HomeIndustry Commentary

Intellectual relativism marches on

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

Whirl a ball on a string (in outer space, where gravity has negligible influence). Let go of the string. How does the ball fly?

Ask a child, or an adult who has little formal education in physics, and they’ll tell you the ball will follow a curved path. Anyone who knows Newton’s laws of motion, or who has whirled a ball on a string and let it fly, knows that isn’t the case. The ball’s trajectory will, of course, be a straight line.

If trusting your gut gives you the wrong answer for a question this simple, it’s unlikely to be more reliable when you’re faced with a more difficult challenge — say, selecting a piece of software for the enterprise. Yet recent research by psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam and a team of colleagues provides evidence that the opposite is the case.

Dijksterhuis created two car-buying situations — in each, college students had to choose from among four fictional automobiles. In one, they were given four attributes. In the other, they were given twelve.

In each case, Dijksterhuis distracted half of the research subjects during the four minutes made available for the decision (Dijksterhuis apparently likes the number 4), while allowing the others to spend their time thinking. With four attributes, thinkers slightly outperformed non-thinkers. With twelve attributes, those prevented from thinking made, on the whole, better choices.

It would seem that, faced with a choice between SAP and Oracle, you’d do best by having each company throw a lot of facts at you while you’re thoroughly distracted by other matters — perhaps, a crossword puzzle. As soon as you finish the puzzle, you should choose whichever piece of software seems best to you.

I don’t think so. But if this isn’t the case, how should we interpret Dijksterhuis’s research?

A definitive answer will require more research. In its absence, here’s how I’d assess the situation:

People aren’t born knowing how to make evidence-based decisions when multiple factors are involved, and few students receive formal training in it. Why would we? It’s merely one of the most important life and business skills we all need on a regular basis.

This explains the superiority of “instinct” (really, non-linear, pattern-based decision-making) in Dijksterhuis’s experiment.

Most people, faced with a decision, don’t put much thought into how they’re going to make it. Even if the 80 college students who made up Dijksterhuis’s sample universe were the exceptional sort who do, the experiment created an artificial situation that prevented it from happening.

There’s a difference between having time to worry about a decision and having a planned framework for making it. Look at how the research was constructed. The investigators pushed a lot of information at subjects who were unprepared to receive it.

Compare that circumstance to how you, as an IT professional, would go about making an important decision. First, you’d create a framework for making it. You’d establish categories of information, specific questions for each category, and figure out in advance which answers to each question are preferable. You’d take control of information-gathering so you’d be prepared to record and understand the answers. Probably, you’d establish a way to turn answers into numbers and aggregate the results, to facilitate comparison of the alternatives.

Then you’d make a rational, informed, evidence-based decision.

In Dijksterhuis’s experiment, it isn’t all that surprising that, faced with information overload and a lack of clarity about what’s important and why, time simply created more opportunity for second-guessing. As is so often the case, the results of scientific research (information overload creates confusion) were used to reach a conclusion that’s more appealing than warranted (gut instinct is superior to thinking).

Is this the fault of the researcher? In this case, yes. Those who perform research are best equipped to explain its limitations, and are responsible for doing so. It appears Ap Dijksterhuis has done the opposite: He sensationalized the results, extending the mythology of human “instinct” (a mis-use of a term better reserved for inborn knowledge) in the bargain.

You can be sure that sometime in the not-too-distant future, your life will become more difficult in consequence. The popular and business press have reported this research, so it’s only a matter of time before a swarm of business consultants, eager to pander to those inclined to buy advice that fits their preconceived notions, will sell “instinctive decision-making for business executives” to their clients.

And intellectual relativism will have made another inroad into a society already predisposed to favor personal preference over evidence.