A few years ago, I attended a "coffee morning with the principal" at my daughter's school. During the discussion, homework came up. The principal flat-out admitted that all the research showed that homework in the lower grades was worthless for the student, but that they assigned it because the parents wanted it.
As soon as she said that, three women asked if the amount of homework could be increased.
Think about that for a moment--the principal just admitted that homework was worthless, yet these presumably intelligent adults wanted more homework for their first graders.
Education isn't the only field where smart people act in dumb ways. Take HR, for instance. The New York Post just ran an article titled "The corporate 'cure' for sexual harassment only feeds the disease." Based on research out of Stanford, this article points out that sexual harassment training may make for more sexual harassment.
This isn't actually new knowledge. We've known for years that sexual harassment and diversity training are ineffective at stopping illegal discrimination. Peter Bergman at Psychology Today wrote, way back in 2012, that "Diversity training doesn't extinguish prejudice. It promotes it."
Why do we do things we know don't work? Because at least we're doing something. Yep. We do dumb things because we have in our brain the idea that doing something is better than doing nothing.
The moms that wanted more homework for their kids wanted it, not because it was better for their children (it's not), but because they could confidently say that they had done everything that they could. If they didn't push their little ones to do extra homework and the child grew up and didn't get into Harvard, they'd always feel guilty and that perhaps if they had done more worksheets as 7-year-olds, they'd now be going to Harvard. The purpose of the stupid action? Assuaging parental guilt.
What about the corporate harassment training? Well, the purpose of that is financial. If John harasses Jane and your company hasn't done any sexual harassment training, Jane's lawyer is going to use that as a way to prove that your company allowed this type of behavior.
So, we hold our training to be able to stand up in court and say, "We did everything we could." Saying you did something sounds a whole lot better than saying "We know training doesn't work, so we did nothing." A jury is going to hear "We don't care about sexual harassment." The purpose of the stupid action? Covering our corporate rear ends.
The reality is, doing something isn't always better than doing nothing. Letting things play out on their own doesn't mean we're slackers and uncaring--it can mean we're scientifically grounded. In the case of the homework loving parents, we can simply push back. (For the record, after that statement by the principal, I threw my daughter's homework straight into the trash for the rest of the year, and no one said boo. She did have to start doing it the next year, however.)
In the case of corporations, it's more complicated. We owe it to ourselves, our employees, and our investors to do everything we can to protect the business from lawsuits. If having the training gives us protection from lawsuits, we do it, even if it doesn't protect our employees.
Actually, I think I'll start doing sexual harassment and diversity training that really works. You can hire me and pay me a lot of money. I'll stand in front of your company in a suit and heels with a PowerPoint presentation that says, "Be nice to everyone. Always." Then you can be smart harassment wise and lawsuits wise.