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Objectivity traps

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Some studies claim to demonstrate that intuition is more reliable than evidence-based decision-making. Which makes me wonder, if a study presents evidence that intuition is superior to evidence, does it prove itself wrong?

And anyway, the preponderance of the evidence seems to favor evidence and logic after all (and is that circular reasoning?) … see, for example, “The Future of Decision Making: Less Intuition, More Evidence,” Andrew McAfee, Harvard Business Review, 1/7/2010.

Last week’s column proposed that while practitioners of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) rely on evidence and logic and are trained in their use, we aren’t Spock-like logicians, immune from emotional influences. We’re as likely to rationalize as anyone else, and because of our analytical skills we’re better at it.

Some correspondents argued that, this being the case, there’s really no hope. As we can’t escape the control of our emotions we should all just stop worrying, be happy, and, I guess, embrace our inner monkeys.

Which means, I guess, that if you can’t achieve perfection you shouldn’t try to improve. Sounds like a rationalization to me.

Opinion: The better we are at being objective, the better off we are, if for no other reason than the protection it provides from the propagandists, marketers, and political consultants who use our emotions against us every day.

If we know their techniques we can watch out for them. So here’s an A-list of cognitive traps that are easy to fall into and hard to climb out of. If we’re alert to them, maybe we can avoid them.

Arguing: Arguments are about winning and losing. Discussions are about improving shared understanding and solving shared problems. If you find yourself trying to prove you’re right, you’re probably leading with your emotions, because the need to win is an emotional response.

If you’re arguing, stop, clarify where you and the other disputant disagree, and ask what evidence would settle the matter. Or, ask what problem you’re trying to solve together.

If you can’t get the other person to stop arguing, change the subject. You might as well. Your exchange of words is pointless.

Anecdotes: Marketers, sales professionals, and political consultants all know anecdotes are more persuasive than statistics. All they are, though, are statistics performed on a sample of one. Unless it’s fictional. Then, the sample size is zero.

Anecdotes illustrate a point. They prove something is possible. That’s about it.

Ad hominem arguments: In case you don’t know the term, an ad hominem argument goes like this: “You said 2 + 2 equals 4. You know who else said this? Hitler!

Ad hominem arguments surround us. “Of course you think that way. You’re an engineer.” “Ignore him. He’s a bean counter.” Or if you’re in a Myers-Briggs situation, “It’s what you’d expect from an ENTJ.”

Tribalism is a special case of ad hominem argument, and a particularly dangerous one. It’s separating the world into us and them, creating a powerful emotional need to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong.

Anger: While an appeal to any of your emotions is, of course, an attempt to get you to decide something emotionally rather than on its merits, anger is the most dangerous of the bunch, for two reasons. First and foremost, anger makes you stupid. As does fear, but unlike fear, anger hangs around long after the stimulus has passed. It needs to be released. People who are angry aren’t always angry about anything in particular. But they’ll find something.

Anger is also unlike fear in that fear is ultimately about personal benefit — avoiding harm — so there’s some rationality to where it takes you.

If someone is trying to make you angry, you’re being played. I guarantee it.

Assertion: Argument by assertion replaces evidence with confidence. If you aren’t sure of the actual facts, and someone else makes a confident assertion, most of us, most of the time, are inclined to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t know the evidence, but I don’t accept what you’re telling me,” isn’t the most diplomatic statement you can make, after all.

Agreement: Far and away the most dangerous pitfall when it comes to avoiding emotion-driven decisions is hearing what you want to hear. Most of us, most of the time, accept “facts” that support what we want to be true without subjecting them to the slightest scrutiny.

Imagine you’ve avoided these traps. You’ve made a solid, evidence-based decision. Suddenly dispassion is counterproductive. To muster the energy and persistence you’ll need to make your decision real, you have to want it, and want it bad.

Deep down in your gut.

Comments (12)

  • Brilliantly concise – so much wisdom in so few words. Great job, Bob (as usual). I genuinely wish that the entire world would take these ideas and concepts to heart – it would make this ol’ blue marble a better place.

