Imagine a readily available, cheap to produce, absolutely safe supplement that, if taken before every meal, was scientifically proven to improve weight loss efforts by up to 44% for the over 55s. If you held the patent for such a supplement what sort of awareness and publicity might you be able to generate in the world’s press? What sort of market penetration might you expect to get? What sort of value might you put on the formula?
If only that supplement wasn’t plain old water, as a little-reported experiment has just proven it is, how many people would be clamouring to buy it?
Instead everyone seems wilfully to be ignoring the opportunity to promote or adopt a simple habit that delivers results which are desirable and beneficial but otherwise difficult to achieve.
The author Robert Anton Wilson is attributed by some with coining the term The Semmelweis Reflex to describe the habit of:
dismissing, or rejecting out-of-hand, any information automatically without thought, inspection or experiment.
The reflex is named in honour of Ignaz Philip Semmelweis, a 19th century Hungarian doctor. He discovered that if physicians attending childbirths first washed their hands with chlorinated lime, then fatalities amongst mothers were significantly reduced. For postulating his correct hypothesis to explain this proven fact, he was sacked from his hospital and ostracised by the medical community.
What hope, then, that organisations might grasp a new opportunity to improve the self-esteem of workers for costs comparable to the office water bill? An experiment reported in The Economist seems specially designed to provoke The Semmelweis Reflex. It proves that self-esteem and feelings of power can be improved merely by promoting better posture. The effect, it would seem, is stronger than that of giving people a new, more senior, job title.
How many organisations will be giving any of their employees a course of Alexander Technique, Yoga or Pilates lessons over the next year as a result of this information? Don’t even consider trying to get this adopted at your place. Remember what happened to Ignaz.
Can you spot the The Semmelweis Reflex at your organisation? What was the last challenging idea to be rejected out of hand? How can you unearth what seems to be working – however unlikely – and conduct experiments to see what’s worth adopting more widely?
Is the water-and-weightloss example above a good illustration of The Semmelweis Reflex? What else might be at work here?