Thursday, 28 August 2014

More information doesn't neccessarily improve our decisions

You have decision to make, you decide to confer with a colleague who is well informed and a good logical thinker, an all-round bright guy. Sounds like just the person you need. Perhaps not.

A study by Nyhan and colleagues at Dartmouth University looked at how people can come to hold false beliefs. The study provided parents with comprehensive information about vaccines. The idea was to counter the false beliefs that some people have about the links between vaccines and autism. The better informed people become, then the more willing they would be to vaccinate.

Interestingly this was not how it turned out. Having people well informed, giving them more objective facts, didn't make people more likely to vaccinate. People just used the additional information to support or rationalise their pre-existing view point. Worse still, it gave them ‘evidence’ to hold their views a little more tightly. They became more polarised and extreme in their opinions.

In one way this is not surprising. It touches on a number of well-known biases such as the confirmation bias, where we take information that suits us and ignore everything else. It also highlights how our thinking is very much guided by our belief systems. We tend to use facts to feed our beliefs.

In another study Lewandowsky and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia had participants read a report about a robbery at a liquor store. Everyone read the same report, but in some cases racial information about the perpetrators was included and in others it wasn't. In one scenario, the suspects were Caucasian, and in another that they were Aboriginal. At the end of the report, participants were told that the racial information was incorrect and should be ignored.

Participants were then asked to recall details of the robbery (type of car used) and also to speculate on aspects of the crime (who may have carried it out, why was violence used).Separately, participants took part in an assessment of racial prejudice against Aboriginals.

All the participants recalled the details of the crime. However the participants who scored highest on racial prejudice continued to rely on the racial misinformation that identified the robbers as Aboriginals, even though they knew it had been corrected. They answered the factual questions accurately (type of car, times, what was taken) but still relied on race when speculating on who carried out the crime.

This is similar to Nyhans study. Providing facts and correcting the record does not change beliefs that easily. It is not that people are ill-informed, it is that they use facts to bolster what they believe.

The point here is that being well informed or getting access to more information may not improve our decisions or choices. We simply follow our beliefs. If we are good logical thinkers then we will be able to neatly organise the facts to create a decent argument as to why our beliefs are right. 

The smarter we are, the better we can weave our supporting argument. This is why we see relatively smart (and in fairness some dumb ones too) people pro and anti global warming, liberal and conservative. They have beliefs that are not shifted by information and can create a logical rationale to support their stance.

Getting back to where we started, rather than choose someone who is very well informed or really smart when conferring, find someone with an open mind (they can still be smart), who does not have strong beliefs on the subject matter in hand. Give them the facts and you may get a more objective appraisal, as long as your own beliefs do not get in the way.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Surface Acting, a silent meeting killer

Ever been in a meeting and felt one way but acted another? Most of us have. This behaviour is also quite common in the medical profession when a doctor fakes empathic behaviours toward a patient. They act concerned because that is expected, deep down they might be more worried about their waiting list or getting home on time.

Psychologists call this ‘surface acting’. I recently read an interesting BPS article on how surface acting affects meetings and employee burn out.

It referenced a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology which focused on how masking our real feelings could negatively affect our contribution to meetings and our long term well-being.

The central idea is that surface acting requires significant self-control and this puts a strain on our mental resources. This can prove distracting and restrict the attention we give to what is really going on in the meeting.

The study collected online data from 178 participants from a variety of roles with a range of meeting regularity (from just over 2 per week to less than once per week). Participants rated items like 'I tend to fake a good mood when interacting with others in the meeting’ to produce a surface acting score. This score was negatively associated with their rating of typical meeting effectiveness, in terms of networking, achieving work goals, or learning useful information. The more they surface acted, the less effective they found the meeting.

It gets worse, the long term consequences of surface acting were also measured. Participants who indicated higher surface acting felt emotionally exhausted and were prone to burnout. Acting one way and feeling another was emotionally draining, both in the meeting and afterwards. Habitual surface actors were more likely to have an intention to quit their job at short notice. That is not good for anyone.

Guess the point here is that masking how you really feel in work, while required every now and again, it not a good idea in the long term. If you chair meetings try and make it possible for people to express how they really feel. They may be a little more attentive and focus better on the agenda items or discussions.

Aside from meetings, if your organisational culture requires people to surface act or hide their feeling on a regular basis e.g. when dealing with customers, superiors, other departments, be aware that burn out and sudden departures may follow. If this is hard to avoid and the ‘customer is always right’, then give staff some recovery time and let them vent a little. Everyone might feel better and get more done.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

To Do or to Have?

You are after a hard week, it’s the weekend, time to treat yourself. There is the temptation to go a restaurant or maybe engage in a bit of retail therapy. You might pick up a new gadget, clothes or some other reward, to make yourself feel better. 

You see this approach used in some advertising campaigns. You are encouraged to “Go out and buy yourself something nice”, the ad tells you that you have worked hard all your career, now it’s time to think of yourself, you deserve a new BMW or a designer watch. As the people in L'Oreal Paris say,  'Because you're worth it'

Research suggests that you may be better off leaning more towards the restaurant idea rather than the clothes or gadgets. Leaf Van Boven from the University of Colorado and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University addressed this in their article ‘To Do or to Have? That Is the Question’.

They defined experiential purchases as those “made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience: an event or series of events that one lives through,” while defining material purchases as those “made with the primary intention of acquiring a material good: a tangible object that is kept in one's possession”.

Some items fall between these definitions, for example buying a new bike or a TV, where we get both the goods and a new experience. That said, most people surveyed were able to decide if recent purchases were in the ‘Do’ or ‘Have’ box.

When participants were asked which of these two purchases options made them happier, 57% of respondents reported that they got greater happiness from their experiential purchase, while only 34% reported greater happiness from their material purchase.

Similar results emerged when participants were randomly assigned to think about a material or experiential purchase they had made in the past. People contemplating a past experiential purchase reported being in a better mood than their colleagues contemplating a past material purchase. This suggests that experiential purchases produce more lasting hedonic benefits. The buzz from the experience lasts longer and is more durable than the buzz from getting a new material item.

Of course you do need to choose your experiences wisely. Buying yourself tickets to the Opera if you prefer a football game may not work very well. The idea is that you may feel happier going for a nice meal or some event rather than picking up a new pair of shoes. Better still, the buzz from the experience will last longer than the more temporary hit you get from picking up the clothes, shoes or gadget.