Caravaggio Calling

When I first arrived in Rome 6 weeks ago one of the most talked about events was a Caravaggio exhibition. When people found out that I missed that one, they told me to visit the Borghese Gallery which houses permanent exhibits of various artists including of course Caravaggio. Yesterday, the Telegraph published a feature article by Andrew Graham-Dixon about a book he has written called “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane”. Three days ago, my colleague came into the office ecstatic that she had been accepted as a disciple by a 31-year-old painter who paints like Caravaggio. She mused that someone like Roberto Ferri was the reason that she believed in reincarnation. She invited me to visit his studio in September and I pondered over what I would say to someone who might be the incarnate of Caravaggio. With all these signals that I’m receiving about Caravaggio, is the cosmos conspiring to tell me something? Perhaps a life-changing encounter is imminent, when my purpose in life will finally be revealed? 


I have contrived to make you see a particular pattern, but pattern recognition is what we do naturally anyway. Our brains are wired to pick out patterns in our experiences. It is a basic survival instinct shared by many species. What separates us as a species is the ability to make sense of those patterns and also to do something about problematic patterns.

For instance, many species know that when big cats are around something or someone gets eaten. Homosapiens alone have figured out that the law of the savanna is survival of the fittest although there are ways to work around it, like with spears or fire or guns.

We are not always successful when it comes to pattern sensemaking, however. In fact, we sometimes get it terribly wrong. Think Salem witch hunt, superstitions and religious faiths requiring human sacrifice.


Why do we get it so wrong sometimes? One reason is simply the absence of scientific knowledge. We simply know more since the Enlightenment when scientific studies became de rigueur.

Another reason is psychological. We pick up information that confirms what we want to or already believe, and ignore the rest. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. David McRaney has just written a very nice blog post on this phenomenon. And Valdis Krebs, whose tweet about McRaney’s post is what got my attention in the first place, has been doing a social network analysis of the book buying patterns of Americans since 2003. His analysis found that people who belong to one political party almost never buy books that are favourable to the other party. They simply read materials that affirm what they already believe.

Confirmation bias is hence very, very bad news. It suggests that regardless what you try to tell people they will only tune into those bits that are already aligned with their beliefs, thereby entrenching those beliefs even deeper. Consider any initiative whose success is predicated on people changing their attitudes and behaviours, like KM. The existence of confirmation bias suggests that people who are biased against KM will always find evidence to disprove its efficacy, while those who support KM are, well, converts to whom the sermon is preached.

What then should KM professionals do? Should we even bother to sell KM to those on the other side of the divide? Or should we just work with our allies to effect as much positive change as we possibly can?

I need to think about this for a while, for I have no answers that people already toiling tirelessly to change organisational culture want to hear. In the meantime, let me go back to Caravaggio. Methinks that he’s trying to tell me something.

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