Archive for May, 2010

Lately I’ve been caught up in books and articles about bias and how our biases affect our thinking in subtle and irrational ways.

Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely explores the hidden forces that shape our decisions – why we spend more on certain products, why we refuse to cut loose and keep doors open long after it makes sense, how our preconceived expectations influence what we see (or what we choose to see) and how we choose to interpret events. Warning #1: You may not have as much control over your decisions as you think! Warning #2: If you take a class from Professor Ariely, it sounds like you’ll have a ball, but don’t trust him. You might be the unwitting participant in one of his wild experiments! Then again, it might be kind of fun and definitely enlightening, if you can drop your justifications and biases long enough to learn about your own foibles.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson documents why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Why would I ever own up to a bad decision if I can rationalize why it was the right decision at the time. ooooh, “at the time” is a convenient rationalization!

I’ve not read “Nudge” a popular book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, but it looks like an appropriate third act to the two prior books. According to the NY Times Magazine article about Sunstein (May 16, 2010) this book explains why conservative economics (people are rational, therefore the role of government should be as guarantor of a fair market and nothing more) do not always work in the real world – people are not rational. We are subject to biases and quirks. (What? We’re quirky?) But our quirks are predictable. We are, predictably irrational.

I’m not going to argue behavioral economics vs. conservative economics. The PBS Nova production of Mind Over Money is your best source for the exploration “Can markets be rational when humans aren’t” and it’s available for you to view online.

But I am going to argue that we can all be better consumers, team players, parents, volunteers, students…heck, better human beings by being aware of our own biases. Again, I’m going to rely on an expert who produced a video to help his Advanced Placement High School students learn about cognitive biases for a psychology class. Take it away Mr. Wray…

So the next time you make a purchase or some other important decision or pass judgment on another person or on an event, ask yourself, “Is my Cognitive Bias Showing?”

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