In an interesting experiment, scientists showed individuals photos of two female faces and asked them to pick which one was more attractive. Then using a slight of hand trick learned from magicians, the scientist replaced the chosen photo with the one that was not chosen. So, the individual was handed the photo that they had decided was less attractive.
Only 26% noticed the switch. The other 74% accepted the rejected picture as the one that they had chosen. Now possibly that could be explained by saying that they just weren’t paying attention to the photo once it was handed to them, but the scientists went one step further. After handing over the photo, they asked the individual to describe why they felt that photo was more attractive.
So, the individual is sitting there holding the photo that they had rejected and they are asked to say why they felt it was the most attractive of the two. Try to guess what happens.
The individuals basically created a story to explain why the picture they were holding in their hand was the more attractive of the pair–even though it required reversing their position from what it was when they made their choice.
When we make decisions, there is a lot of intuition involved. That is why judges for events have detailed score cards to fill out–to make sure that people are being judged on their technical merits rather than some unknown criteria.
The problem with a lot of decision making is that we don’t take note of why a particular decision was made–even if we have a really good reason at the time. This happens very frequently in business meetings. A group of executives get together to tackle a problem. After hashing through all the possibilities and the logic of various choices, they come to a conclusion and use that decision for moving forward. This all sounds good, but most of the time no one is going to remember a year later why a particular decision was made.
While I have several real examples, let’s use a fictitious one:
Flour Corp makes gourmet flour from hand-watered, hand-ground wheat. The executives get together and decide to stop outsourcing payroll. Their reasoning is that the cost of an additional employee to run payroll is less than what they are paying in fees to outsource it.
A year goes by and it turns out that it isn’t cheaper. It turns out that it takes two employees to run payroll, and by the time you add in their salary, benefits, office space, computers, payroll software support, etc, the cost is about double what the outsourcing costs were.
A new executive who wasn’t part of the original meeting notices that it would be cheaper to outsource payroll and asks about it. The other executives explain that, when they decided to bring it in house, they wanted to have more control over it–even it if cost more.
Basically, they construct a story to explain their decision–even though it isn’t the original reasoning behind the decision. When you see it written out like this, it sounds insane; but if you’ve been around businesses long enough, I imagine you have a few stories to tell of similar situations.
In business you have to take great pains to record and measure whether or not the logical foundation of your choices turns out to be true. If you don’t, your mind will simply create a story to explain why you made the right choice.
Jordan Schroeder says
Do you have a reference to that study? I’m interested in the conditions and variables.
On the flip-side, I have heard it said that “you should always give your decisions, never your reasons; your decisions are likely to be right, your decisions are likely to be wrong…” But that advice only works if you are using intuition as a basis for your decision. If there is actionable data available, you SHOULD be using that, but be clear with yourself when you are making decisions based on your intuition or hard data (and as this article shows, that line can be faked).
Where did you learn about this research?
All the best,
Mark Shead says
I think I read about it originally in Scientific American Mind. Try this page.
Really interesting article. The decision making process is a very difficult one and everyone should be aware that he/she is responsible for his/her decisions.
Marc b says
Did we really need a study to realize this? I find this attitude closely related to how honest people are with themselves and in general. If you are honest enough to cede failure or error, then you are less likely to justify your misstep afterwards.
The second Iraq War is a prime example of this phenomenon. Justifications changed almost on a daily basis, for a war that is and was illegal under international and domestic law. Some people still cannot come to terms with the fact that it was an error and in the face of all facts and realities, choose to be ignorant and make insane arguments.