    Don’t let Ann Coulter see this article, or her head might explode. Her utter contempt for objectivity is literally unfathomable to me – I cannot wrap my head around the bizarre state of mind that leads to such an utterly strange approach to one’s environment.

  • You’ve finally written another column I feel compelled to respond to. Intuition vs Evidence. There is an inbetween, and it doesn’t involve emotion (and I agree with everything you state, by the way).

    We often don’t have all the evidence we need to make a decision, and we don’t have the time to gather more evidence. We have to make a decision with what we have. That can be done with intuition or inference. We can either make a decision with where we think the evidence is taking us, or we can infer other facts from the existing evidence to make the decision. I think there is a difference, but there might not be.

    I at least think I am good at inferring to make decisions (and there might be a better word for it). My intuition in solving issues, though, is probably 50/50. If I can say that knowing A and B, C is likely true, and so forth, the decision I make is nearly 100% accurate. And, as far as I can tell, being able to infer information is not necessarily a learned skill. And maybe it’s closer to the Spock logic than I’d be willing to admit…..


    • @David DeLano: Agreed. True intuition is ultimately based on facts — you have a true, objective “gut feel” for something based on things you do know and a shortage or evidence and facts you would like to have in the situation you are in. If you are leading from emotion, then it’s not intuition, it’s impulsiveness and sheer guessing.

      I think this article by Bob and your measured response helps me understand why I can sometimes have an emotional response and a need to defend intuition since I’ve been so well served by it. But ultimately as I have considered the basis for my intuition, I find that it is fact-based in the context of situations which don’t present all the facts I would like to have. The fact I am described by others as “calm under pressure” again seems to signal, and when I consider my MO in those times, HOW I am thinking, that I am attempting to employ as much fact as I can in the face of a decision needing to be made. Usually the third leg driving a decision needing to be made this way is time. (And since Bob mentions Meyers-Briggs, I’m an ENTP; so our natural inclination is to DEFER decisions until all the facts are in. Yet, I’ve been an excellent IT crisis manager my entire career. Quite interesting. :-))

      Great reply to a great article.

  • Great article.
    This reminds me of Bob’s seven deadly sins of IT.
    This is a list we should cary around in our heads.
    Sure! be who we are, transcend our nature, change, improve and be as logical as we think we can be, but check the list, just to be sure!

  • That’s a very good article. I would like to pick one nit, though. You say anecdotes are samples of size one, which is true enough, but you also say that’s ALL they are, which is hardly ever true. I would like to argue my case and make you angry about it, even, and toss in an ad hominen or two, but I think for now I’ll just leave it as an assertion.

  • Benjamin Franklin wrote, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

    I think those who most need to understand your article this week will miss the point. They’ll read it and think to themselves, “Oh, I’m so glad we already do this–we follow evidence-driven decision making around here.”

    What appears instead is something like this: “If I don’t intuitively like a decision, I will challenge you to provide evidence to back up your position; however, if my intuition isn’t against a plan, the test of evidence will never arise and we’ll just do it.”

    In other words, “Show me the evidence” only appears on decisions that an organization wants to challenge.

    • No argument, which is why I listed Agreement as the most dangerous pitfall of the bunch. It’s also why I wrote this as a personal checklist and not as a set of observations about how other people abuse the privilege.

      I agree with you … more people will see this as a list of the failings of others than will adopt it as something new they’ll have to practice to get right.

  • New email address. BTW

    Your observation of the ‘traps’ is dead on. A lot of the way we look at evidence is influenced by both our ‘human’ brain and our ‘primitive’ brain. See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” (which I assume you have read), and Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide” (which you may not have read. If you’re gonna read both read Blink first. If just one read the other one).

  • I think that you missed a few other traps, including:

    Finger Pointing: Blaming someone else for either a
    failure or lack of understanding. It might be a variant of the ad hominem.

    Deflection: Pointing out that someone was wrong in the past.


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