How Perspective Shift Can Change Outcome

When Ron Howard’s historical tribute to the space program “Apollo 13” hit the theaters I think I was one of the first in line to buy a ticket. Growing up in the shadow of the moon race, I vividly remember my father’s conspicuous absence for several days as those three American astronauts were teetering on the brink of oblivion. A NASA engineer, my dad and the other members of that remarkable team performed the engineering miracles that brought Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert safely back to earth.

When the capsule was approaching re-entry, well aware that the chances of a safe and successful landing were slim to none, the world held its collective breath. During this climactic scene in the movie, the modern equivalent of a press secretary was working through the devastating impact this mission could have on the space program.

Agreeing, NASA’s Director remarked, “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”

Gene Kranz, the courageous flight director (masterfully played by Ed Harris in the movie) made a response that would forever define the skill and the art of reframing: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Kranz was right. Apollo 13 became “the most successful failure” in NASA’s history.

Vivid vs. Valid

Reframing is simply changing our perspective or “frame of reference.” It is looking at a situation or a problem from a different point of view. As Kranz said in another scene in the movie while trying to get the engineering team to think creatively, “I don’t care about what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.”

Before you discount this, recognize the premise was one of the points which Daniel Kahneman incorporated into his research on why business owners make poor decisions. His findings won him the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Framing: According to Kahneman, framing is how we approach any problem to solve it. Since we make thousands of problem-solving decisions every day, many almost unconsciously, it is little wonder that our methods for addressing new quandaries tend to fall into rather predictable patterns. What is it that draws us into our volitional ruts?

Information Accessing: In our decision-making process, we tend to respond not on the most reliable data, but the most recallable data. Typically, we access the data that confirms our bias, presuppositions or our “frame of reference”. As one writer said, “What is vivid is more important than what is valid or relevant.”

Our experience becomes more authoritative than the cumulative experience of others. Many times, our emotions are more real and therefore more valid than the truth. To put it another way, our emotions become the truth. Thus, we begin to operate what can only be described as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Because we filter out anything to the contrary, our expectations and impressions are confirmed and act to drive to the conclusions we already have assumed are the inevitable outcome.

Cognitive Consistency and Optimism: In addition to trending towards certain consistent patterns of thinking, we also tend to act the same way because we are convinced we are “right.” Research has shown that “bad data is worse than no data because it generates the illusion of reason.” We are confident in our decisions because we think we have the facts to back us up.

Against All Odds

There are myriad examples of reframing, but one of the most powerful stories I recall was about Naval Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years.

Recalling his time there, he said: “Well, you have to understand, it was very depressing. Yet, despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—get out of this—but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”

“I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And then there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”

“This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail, despite those constraints, with on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”

That is what was termed the “Stockdale Paradox.”