Being Rational About Irrationality

Tom Robertson: Posted on Sunday, January 13, 2013 10:05 AM

People thinking together can achieve remarkable results. 2012 saw the discovery of the Higgs boson using the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider; the successful lowering of  the NASA Curiosity Lander to the surface of Mars by its sky crane (verified 14 minutes later when its radio signals finally reached earth); and Apple reaching a market capitalization of $375B, placing it first among technology companies. Human rationality made all these things possible.  

Of course, humans aren’t always rational. Sometimes it’s obvious, if not in the moment, then after a bit of reflection – like that stupid comment I made when I was angry! But what’s more remarkable is when irrationality is more subtle. Cognitive bias is a departure from rationality that extensive studies show to be part of human nature. This is not bias brought on by ignorance or poor up-bringing; it is about short cuts, strategies our powerful but limited brains use to keep up with our complex, ever-changing environment*.  

Scientists have identified an ever-expanding list of over 100 predictable human biases, including  

–Social biases – favoring the in-group; herd instinct; overemphasis on personality-based explanations of other’s behavior; ….   

–Memory biases –recalling the past in a self-serving manner; the “I knew it all along” effect; mistaking ideas suggested by a questioner for memory; …  

–Decision-making biases – expectations affecting perception; interpretations confirming preconceptions; wishful thinking; …

–Probability/belief biases – stereotyping; judging arguments based on believably of conclusions; expectations influencing experimental results; …  

Significantly, these biases can be unconscious, cropping up even when we are wary of them.  

One of the most important things an organization can do is to filter out the human biases that inevitably cloak good ideas. It’s easier to do this when an organization recognizes that bias is not a flaw to be eradicated, but a fundamental feature of human thinking. Organizations transcend biases by 

–Valuing open dialog and mutual learning over defending positions       

–Honestly measuring performance against objective measures of success      

–Encouraging productive collisions between diverse points of view.  

–Tom 

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias