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It's the lion you don't see that'll eat you!

By Mary Marczak, director of urban family development and evaluation

My graduate school statistics professor, A.J. Figueredo, often lamented how he couldn’t make it as an animal behaviorist so he became a stats professor. Lucky for us, he used his knowledge about animal behaviors to explain difficult statistical concepts. In research and hypothesis testing, Type II errors lead you to make wrong conclusions. Typically that's because you don’t know enough, don’t have enough data, or haven’t waited long enough for the effects or relationships to show up.

To explain this complex statistical concept, A.J. told us a story about Africa’s Thomson’s gazelles. Animal behaviorists were puzzled to see these gazelles hanging out with their primary predators, African lions. They wondered, what is wrong with these gazelles? Are they just gluttons for punishment?

gazelle and lion watching each other

As it turns out, through evolution, the Thomson’s gazelles have figured out that while lions have a great initial burst of speed, they are not endurance runners. Gazelles, on the other hand, can run longer distances. So, if gazelles can keep the lions in sight, with just enough distance to neutralize the lions’ initial bursts of speed, they know they can outrun the lions and keep from becoming dinner. The moral of the story? The gazelles are smart to keep the lions in sight, because it’s the lion that you don’t see that’ll eat you!

Train your brain

How does this connect to our work in the Center for Family Development? In coalition work or when we are dealing with complex issues, what you don’t know will affect success as much or more than what you know. As humans, we have become very good at sorting and sifting through infinite points of data to make sense out of things so we can navigate our everyday worlds.

But some of these same cognitive processes, including selective attention and confirmation bias, heighten our natural inclination to seek like-minded thinking and the comfort of people and organizations we have always worked with. We also tend to dismiss nagging counter-thinking as “noise.” Given these innate tendencies, it is vitally important to train our brain to be intentional about seeking fresh ideas and looking at things from different and diverse perspectives.

How can we be intentional? It’s impossible to know everything about an issue, but we can stop and reflect on our current knowledge, and try to learn something new about the issue every day. We can keep asking questions like:
  • Where does our current knowledge of the issue come from?
  • Who got to craft and organize the knowledge or tell a dominant narrative about it?
  • What specifically is the issue? Also, who are most negatively affected by the issue but have the least voice in crafting a solution?
  • How can we look at the same issues we’ve been working on for years from a completely new angle? Are there new ways to understand the issue? 
Asking and carefully considering responses to these questions will help you look at things in different and diverse ways.

Look beyond the dominant narrative

In graduate school I became fascinated by two researchers because they were intentional about looking beyond the dominant narrative for new ways to understand an issue. They took a unique approach to exploring an issue or a culture – and added to their knowledge base of both. The first researcher was an anthropologist, Vincent Crapanzano. He spent months sitting and talking with Tuhami, an outcast who was relegated to living in a small hut outside a village in Morocco. Crapanzano gained great insight about the dominant culture through the eyes of an outcast.

The second, Harry Wolcott, a sociologist and qualitative researcher, wrote one of my favorite chapters in a qualitative research handbook. His narrative describes his bid to understand high school dropout rates when he happened upon a 19-year-old homeless high school dropout who was squatting on a secluded part of his land in Oregon. Fascinated by how this “sneaky kid” was surviving by “borrowing” necessities from his family, Wolcott began spending days talking with him. Wolcott then wrote a series of articles based on his conversations with the teen — focusing on how schools could fail such a smart, resourceful kid.

These two researchers’ stories illustrate how one might intentionally seek out the “lion that we don’t see.” Knowledge gaps can make us come to wrong conclusions about what underlies an issue, craft responses that are off the mark, and ultimately develop programs that are ineffective. We don’t want that!

gazelles running

A.J.’s phrase, “it’s the lion that you don’t see that’ll eat you!” has stayed with me for over two decades. I hope all this gives you some food (pun intended) for thought as well!
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