Category Archives: Decision Making and Judgment

The side I see: challenging assumptions, changing minds

It’s funny how the books we read when we are young stick with us. One such book for me was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction story about a man, raised by Martians, who returns one day to Earth, and the clash of cultures and values that inevitably results.

What I recall most vividly were the Fair Witnesses, the licensed professionals that Heinlein invents for this book. Fair Witnesses receive extensive training in careful, impartial observation and assiduously avoid assumptions when called upon to provide their services.  In one memorable scene, one Fair Witness, Anne, demonstrates her unique skill to two other characters, Jubal and Jill. Jubal asks Anne, “That house on the hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?” Anne  replies, “It’s white on this side.”

Jubal explains to Jill,

You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too.  All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked–and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.

I never forgot what the Fair Witness said: “It’s white on this side.”  It’s unlikely that any of us is that precise or discerning when called upon to recount an incident or describe an object or problem.

Imagine the house on the hilltop. Now picture two people, each of whom stands facing a different side of the house, one person at the back, one at the front. Based on what they are able to see, front or back, each draws conclusions about the entire house – what color it is painted, what materials it is constructed of, whether repairs may be needed. But until each has left his original position and walked around the house, inspecting it from all sides, those conclusions remain suspect, based on incomplete data.

In teaching negotiation and mediation, I often discuss the scene from Heinlein’s book after administering an uncritical inference test known as “The Cash Register Exercise“. This exercise highlights the very human tendency to quickly fill in the gaps when information is missing and to draw assumptions about what we don’t know from what we do. (Click here to download the exercise and answer key in PDF.)

For those negotiating, information is indeed power. Examining issues from different angles can protect negotiators from bad deals or from missed opportunities.

For new mediators, the exercise and Heinlein’s story serve as a salutary reminder that our own assumptions can limit our effectiveness at the table. Cognitive error may blinker us, hampering us from helping those locked in conflict arrive at a more expansive understanding of the problems they face. The other lesson, too, is an obvious one: mediation offers fresh ways of looking at issues – from all sides, not just one, inviting parties to step away from their side of the house to see it in its entirety.

Seeing the house from all sides allows us to test or transcend our assumptions. Stepping away to gain a different view doesn’t mean giving up what you believe or need. With accurate and complete information, our conclusions can rest on surer ground. And it might even change our minds along with our vantage points.

Playing around: game theory in popular culture

Game theory in popular cultureThere is something irresistible about game theory. A branch of mathematics devoted to understanding social interaction and decision making, it holds relevance – and fascination – for  students and practitioners of negotiation and dispute resolution. Economist Kenneth Boulding once described game theory as

…an intellectual X ray. It reveals the skeletal structure of those social systems where decisions interact, and it reveals, therefore, the essential structure of both conflict and collaboration.

I particularly enjoy examples of game theory drawn from ordinary daily life, and have collected its depictions in popular culture. Some favorites of mine include

More examples of game theory in popular culture can be found at, which offers interactive materials and games for game theory enthusiasts. There’s also a terrific collection of game theory video clips on YouTube (with thanks to the blog Grey Matters).

If you’d like to learn more about game theory from an expert who knows how to demystify it even for the mathematically challenged, get yourself a copy of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, by Len Fisher (who, incidentally, received the Ig Nobel Prize for his studies on the proper way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea). It’s an entertaining and highly informative read with plenty of real-life examples of game theory in action.

Justice for all: battling bias in the courts

Justice should be blindBias does its greatest damage undetected, operating beneath the radar of our awareness or even contrary to our conscious intentions.

Bias can be costly, imposing what researchers have described as a “stereotype tax“, affecting everything from negotiating to hiring decisions. Unconscious bias can exclude qualified people from jobs or educational opportunities. Because of biases and assumptions about their counterpart on the other side of the table, negotiators are more likely to leave value on the table.

Bias is pervasive. It can be found where it is least welcomed, even in courthouses where justice should be blind and balanced, treating equally and with fairness all who come before the law.

To combat implicit bias and to raise awareness of its dangers in America’s courthouses, the National Center for State Courts has gathered on its web site an impressive collection of articles and videos on social cognition, judicial deliberation, and decision making, including these:

Also included is a link to Project Implicit, the ongoing research project into unconscious bias.

In search of a better argument

Better argumentsConflict.

