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WYSIATI

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Daniel Kahneman coined the acronym WYSIATI which is an abbreviation for “What you see is all there is”. It is one of the human biases that he explores when he describes how human decision-making is not entirely based on rational thought. Traditionally, economists believed in the human being as a rational thinker, that decisions and judgments would be carefully weighed before being taken. And much of traditional economic theory is based on that notion. Dr. Kahneman’s life’s work (along with his co-author Dr. Amos Tversky) explodes that notion and describes many of the short-comings of human decision-making. He found that many human decisions rely on automatic or knee-jerk reactions, rather than deliberative thought. And that these automatic reactions (he calls them System 1 thinking) are based on heuristics or rules of thumb that we develop or have hard-wired into our brains. System 1 thinking is very useful in that it can help the individual deal with the onslaught of information that impinges on us each and every day, but the risk is when a decision that one is faced with should be thought through rather than based on a knee-jerk reaction.

System 1 decisions are easy, they are comfortable, and unfortunately they can also be wrong. But wrong in the sense that if one learned how to take a step back and allow for more deliberative thought prior to the decision, some of these wrong decisions or judgments could be avoided. A simple example from Dr. Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” will illustrate the point.

“A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Fifty percent of the students who were posed this simple question, students attending either Harvard or Yale got this wrong. Eighty percent of the students who were asked this question from other universities got it wrong. This is System 1 thinking at its finest and most error prone. It is fast, easy, comfortable, lets you come up with a quick answer or decision, but one that is likely wrong. Knowing who reads this blog I’ll let you figure out the answer yourself.

WYSIATI is the notion that we form impressions and judgments based on the information that is available to us. For instance we form impressions about people within a few seconds of meeting them. In fact, it has been documented that without careful training interviewers who are screening job applicants will come to a conclusion about the applicant within about 30 seconds of beginning the interview. And when tested these initial notions are often wrong. Interviewers who are trained to withhold judgment about someone do a better job at applicant screening, and the longer that judgment is delayed the better the decision.

This notion of course flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “Blink” in which he talks about the wonders of human’s ability to come to decisions instantly and a whole generation of manager’s have eagerly embraced his beliefs  – including a few CEO’s I know. Why? It is easy, it is intuitive, it is comfortable and it plays to the notion that I am competent and confident in my work. The only problem is that when put to serious scientific scrutiny, it is often wrong.

A few months ago I introduced this concept to an HR group I was talking to. I explained how untrained HR people in a rush to judgment will jump to conclusions about someone, perhaps too rapidly. One 30-year HR veteran insisted that this may be all well and good but of course did not apply to her. After all, with her 30 years of experience her rush to judgment was of course going to be accurate. She “just knew” who were going to be good employees. I let it drop, and I think I was labeled a trouble-maker by the group. That is a label I can embrace.

We tend to develop stories based on the information at hand; piecing the information we do have into a narrative, often without asking the question, “what information am I missing”? In the area of survey research I have often seen researchers confidently presenting the “drivers” of one type of behavior or another. Say for instance, the drivers of employee engagement. But since the analysis is based on a “within” survey design, the only drivers that can possibly emerge are those that you asked about in the survey in the first place. So the researcher, in designing the 30-50 item survey, is limiting the drivers to those items that they decided to ask about in the first place. The researcher likely has in their head a model of what is important in driving engagement when designing the questionnaire, a model that was designed based on another 30-50 item or fewer questionnaire. It becomes a tautology, it becomes true because I tested it and it came out as true, but the only thing I tested is what I already believed.

There are techniques that can be applied that lead towards more deliberative and better decision-making processes. If you were walking briskly down a busy road and someone asked you “how much is 17 x 24?” you would do what every other human would do to figure that out, you would stop and think.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 8, 2013 at 9:55 am

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