Can smart people make unfair decisions ? - Executips


Monday, November 27, 2017

Can smart people make unfair decisions ?

If the boss is making a decision on your promotion, make sure it’s not before lunch.

A 2011 study in Israel found that “judges were significantly more likely to deny parole to a prisoner” if they were hungry. This was mentioned by Lisa  Feldman Barrett in the book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

The distinguished and awarded neuroscientist explained that much of our feelings are a result of our brains making sense of the processes happening inside our body. It’s called interoception. It is “your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood and your immune system.” For example, we may interpret the unpleasantness of hunger as a bad feeling about the person we are dealing with.

She recalled that back in college, she thought she was getting infatuated with the guy she had lunch with. It turned out she was just feeling the early symptoms of a flu. 

At other times, what happens is a loop. Our brain reacts to a stimulus, it triggers a firing of neurons, then the sensation makes us think and behave in a certain way. Below is an example from Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of The Science of Positivity : Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry.

Feeling Good and Herd Mentality

Dr.Breuning wrote that when an animal is physically close to its parents or the herd, oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone,  flows and it feels good. When it strays away, the oxytocin drops while the stress hormone cortisol rises. The animal feels “there is something wrong in the world.” So, it goes back to the herd for that nice oxytocin hit…and protection from a lion hunting for dinner!

Humans also feel that oxytocin pleasantness when with loved ones, relatives, good friends, people with the same beliefs or with the same interests. In the insecure corporate world, I think that oxytocin may influence us to choose to work only with people we trust or think like us even though others may be more qualified. 

Herd mentality may also result in groupthink. According to Dr. Breuning, animals find security in a group so they try not to rock the boat. The group’s bonding is also enhanced by a common enemy. One, therefore, cannot easily express a dissenting opinion lest they be seen as siding with the enemy, and be ejected from the group.

Liking a person similar to us is a common mistake in job interviews. Lazlo Bock, formerly Google’s SVP for People Operations, cited in a Wired article a collaboration by Tricia Prickett, Neha Gada-Jain and Frank Bernieri of the University of Toledo.  Their study revealed that many job interviews are useless because interviewers make 10-second decisions "based on existing beliefs and biases.” They may instantly like an applicant and look for more reasons to like them instead of thoroughly appraising their objective qualification.

Values Make us Biased

Adam Benforado is an associate professor of Law and also served as a clerk on the United States Court of Appeals. In the book Unfair, he described how many ways witnesses and juries can be biased.

He cited a case in which a car chase between the police and a 19-year old ended in a crash that paralyzed the young man. When researches asked a sample of Americans to watch the video, opposing points of view came up. One educated African-American woman who held egalitarian views thought that the police was at fault for making a dangerous move to stop the chase. In contrast, a conservative white man thought that the young man was to blame for not surrendering.

Dr. Barrett wrote about a separate but similar experiment.

“ Test subjects watched a video of protestors being dispersed by the police. They were told the protestors were pro-life activists picketing an abortion clinic. Those who were liberal Democrats, who tend to be pro-choice, inferred that the activists had violent intentions, whereas socially conservative subjects inferred peaceful intentions. The researches also showed the same video to a second set of subjects, describing the protestors this time as gay right activists objecting to the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. This time, those who were liberal Democrats, who tend to support gay rights, inferred that the activists had peaceful intentions, whereas socially conservative subjects inferred violent intentions.”

It looks like truth is in the eyes of the beholder !

Wrong Stereotype

From childhood we have been conditioned to think that people smile when happy, scowl when angry, become wide-eyed when scared, etc. Even emoticons show these stereotypes. But Dr. Barrett cited many tests debunking this myth. She asserts that there are no universal visual fingerprints for any emotion.

Dr. Barrett noted that in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, BBC reported, “Only two of the jurors believed Tsarnaev has felt remorse. The other 10, like many in Massachusets, think he has no regrets.”

Dr. Barrett believes that the jury based their impression on the fact that the suspect just sat through the trial with a “stone-faced” expression. The westerners must have wanted him to cry and say sorry. They didn't know, according to Barrett, that in Chechen culture, men are expected “to be stoic in the face of adversity.” 

I admit, I have also misjudged some officemates. I thought that those who didn’t laugh at my jokes, didn’t smile at me and didn’t talk in meetings were the office rebels. So, I was surprised when they gave me sweet and sincere notes on Christmas.

Smart and Stubborn

Willful Blindness is a book written by Margaret Hefferman, a CEO and a TED lecturer. In the bestseller, she mentioned what psychologist Anthony Greenwald called the totalitarian ego. It is the human impulse to ignore contrary ideas because the human brain is more comfortable with the status quo, even in scientific circles.  I have actually read many authors whose latest scientific findings are resisted by the establishment.

In the BBC  Capital website, TalentSmart President Travis Bradburry said that bright people make bad decisions because they are "overconfident," "they always need to be right," and, "they have a hard time accepting feedback."

How Not to Err as Humans

As leaders, we are expected to be decisive but fair. But how can we escape our human tendencies ?

We can be more careful with our decisions if people will know how we decided.

In the book The Righteous Mind, cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt said that we, humans, are preoccuppied with what others think of us. So, research has proven that when people need to justify their moral decisions, they become more thorough than usual in their moral reasoning for fear of public criticism. 

It is, I believe, advisable to make our decision-making process transparent when secrecy is not a matter of life and death. It is also best to inhibit ourselves from matters where relatives, friends and club-mates are involved. In my division, where applicants are chosen through a creative test, I ask for any photo and CV to be detached from the answer sheets.It will also help to have a devil’s advocate, or a separate body to review critical recommendations. In the office, we may take more time to know our co-workers better instead of just judging them based on stereotypes.

By the way, don’t forget to bring food to the meeting.

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