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The Same River Twice

During a car journey recently, I switched the radio over for some news and arrived listening to the third part of a 1966 radio play.  Normally I might have moved on to a different station, but I didn’t and not just because it was a good story.  Here’s why.

Some weeks before that journey, I had been advised to make a long list of titles for posts and blogs that I could write about.  This saves the ‘what shall I write today?’ block and helps keep content more relevant or themed.

I duly produced my list of titles and one, under the heading of Change, was “Same River Twice”.  This refers to a saying by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, being: “No man ever steps in the same river twice” or a version thereof.  Another timeless (and perhaps Barnum-like**) statement, and I planned to write about the moving nature of systems, people and businesses that make this idea very relevant today: just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will tomorrow.

But, as you are witness to, I am writing about something else entirely.  Before I tell you the rest of the story, permit me to share or refresh your knowledge of a few psychological biases and effects that have relevance here.  They are:

  • Mere-exposure effect:  The tendency for us to favour something because we’re familiar with it – something that advertising relies on heavily. We’re shown the product regularly and gain familiarity.
  • Frequency illusion:  The feeling or sense that there is suddenly a very high use of something, against the facts. For example, learning an unusual word and then hearing it being used by lots of people (they were already using it, just you became conscious of it)
  • Selection bias:  When something causes us to be more aware of a thing, like when you buy (or want) a particular new car you become much more conscious of their existence
  • Priming: A learned association leading from A to B, like Romeo & … or Doctors & … or Salt & … It’s likely that you thought Juliet, Nurses and Pepper, respectively.
  • Confirmation bias:  That we interpret information that favours our already held ideas and beliefs. For example, reading the media sources that are sympathetic with our views contributes to the strength of those views.

And so back to my car journey.

Before I was able to move on from the radio play, I noticed that the title was – you guessed it – “Same River Twice”.  This caught my attention and I stayed listening long enough to find interest in the story and a curiosity to find out how it related, or not, to Heraclitus.

So what happened?  In my subjective view of the experience, this:

  1. Thinking about “Same River Twice” and Heraclitus had unconsciously ‘primed’ my mind to be more conscious of this phrase. 
  2. I was also very familiar with the phrase because it was on my blog list – something I was reviewing often.
  3. Due to that level of familiarity, when I saw the title of the play, my selection bias kicked in I became conscious of the title and play.  I clearly remember it ‘capturing’ my attention (even a theatrical double-take!)
  4. At that point my curiosity was probably more a desire for confirmation – I wanted the play to discuss the “Same River Twice” concept in the way that I understood it.

What can we learn from this?

Marketers, advertisers, magicians, illusionists and more make use of these biases and effects – whether they have studied them or not – to help guide us somewhere.  However, even if there isn’t someone ‘pulling the strings’ and attempting to catch your attention, it was a good reminder for me about how sensitive we all are to the cues around us.

When we meet people or when we’re hiring, what cues are we using to form judgement?

When we’re part of a team and the culture drives us to certain behaviours, have we primed ourselves and our colleagues to always react in a certain way?

When we put our company values on the wall, we are exposing people to those ideas, and talking about them, we are priming certain expectations.  It’s not surprising that everyone notices when the reality jars with the ideas (and that a new expectation to be let down stands in its place).

When we’re trying to change behaviours, or get people to act, frequently engaging them in the concepts and allowing them to make connections does matter.  Getting some quick wins and sharing frequent updates aren’t a waste of time, and with consistency and familiarity habits can form.

Finally, if you want to listen to the play yourself (and I hope it’s still available when you read this), The Same River Twice by Edward Boyd (1966) is available here. It was a great story – and while there was a reference to Heraclitus as ‘an old Greek philosopher’, it was coupled with a comment that ‘it’s still the same river, though, isn’t it?’ – not the confirmation I was seeking. There’s also another much more lateral use of the idea which I can’t share as it’s a spoiler for the play!

** The Barnum-statement, or Barnum effect is something that is linked to the showman P T Barnum (of which the film, The Greatest Showman is about).  The basic concept is that we can personalise what are very general, but cleverly written statements meaning that we believe the horoscope or fortune is ours.   “You’re someone who is often self-critical” or “You are sometimes very social and extroverted, while at other times reserved and wary of others”

Image credit: Photo by Ian Turnell from Pexels

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