Unicorn Syndrome: Why Most Reject Research That Would Help Them Develop Professionally

October 30, 2018

When coaching or training people on how to reach their full potential at work, it’s easy for me to get them riled up in less than a minute: tell them they should have less than 3 email folders.

While some professionals have gotten on board with this evidence-based practice, those who haven’t, find this piece of advice incredulous. Many find it so hard to believe that they end up sticking with their 37 folders (the average for email users). In doing so, they reject research done by IBM that concludes that the fastest way to find emails is to use search, not a labyrinth of folders, and the research-validated psychological principle, Hick’s Law, that explains that it takes us longer to make decisions when there are more choices (which is what happens when trying to file an email into 1 of 37 folders).

This is the challenge of saving time and improving your work performance. It relies on behaviors that feel, well, so personal. Combine the personal nature of time management and professional practices with the undisputed truth that each individual is unique, and you can see why people would reject what the research says because they think they’re unique.

“The research may apply to other people, but it doesn’t apply to me,” says the professional afflicted by the Unicorn Syndrome.

Instead, many wait until “people like them” have tried a new productivity hack and “found” it to be helpful. And so they end up building their time management repertoire around data-less anecdotes, turning up their noses at randomized control trials published in peer-reviewed journals that show statistically significant results.

Before you call, “Harsh!” and close this window, let us at Zarvana admit that we were once guilty of this as well. In fact, when we switched to all research-backed services a while back, we found ourselves in need of changing some practices that we had long taught others as truth.

Rejecting research in favor of intuition is not unique to the world of productivity and professional performance either. In fact, no field provides better examples of this than the medical field. The list of medical breakthroughs that were initially rejected or even ridiculed is long and includes antiseptic handwashing, newborn incubators, balloon angioplasty (one of the most common procedures performed during US hospital stays today), and the idea that germs cause disease.

Why the ‘Unicorn Syndrome’ is so pervasive?

Note: These 3 points in this section have been heavily used and adapted from an excellent article in the New Yorker called “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”

First impressions are hard to shake:

In a famous research study that took place at Stanford in the 1970s, a group of undergraduates was asked to distinguish between real suicide notes and fake ones. After finishing the task, some students were told they correctly identified the real notes 24 out of the 25 times, while others were told they had identified the real note only 10 times.

However, in reality, both groups had done just as well at identifying the real notes; the scores shared with the students were made up.

Researchers then revealed to the students that their scores were not real and asked them to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually identified correctly, and how they did compared to others. Interestingly, the students’ estimates of their actual scores were consistent with the fictitious scores they had been told initially: the group that was told they had done really well thought they had even though they knew the researchers had made up their score. Similarly, the group that was told they had gotten only 10 right thought they did poorly. Both groups’ estimates were influenced by the scores originally shared with them and were wrong.

What explains this phenomenon? According to the researchers, “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.” After thinking something is working, it’s hard for us to believe that it isn’t.

This is why we fall prey to the Unicorn Syndrome. Our minds search and find any justification for denying the research applies to us in order to preserve the belief that what we have been doing is right (see confirmation bias for more). The belief that we are unique is the perfect justification because it doesn’t force us to explain how the research is wrong. It can still apply to others even if it doesn’t apply to us. While we excuse ourselves on the basis of uniqueness, under the surface our impressions continue to waste us time and sabotage our performance.

Not convinced that impressions are hard to shake? Read through this list of commonly held beliefs that are scientifically proven to be wrong:

  1. Bats can’t see
  2. Gum takes years to digest
  3. Bulls get mad when they see the color red
  4. Humans generally only use 10% of their brain
  5. Lightning can’t strike in the same place multiple times
  6. Human hair and nails never stop growing, even after we die
  7. Sunflowers point towards the sun
  8. The Great Wall of China can be seen from the moon

If you’re feeling like a bit of a skeptic after reading these 8 misconceptions and barely fighting off the urge to Google them now, know this: the power of impressions is alive and well. (You can read more about these 8 here if your skepticism is getting the better of you.)

We don’t see our mistakes: 

A recent experiment asked participants to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses and were given a chance to change their responses if they noticed mistakes. Only 15% made changes.

Next, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. As before, they were given the chance to change their responses, but, without them knowing, the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. This time, 60% (4 times more) elected to make changes to what they thought was someone else’s answer, but was really theirs.

Our tendency to miss our own mistakes causes us to believe that what we have been doing is working really well even though it is proven to be slower and less effective. Even when we notice inefficiencies in others doing the same thing, our belief that we’re unique convinces us that we’re able to do the same behaviors without experiencing the same downsides.

We think we know more than we do: 

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets and zippers. They were then asked to write detailed explanations of how the devices work and to rate their understanding again. Not surprisingly, the attempt to explain how the devices work led students to reduce the ratings of their understanding.

The researchers call this the “illusion of explanatory depth,” and suggest that it happens because we assume we know how things work because we know how to use them.

We think we know a lot about how email, task management, giving feedback work. But like toilets and zippers, we tend to be more ‘users’ of these functions than experts in them. After all, how many people have ever received formal, research-backed training on how to use their email, manage their tasks, or give feedback? Very few.

Our belief in our own expertise causes us to deny research-backed recommendations because we think we know as much or more than the researchers. Our unicorn brains think: we spend hours in email every day; how could we not know what works best? But, in reality, we’re only users, not experts.

How do we do a better job of embracing research?

The difference between excellent and average professionals will increasingly come down to the ability to identify what really works and then, to incorporate evidence-based practices as lasting habits. Embracing what the research says in spite of your past experience is critical.

To escape the Unicorn Syndrome and its limiting effects, consider adopting the following practices:

  1. Embrace a lifestyle of continuous improvement: Those committed to continuous improvement maintain a loose grip on all of their behaviors, recognizing that at any future point, they may no longer be optimal. They understand that our external environments change and our understanding deepens, making what was right no longer right. To launch more fully into this lifestyle, consider this deeper engagement of the topic.
  2. Reject an all-or-nothing approach: Escaping the Unicorn Syndrome doesn’t require that you reject all semblance of your own uniqueness. It just requires starting with the research rather than your intuition. After starting with what the research says, you should feel encouraged to tweak its recommendations to make them best work for you.
  3. Get an external perspective regularly: As mentioned above, part of what makes the Unicorn Syndrome so easy to slip into is that it is hard for us to notice when we’re under its influence. As self-aware as you may be, you’re still likely to overlook some of your suboptimal behaviors. The antidote to self-deception is a regular, unbiased assessment of your professional behaviors. We created the Time-Finder – a 5-minute diagnostic – to serve this very purpose. (You can sign up here to take it for free.)

We are all wonderfully unique, but when we let our belief in our uniqueness cause us to reject practices proven to work for large representative groups of people, it becomes a syndrome rather than an asset.