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Rationalize my decision … please

Posted by Amy Wilson on July 2, 2010


I finally got around to reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely – a behavioral economics book that Mark and Ken have been recommending for awhile.  Dan’s book shows via extensive experimentation that a good deal of emotion (and predictable emotion, at that) goes into decisions – even those as obviously rational as price-based decisions.

Dan and his colleagues have done loads of experiments, but my favorite bit from the book is a personal anecdote.  Dan had just got rid of his motorcycle and was set to buy his first car.  He was married and planning to have kids soon.  With this in mind, he turned to a car advice website and took a blind survey – the questions ranged from preferred safety ratings to desired breaking distance to number of passengers.  15 minutes later, Dan had his answer.  A Ford Taurus.  What??  He didn’t know what car to buy, but he knew for sure he didn’t want a Ford Taurus.  He then did what any rational human being would do – started hitting the back button and changing his answers until he got a more “accurate and appropriate” response.  A Mazda Miata, as it turned out.

In reflection, Dan wrote:

“The elaborate computerized justification process might seem artificial and extreme but I suspect that the same basic elements end up playing out in many of our important decisions.  This experience taught me that sometimes we want our decisions to have a rational veneer when, in fact, they stem from a gut feeling – what we crave deep down.”

Of course, this got me thinking about business software.  The best business software enables better decisions … and the best decision-making tools understand the human nuance Dan refers to above.  Rather than throwing a bunch of new information at people and then making a decision for them, an effective tool takes information the individual already knows, organizes it, augments it, and gradually discloses discrepancies.  The decision maker feels in control, feels more confident and justified, and ultimately makes the *right* decision.

A business leader’s gut instinct shows him where to go and the effective decision-making tool shows him why and what opportunities are available to him.

Have you ever hit the back button on a survey answer?

photo source: cartoonstock.com

One Response to “Rationalize my decision … please”

  1. Oh yeah, I do that a lot😉. This story is a really good example of why trying to dissect and then reconstruct what really comes down to a “preference” choice usually doesn’t work (for example, if Dan was choosing which car to use in the company fleet, his initial answer might be a little closer to what made sense, vs. say, “Miatas for everyone!”) More often than not, people buy cars, sofas, homes, clothes, etc. for themselves based on how it makes them “feel.”

    In fact, if you want to dissuade people from selecting something they would have normally preferred and the choice is fundamentally one based on preference or gut, start giving them too much information to factor into the decision. It’s almost guaranteed to screw up their choice. This especially works on things that have to do with senses more connected to our primitive brains like taste and smell. Once the rational part of the mind enters the picture and starts over-analyzing, that’s it, game over. All of a sudden, the wine you usually like tastes like vinegar, your favorite cologne suddenly smells like insect repellent, etc. This is because notion of “hint of cherry” or “smells like moonlight and jasmine” are incredibly subject to subconscious interpretation and translation. Your bulky, clumsy, neo-cortex is like a bull in a china shop trying to analyze that stuff.

    On the other hand, what you point out about making decisions that should be rational, but can’t help but be influenced by our gut, is also true. When faced with a complex business problem, our gut will often send us a feeling about each option, based on a lifetime of experiences that it has collected, both good and bad. You hit on the key point regarding discrepancies – if something felt bad, but the option looks good in the model (i.e. our rational mind), then that’s a sign to dig deeper, find out if it’s your gut that’s off or if something wasn’t considered in the model or a bad assumption was made (or something as simple as a wrong number was entered.) Hence, the term “gut-check.” Same if it feels good and the model says it’s bad. Something’s off and you need to figure it out.

    But does that mean if your gut and the model agree that everything’s okay? Nope. Here is where the dangerous “confirmation bias” awaits to trip you up. You still need to double-check and better yet, get another set of eyes to look it over, especially if the stakes are high.

    Thanks for a great post, Amy!

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