Category Archives: Posts

Teens, Want Those Car Keys?

Wait ‘till after dinner to ask.

Israeli judges’ parole decisions made before and after lunch were tracked. The verdict? Better hope your case comes up after lunchtime. Chances of being granted parole before lunch were slim.

Today’s Economist notes that judges are susceptible to cognitive biases, just like you and me. If they roll the dice and end up with snake eyes, the sentence they give afterward will be lower. Just as if you are asked to think about higher numbers before you bid at auction, you’ll bid more for the same items than the judge next to you who rolled the snake eyes.

So now when you see your teenager eyeing that car through the window, you know what to do. Quick – hide the food!

photo credit: comedy_nose via photopin cc

If you show us a company where the planners are different from the doers, we will show you a company where what gets done is different from what was planned.

A.G. Lafley, Robert Martin, Jan Rivkin and Nicolaj Siggelkow in Harvard Business Review’s Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy

Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
British poet, critic and philosopher

Offices versus Cubicles, Round 2

 Just when you thought the debate between offices and cubicles was closed, new evidence emerges.

Despite the happy talk about collaboration and interaction, the collateral damage of cubicle and open seating arrangements often outweigh the limited advantages. These ideas, intended to be cost-saving, have created an army of management minnions oblivious to the distinctions between intellectual inspiration and coffee-klatch blather, and infinitely expanded the meaning of “over-share”.

Typically those who vote for these spaces don’t live in them, and apparently that is part of the problem. Once safely ensconced in their offices, they just can’t remember what it’s like to live in the vast prairie outside their door. How do we know?

Years of research have demonstrated the advantages of returning to the context of learning when trying to remember. Even first-graders grasping for the next letter will intuitively prompt their memory with the “A-B-C Song”. The intrepid Radvansky, Krawietz and Tamplin of the University of Notre Dame, however, wanted to know the answer to a bigger question. When you wander into the kitchen in search of something, why can you only remember your true purpose upon return empty-handed to where you started?

Doorways. Yes, you got that right. Doorways.

In a series of three experiments, teasing out causal versus correlative effects, the Notre Dame team revealed the impact of a doorway. Even in a virtual-world environment, walking through a doorway appears to reset our cognitive priorities. That important issue you walked out to solve recedes into the landscape as you walk through that doorway into an environment of new potential threats.

From the perspective of cave- and savanah-dwelling ancestors spanning several more centuries than modern existence, this reassessment of environmental risk is an efficient and even life-saving tendency. But when leaving your office to wash out your coffee cup or give direction, perhaps not so much.

In the virtual world, walking through a doorway consistently reduced the cognitive ability of the subjects to remember details about their purpose.

So can you blame them? 

Thanks to Mind Matters for bringing this study to our attention. Now…why DID I leave my office? 

What If You Were Wrong?

Get the facts first. You can distort them later. – Mark Twain

Mark Twain was a prescient humorist, especially when it came to politics. But even Twain might have been surprised to learn that the more misinformed we are, the more likely we will use facts proving us wrong to convince ourselves we are even more right.  

Unfortunately it’s true: Facts don’t cure misinformation. Instead they act like an underpowered antibiotic, making misinformation even stronger. Sadly those least well-informed are most likely to succumb — and to act on those misperceptions. So we learn from Joe Keohane’s Boston Globe coverage of studies on the interplay between facts and conviction, particularly when democracy is involved.

As University of Michigan researcher Brendan Nyhan related, we often decide facts are true based more on our pre-existing political biases than the evidence for their accuracy. His team’s recently published study in the journal Political Behavior describes research subjects’ strengthening convictions, termed “backfire”, as they read correcting facts conflicting with their prejudces. Whether in James Kuklinski’s influential 2000 study about welfare “facts” or Nyhan and Reifler’s 2005-2006 research showing predispositions about WMDs in Iraq, the effect of tax cuts on actual revenue and the nature of restrictions on stem cell research funding, one real fact remains. Our beliefs dictate the facts we choose to accept. 

Kuklinski calls it the “I know I’m right” syndrome. Have you seen it before?

What’s to be done about it though? If you form an opinion before you’re fully educated, are you doomed? I don’t think so. As they say, the first step is recognizing you have a problem.

Any time you are making an important decision – whether for profits, politics or personal concerns – be wary when you start to envision war-like analogies of us versus them or feel a disproportionate desire to defend your opinion. Like the child caught lying about who started it, the more fragile and exposed your opinion becomes, the more fanatically you’ll defend it. This state makes you least able to employ the very skills you need most: to make rational decisions and influence others.

So the next time you have an urge to passionately defend your position, stop for a moment. Why are you so convinced? And what would it look like if you were wrong?