Thursday, June 4, 2009

TED - Irrational Decision-Making

Here is another great TED talk that asks the question: "Are we in control of our own decisions?"

The answer is NO! This could be applicable to our previous discussion of Empathy and the Court. This TED talk clearly demonstrates how our emotions and other non-rational factors control our decision-making much more strongly than reasonable logic.

For example, the person on the far left is "Tom" and the one on the far right is "Jerry". The figure in the top middle is a distorted version of "Jerry" to make him look ugly. The middle bottom is an ugly version of "Tom".

When presented with the top form, and asked who they would date, most picked good-looking Jerry. When shown the bottom form, they picked good-looking Tom. Amazingly, the ugly choice totally changed the results of the selection process!

The TED presenter, Dan Ariely, uses several other examples to show how our decision process may be totally altered by the presentation of undesirable, non-chosen alternatives.


Well, if a decision is close between two alternatives, which is always the case for hard decisions in business (or the Supreme Court, where, by definition, cases are almost always close choices), a good strategy could be to introduce a slightly "ugly" version of the choice you want the deciders to make.

For example, a prosecutor could include the death penalty as an option, even if he or she thought a 20-year sentence is most appropriate. The "ugly" death penalty option would make it more likely the jurors would settle on a long sentence. Given a choice between 10 years and 20 years, they might pick 10. If the death penalty was added to the menu, they would be more likely to choose 20 years.

The other lesson I take from this TED talk is that professionals should adopt methodologies that, to the extent possible, exclude emotional factors. For example, my Decision tool "forces" the deciders to consider multiple factors and weights in reaching a decision.

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

I think I've seen a related phenomenon on Prof. Zimbardo's television series about the mind. In his presentation people are asked to estimate or guess at a numerical value like the distance between the tip of Florida and the most northern point of Michigan. The results are biased by the incorrect choices offered in the multiple choice test.

I would like to see the results of the face test when a more careful examination of the faces is required. What would happen if the person was forced to examine the faces more carefully, let's say by numerically rating individual features before making their overall selection?

In the example Ira offers concerning the prosecutor's strategy, I think we see the importance of a judge who doesn't let feelings bias decisions. Decisions of the supreme court may be close numerically, but they are not close in the minds of the individual justices. When your read the individual opinions, they are very strongly and definitively written. The closeness of the vote arises not from emotion, but from a view of the constitution as strict construction, original intent or as a mere guide to the future. In other words, it is philosophy not emotion that rules. -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

I think Joel is on to something when he suggests some methodlogy, such as examining and grading individual facial features, might change the outcome of the face test I described.

Yes, I also agree it is "philosophy" and not "emotion" that rules in Supreme Court decisions. However, where does a judicial philosophy come from and how it it informed and maintained?

Why do some of us (me, for example) think the original intent of politicians who lived 200 years ago in a very different world should trump the well-considered views of highly-educated judges who live in this modern world? Stated that way, my views appear irrational - even to me!

On the other hand, why do those we call "activist" judges think it is their duty to, in effect, make new law when the modern-day legistatures have failed to do so. That also seems irrational to me.

So, exactly what does Joel mean when he says "it is philosophy not emotion that rules."?

Ira Glickstein