Justification of Decisions
“So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
A teenager with a motorcycle is racing another motorcycle down a two lane road in the countryside. He loses control when he hits 90 miles an hour around a curve and wraps his bike around a tree. He breaks both legs, fractures his skull, scraps off a good portion of his backside, he is lying on the ground bleeding heavily and writhing in pain. One can’t help but notice the long skid marks which show exactly where the motorcyclist began to lose control and went off the road. His racing partner takes off, not sticking around to see what becomes of the injured biker. Luckily, no one else is injured by their behavior. It will take him months and months but he will recover.
After delivering the injured biker to the emergency room, still in pain but alive, the two workers on the ambulance stop at the hospital coffee shop for a break and discuss the case. “Too bad about the kid” one says to the other. The response is “he got what he deserved, he is lucky to be alive. What did he think was going to happen racing on a back road that fast?” Did he get what he deserved?
A young woman falls in love and marries a man who, after a few years of marital bliss, and a few children, begins to abuse his wife. While not physically abusive, this man because of his own insecurity has a need to control every aspect of his wife’s life. In order to establish a greater degree of control over her, he denigrates her and her accomplishments, which leaves her feeling more and more dependent on him for her own survival and to provide for the children.
Always a social drinker, after a few years of her husband’s abuse she begins to drink heavily and becomes an alcoholic. As her behavior deteriorates, she is not able to hold onto a job, which simply gives her husband more fodder for his abusive behavior. Her behavior becomes more erratic and the police are regularly called. She finally moves out of the house with her children into a friend’s apartment when she can no longer stand the abuse.
Even though she is now removed from the situation, her drinking does not stop. The husband has no interest in taking care of the children and so they are eventually placed into foster care. One social worker on the case describes to the judge how the woman is an alcoholic, how she has been unable to become sober and because of her behavior she cannot hold onto a job and can no longer care for her children. The mom wants nothing more than to get her children back. Is she culpable for her behavior in this situation? Should she get her children back?
A well-paid executive assistant in a fairly non-descript small town observes what she believes to be unethical behavior on the part of her supervisor. She regularly fills out the expense reports for her boss and notices that he submits receipts that to her appear to be questionable. Meal receipts at expensive clubs with unsavory reputations and with her boss paying for what appears to be a large number of people are routine as are other questionable items. Her boss’s supervisor keeps signing off on the expense reports, but she just does not feel that it is right so she voices her concerns to the head of finance.
Two weeks later she is let go from her job for unsatisfactory performance with 8-weeks of severance. In order to get the severance she has to sign a form indicating that she will not press any legal action against the company. When she complains publicly to the newspaper, the company calls her a disgruntled ex-employee who was let go because of performance issues. She now finds it impossible to get another job in her town at the same level. Is this her own fault, should she have either just kept quiet about her ethical concerns or should she have just quit her job? Is she culpable for her situation?
Benjamin Franklin did not know how right he was, or perhaps he did. Whether you think of our decision-making as Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider, or Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, it seems pretty clear that we often make decisions or judgments and then after the fact rationalize those judgments. While it is tempting to think of oneself or one’s species as rational and logical, we very often rush to make judgments and decisions in less than a blink of an eye and then rationalize the judgment with more deliberative thought after the fact. We grossly underestimate how our biology affects our judgments.
In each of the fairly complex stories above you were able to come to a judgment quickly, likely almost instantly about whether to blame the various players in the story for what befell them. If I were to now press you about why you felt one way or the other about each participant’s state you would pause, think, and then rationalize your judgments. The point being is that you reacted, judged without much thought and then only later when pressed on why you came to the conclusion you did, do you pause and rationalize your decisions.
In Haidt’s terminology the elephant (human emotions and reactions) produces a quick judgment and only later does the rider (higher thought processes) rationalize what the elephant has done. The elephant is in control, even though it may take advice from the rider. In Kahneman’s world, System 1 is reactionary thinking, or rules of thumb by which we navigate through the day-to-day decisions we must make, and then System 2 kicks in when we have to pause and really think about something.
We do not leave these thinking patterns at home as we trudge off to work each day. They come with us. Many of the decisions that get made in the work environment are driven by System 1 or the elephant and then rationalized later on when justifications must be found. And as Benjamin Franklin knew we are very good as finding our justifications for whatever point of view is taken.
Our quick judgments and then robust defense of them through our rationalization processes can get in the way of deliberative thought. One only has to turn on the TV news, or watch politicians to see instant judgments being rendered on events, well before the facts are known and then those judgments are rigorously defended by some even if the later on evidence contradicts the initial judgments. In fact it has been shown that the more “expert” the TV personality or politician is perceived or perceives themselves the more often they are wrong in their predictions and judgments once all the information is known. These experts, you see, must stake out positions that keep their visibility high, that they are providing insight that others don’t have, that maintains the sense of “expertise”. They can only stand out from the crowd by staking out more extreme positions. The only problem with more extreme positions that they are more likely to be extremely wrong.
Can we modify our rush to judgment and make better decisions? The evidence clearly suggests that we can.
- Understanding how decisions often get made, the processes at work within your mind, is a good first step.
- Second, practice deliberative decisions. Research has shown that those who practice activating System 2 or listening to the advice of the Rider can improve performance on standardized cognitive assessments.
- Third, realize that you will make instant judgments; you can’t help it, but also realize that as more information is available your initial judgment may need revision. Be open to revision.
- Fourth, be aware of the cognitive traps we all fall into and practice avoiding them. Cognitive traps include:
- over-generalizing based on small samples,
- a tendency for overly-optimistic assessments of outcomes,
- underestimating the likelihood of small probably events from happening (if a complex machine has 100 parts and only 1 part in 100 fails, one part of that machine will fail simply because of the number of parts),
- giving undue credence to vividly described events,
- making your choice only from what is right in front of you at the moment or what comes more readily to mind.
There are a host of others, but if you lick these you have made a very good start. Want to know more? Pick up Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman or The Righteous Mind by Haidt.
©2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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