There’s certainly plenty of it to go around. Daily life is made up of discord, debate and disagreement. I for one would hate to see conflict vanish. Not only would it put me and all the other mediators out of work, but life would be far less interesting. No doubt quality of life would suffer, since conflict after all famously provokes improvements. (Besides, in a world without argument imagine how erotic love might suffer without make-up sex to spark things up.)

What we need is not fewer arguments in the world. It’s not the quantity that’s at issue, it’s the quality. Friends, we need to bicker better.

Regular readers are familiar with a recently added feature on this blog, the Fallacious Argument of the Month. With the goal of promoting clearheaded and reasoned debate and improving discourse, each month I skewer a different fallacy. One consequence of creating that feature is that it has sharpened my eye for real-world instances of mistakes in arguing. Hence this post: I found a whopper.

One common mistake when arguing is to make cheap appeals to emotion through an old playground trick: name calling. The intent is to arouse the disgust of one’s audience against the target of one’s attack. Using words designed to inflame the prejudices of your audience can certainly be effective. Unfortunately, this ruse can backfire. Your audience may turn on you and not your intended target.

I spotted an example of this in the pages of the local paper, the Boston Globe. One particularly touchy subject these days is a proposal concerning a public law school for Massachusetts, one of a handful of states without one. Under this proposal, the state higher education system would take over private Southern New England School of Law. The Globe has run several opinion pieces on the subject, pro and con, including one, “Bailing out a failing law school,” penned by two University of Massachusetts trustees.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I oppose this plan myself.  But I winced when I read the UMass trustees’ opinion. Instead of focusing on relevant facts to sway the undecided or the committed, the writers vitiated their argument by throwing in deliberately demeaning language, lobbing phrases such as “fourth rate”, “raw political pork”, and “‘Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’ justice”. Not surprisingly, it provoked angry letters from insulted readers.

How much more effective this op-ed piece would have been had its authors  stuck with facts and reasons, leaving the sneering provocation behind in the first draft.

The right stuff: morality resources, articles, studies, and a course, all online

Find your moral compass through resources, studies, a course all onlineGreat minds – and wits – have considered the difficulties of moral choice. Influential activist and thinker Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (Bon vivant Mae West, who took a more pragmatic view, purportedly said, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”)

Moment by moment, life presents us with difficult choices and questions to confront. What are we to do in the face of moral dilemma? As moral actors, how do we decide? What guides us? What are the sources of moral values? Religion? Law? Or are they coded into our DNA? How do we apply moral values? Are moral principles universally held, transcending culture? Or are they shifting social constructs, dependent upon the vagaries of time and place?

Inside all of us is the philosopher who delights in wrestling with questions concerning moral decision making – and the devil’s advocate who likes to pose them. The internet holds much to stimulate us, particularly these outstanding resources on morality, moral psychology, and moral decision making:

Voodoo economics: seeking psychic advice for financial decision making

fortune tellingPick up a newspaper these days or tune in to your local TV news station, and there it is — another story about the consequences of bad decision making.

Meanwhile, publishers fill bookstore shelves with texts prescribing remedies for poor judgment, warning us that we are predictably irrational or nudging readers toward wiser choices, while excellent sources online abound, inviting us to examine the forces that influence our conduct or shape our assumptions.

Human nature, however, seems to resist mightily these efforts to improve decision making, despite the daily reminders of the risks of bad judgment. Concerned about uncertainty in their financial futures, some people these days are seeking advice — not from accountants, financial planners, tax attorneys, career coaches, or credit counselors — but from psychics.

Are you making decisions based on magical thinking or wishful predictions about the future? Or on sound advice from knowledgeable experts, information from trustworthy sources, and good common sense?

More negotiation lessons from humor

Questions before decisionsLast fall, in “A negotiator walks into a bar“, I passed along a humorous story offering lessons in problem solving that a friend happened to email me. Over the weekend, this same friend emailed me another joke, which likewise serves double-duty as a cautionary tale for negotiators.

Here it is:

A large company, thinking it was high time for a shake-up, hired a new CEO.

The new boss was determined to rid the company of all slackers.

On a tour of the facilities, the CEO noticed a guy leaning against a wall. The room was full of workers, and the CEO wanted them to know that he meant business. He walked up to the guy leaning against the wall and demanded, “How much money do you make a week?” A little surprised, the guy looked at him and replied, “I make $400 a week. Why?”

The CEO pulls out his wallet, hands the guy $1,600 in cash and yells, “Here’s four weeks’ pay, now get out and don’t come back!”

Feeling pretty good about himself, the CEO looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone want to tell me what that slacker did around here?”

