this blog the way that Jennifer Deal of CCL initially turned those preconceptions around. Other academics we talked to seemed to disagree with her, and were prepared to back up the ‘Generation Me’ view of Millennials (there are large datasets on both sides). But when we workshopped a group of Millennials, and spoke to L&D professionals who work with them in organisations (including two consultants from the worlds of corporates and defence respectively, we found more and more evidence to contradict our starting position. The kids, it seems, in the words of Pete Townsend, are all right.

So what is going on here? Why is the popular view of Millennials apparently so out of whack with what others report?

In the executive summary of the report (due to be published later in September) we advise our readers to be cautious about making strategic judgments based on received wisdom about attitudinal and cultural characteristics of the millennial cohort.

That’s the balanced view we came to, taking all sides of the argument in to consideration.

But here, for what it’s worth, is my personal opinion.

Generational change and the role of cognitive bias

I found Jennifer Deal’s view of Millennials compelling. Personally, I don’t believe the Millennial generation is any more entitled, self regarding or anti-authority than was my own generation, the baby-boomers. In fact I can remember being accused by members of the generation previous to mine – my parents’ generation – of exactly the same deleterious attitudes as those nowadays imputed to Gen X. And they were probably right – but I grew out of it. Attitudes that we grow out of, that don’t persist as we learn more about life, are clearly nothing to do with generational change, but about a different variable, life stage.

I was stupid because I was young, not – as my elders claimed, because I watched too much television and listened to Led Zeppelin records. If Millennials appear stupid to their Gen X bosses it is perhaps, similarly, because they are young – not because the internet, and worrying about global terrorism and the financial system, have rotted their ability to think straight.

I feel that what’s going on here is that the study of generational change could be particularly vunerable to cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is something I have become sensitized to from exposure to people working in the field of User Experience (UX). When they carry out user research on websites and other interfaces, this is something UX professionals are trained to look out for, and they do their best to eliminate it. They look out for cognitive bias in the users they interview, and they also look out for their own cognitive biases.

I think the picture of Millennials that researchers, pop sociologists and the media have allowed to build up is skewed by cognitive bias. We buy it, because it’s comfortable for us to believe – and for the same reason we ignore caveats the academics put around their findings that might lead us to take a more nuanced view (the media, of course, leave out the nuances).

Why do I feel this way? It’s partly about tone. The sound of one generation complaining about a younger generation tends to have a similar resonance. It’s a song you can hear down the ages, from Socrates onwards. Whether it’s Alf Garnett / Archie Bunker complaining about his son-in-law (the Randy Scouse Git of the famous Monkees B-side) or a business school academic complaining about her students, who believe everything they read on the internet, it tends to have this familiar baseline of exasperation tinged with envy. (Let’s not forget, by the way, that academic researchers are usually teachers as well – and how teachers love to complain about their students!)

All the research reports and blog articles about generational change are written by older people talking about younger people – and none of those writers and researchers, alert though they might be to their own cognitive biases, can escape entirely the influence of that gravitational force that is pulling them down at the same time that it is elevating a whole new set of stars in the sky.

Young people are on earth to replace us. All of our jobs will be eventually be taken from us and given to people younger, smarter, fitter and faster than we are. Worse still, those youngsters will know more than us, because a large part of what they know is us.

This is a hugely unpalatable reality, and it helps us to stay in denial a little longer if we can make ourselves believe that the rising generation is in fact much stupider than we ever were, their brains having been rotted by the internet, and thus are unfit to replace us.

Would that it were true.

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