Who is Procrustes?
And for what reason should you (quickly…) get off of his bed?
Procrustes is a character recorded in Greek mythology as living on Mount Corydalle, along the sacred road linking Eleusis and Athens, who offered hospitality to pilgrims: a generous dinner was followed by a rest on a bed that he wished to conform perfectly to the body of the wayfarer.
And since he could not change the size of the bed, he used to change the size of the victim, who was stretched to the desired length or amputated if he protruded from the bed itself.
Not surprisingly, Prokroustês in ancient Greek means ‘the stretcher’.
The expression “Procrustes bed”, originated from this myth, indicates the
tendency to reduce people’s behaviour to a single pattern,
a single way of thinking and acting or, more generally,
a difficult and intolerable situation,
or even a tormented state of mind.
As you can imagine, a pathology that psychologists have been and still are dealing with extensively.
However, there is a different and more interesting connection between our behaviour and Procrustes bed, which can be found in our way of dealing with knowledge and the unknown: the two opposites that we find so difficult to deal with.
Procrustes tried to fill the bed by submitting his victims to stretching, whereas
we tend to reduce knowledge to pre-packaged and standard models,
and the world view to a few clear-cut ideas
in which there is no room for uncertainty.
Alternatively, we persuade ourselves that the knowledge we own is the only knowledge that has value, or even the only one that exists; hence, we neglect what we do not know, cutting off the unknown that frightens us.
I have seen (and see today…) many uses for the Procrustes bed, of which I have long been an unconscious user (and I am not sure I am completely free of it…).
Let us look at some of them:
- research and development in many companies is managed without ensuring in advance that resources are not used to invent something that already exists;
- many market leaders, who have enjoyed long periods of market hegemony, tend to ignore the actions of competitors who threaten them more and more closely, thus accelerating their decline: in the worst cases they tend to ignore even their existence;
- the belief that they were the only ones who had “that” good idea makes us overlook that others may have had the same intuition and planned similar actions, weakening our plans;
- stereotypes and prejudices are comfortable means of reducing complexity into simplified and ‘pocket’ models, which authorise us to eliminate all efforts to increase our knowledge: we make extensive use of them when talking about gender, nations and cultures other than our own.
Do you find all this plausible?
How can we get off the Procrustes bed without getting injured?
Here are 7 tips that I do my best to follow and that I want to share with you:
- never be afraid to change your mind. A trait of people who achieve their goals is that they do not maintain a position when it proves inappropriate, or it will not lead to good results;
- analyses events critically, always separating facts from opinions;
- avoiding the use of inference as a method for forming an opinion. The use of limited information and specific cases to define general rules may and often does lead to serious errors;
- concentrate on what is unknown rather than on what we know. What we ignore can deeply influence the events and that is why it deserves all our attention;
- be aware of your ignorance. Yes, we are deeply ignorant even in the matters we consider ourselves experts in: recognising this will help us to better address the previous point;
- recognise the role of randomness. For example, mistaking luck for skill and attributing failures to misfortune can have destructive effects;
- fight prejudices and clichés: primarily within yourself.
If you think I have forgotten something, please feel free to add it to the list.
I don’t know if I succeeded in communicating how dangerous Procrustes bed is, because there is an aspect of the myth that our instinct for self-preservation probably makes us ignore: namely, that
we simultaneously wear both Procrustes’ and the victim’s clothes.
But getting out of the Procrustes bed is only an individual choice.
Don’t you think so?
To avoid the Procrustes bed, a training course to help you learn tools and methods for preventing cognitive errors may be useful.