For a moment, silence reigned. Then, a worker close by gathered the courage to speak up: “Pizza delivery guy from Domino’s.”

The moral of the story: ask questions before you decide, not after.

Judaism, media literacy and U.S. elections: reflections on the Jewish New Year

Media literacy

Last night marked the start of the celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. In anticipation, several days earlier, I began rereading a book I’d acquired several years ago, Nothing Sacred, a controversial work by media critic Douglas Rushkoff that seeks 21st century meaning in the traditions and texts of Judaism.

Rushkoff argues that Judaism is “a religion dedicated to media literacy” — an approach to deconstructing, analyzing and questioning media’s messages — which offers digital-age lessons in participatory democracy for the secular world.

He points to Judaism’s core practices:

Judaism is a religion dedicated to media literacy. The initiation to adult practice is not an act of faith, but a demonstration of literacy called a bar (or bat) mitvah…Jews have to be able to not only read the text, but also understand what it means…

Further, Jewish rituals require community participation. The Torah scroll cannot even be read unless ten people — a minyan — are present. This was a safeguard against isolation and its destructive impact. If only such priorities were used in the media space, where an isolated, self-doubting viewer is considered the most valuable target for markets selling on TV or the Web.

In an undated interview with the Jewish Public Forum, Rushkoff observed,

The fact that Jews are not supposed to read the holy texts alone – we’re not even supposed to read the Talmud by ourselves – is also fascinating. It forces us to be social and interactive with our stories and laws, rather than alone with them. It’s more like participating in a chat room or newsgroup than sitting passively on a Web site. We can maintain some critical distance. We are invited to think and comment. The text is kept alive. Transparent.

In Rushkoff’s world, Judaism’s traditions translate into lessons for 21st century citizens.  We all bear responsibility to remake ourselves into knowledgeable, literate consumers of modern media who can analyze and decode its messages and gain resistance to propaganda and distortions of fact. Discussion and constant questioning, not blind-faith acceptance, are essential to uncovering truths and debunking false claims, whether in spiritual practices or political ones.

Today, as a new year begins, as the U.S. faces financial chaos, and a presidential election looms just weeks away, I pause for a moment to consider how Rushkoff’s insights on Jewish traditions apply to the secular texts that are the foundation of American democracy — our Constitution, our laws — as well as to the cacophony of messages through media — TV, radio, print, web — that seek to sway us.

Rushkoff of course is right: to participate fully, to be engaged citizens, we must demand media literacy of ourselves (and also, I would hasten to add, of those who would lead us).  We must be literate enough to decipher the messages that shape our lives and our decisions — at the moment, the choices we Americans will make in the voting booth in November.

A negotiator walks into a bar: a joke teaches a lesson on problem solving

Are your best ideas going down the drain?

A friend recently sent me the following joke:

During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “

Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”

What I love about the joke — apart from the fact that it’s actually clean and therefore suitable to repeat in the presence of clients — is how neatly it illustrates an all too common problem: sometimes, when we are presented with several options, they may blind us to other choices — including the simplest and most sensible one.

When you’re looking for solutions or preparing to negotiate, are good ideas going down the drain?

Judgment call: everyone benefits when decision making is improved

Time to address bad decision making

In a recently published paper, experts in decision making Dolly Chugh, Katherine L. Milkman, and Max Bazerman asked an important question, “How Can Decision Making Be Improved?” (PDF):

We propose that the time has come to move the study of biases in judgment and decision making beyond description and toward the development of improvement strategies. While a few important insights about how to improve decision making have already been identified, we argue that many others await discovery. We hope judgment and decision-making scholars will focus their attention on the search for improvement strategies in the coming years, seeking to answer the question: how can we improve decision making?

They explained why the question matters, particularly today:

Errors are costly: We believe the importance of this question is somewhat self evident: decisions shape important outcomes for individuals, families, businesses, governments, and societies, and if we knew more about how to improve those outcomes, individuals, families, businesses, governments, and societies would benefit. After all, errors induced by biases in judgment lead decision makers to undersave for retirement, engage in needless conflict, marry the wrong partners, accept the wrong jobs, and wrongly invade countries.

(And, dare I say, make poor choices in the voting booth.)

Although the development of strategies to combat poor decision making won’t come in time for this election (or to undo the subprime mortgage crisis), this is an encouraging step forward. I can only hope that experts in behavioral decision making answer the challenge — and that the public actually pays attention when they do.

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