We are addicted to letting others make our decisions. We believe that markets are wise and popular means better. We succumb to faceless power. While we claim to celebrate individual freedom and diversity, we vote like our neighbors and dress like our bosses. This is more than simple conformity.
This just in from the scientific community: New research shows that alcoholics with personality disorders are particularly impaired decision-makers.
"...individuals with lesions in these regions [of the brain] lose the ability to make advantageous decisions, reflected by severe social behavioral problems and impaired performance on decision-making tasks such as the Iowa Gambling Task, which was originally designed to study decision-making in neurological patients with brain lesions."
Let me make sure I understand this. They tested drunks with brain lesions by giving them something called the Iowa Gambling Task and report that their behavior sucks and they are poor decision-makers.
What is next? The Boston Rotary Driving Test?
It always surprises me how much one person can say with only a few words, and how little another can say with volumes.
It was early August, 1938. America was deep in the Great Depression. A woman named Helen sent a postcard from downeast Maine to a relative near Boston.
The card was postmarked in New Harbor and addressed to Mrs. Roger W. Weeks, Willowbred (sp?) Farm, Marion, Massachusetts.
It is now for sale on eBay.
I didn’t hasten to answer your card as I knew that Pa had written to you, and that you would know that he was all right.
He’s pretty worried about you with no water + lights.
We’re delighted with this fine weather down here + glad to be missing it in Boston. Pa is fine.
Helen + all of us.
Occasionally, I study his cartoons because I have often used humor in business. So few other people make business cartoons, beyond Scott Adams and some of the New Yorker artists. I want so much to like MacLeod's drawings and sense of humor. Sometimes I do, but most of the time they leave me feeling empty and sad. I love sarcasm, and use it myself, but these seem too cynical.
Anyway, I picked out the cartoon below for one side of my card, and text for the other. I was about to check out when something made me stop. The next day it dawned on me why I was uncomfortable. The idea of marketing beliefs turns my stomach. Beliefs are not like pop songs or breakfast cereals. They are neither infinite nor measurable. I want marketers to stay away from my beliefs. I know they won't because choice is a product of belief, and companies want to make choices for me.
I will keep looking for a cartoon to use on my business card. One I can laugh at.
Ze says there is little connection between happiness and the decisions we make. He reminds us to choose quickly and go forward; do not deliberate or agonize over decisions. This is good advice for buying a vacuum cleaner or picking a car.
Where the froth on Ze's argument subsides is in implying that we make decisions only to be happy, and when he says we live in a society that places a high value on being able to make choices.
Decisions are about change, whether we make them to stay the same, or to become happy, sleepy, satisfied, or depressed. Despite the media hype and our culture's reputation, we do not value choice. We value the illusion of it. How many political parties or major religions are there? How many health insurance options do you have at work?
Large organizations provide the appearance of wide selection because it is good business, and because modern manufacturing and distribution systems allow it. This was not always the case. People used to be quite happy with a black car, a gas station, and a general store. The 22 blenders for sale at Target stores is an example of "distinction without a difference." Top-10 lists, chef's specials, and snap decisions are our attempts to limit excessive choice, not to revel in it.
For a good read on choice in our culture, I highly recommend Barry Schwartz's book and PopTech audio.
Via Peter Begalla at Quovista, a learning company (Thanks, Peter!); Ze's video; Barry Schwartz's book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More and PopTech presentation at ITConversations;
Warhol Simon Beck print; my earlier related posts here and here.
Once we embrace others' decisions as our own, such as by joining a political party or buying into a product or customer experience, we must keep up with every development or risk a widening gap between expectations and reality. Let me give you an example from European politics.
Hungary's elected Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, is in the news for saying in private what he couldn't say in public. His real thoughts are now out in the open, and the people who voted for him are upset with his honesty.
"We repeated and repeated that you can be richer, fulfil your dreams, and we can give you happiness and fortune as a gift. This is a real lie. For the last 15 years, none of us were brave enough to initiate deep reform. We wanted to avoid painful measures and always found excuses not to act. That's the real lie." He says now he is the first politician brave enough to admit his mistakes.
BBS News story
UPDATE 9/25: To Americans, it's about the pie.
A frame is a structure, real or imagined, that supports something else. Houses, airplanes, economies, and stories are all supported by frames. They are everywhere.
Craig Lambert wrote an excellent article on this in Harvard Magazine:
"When making choices in the marketplace, “People are not responding to the actual objects they are choosing between,” says Eric Wanner of the Russell Sage Foundation. “There is no direct relation of stimulus and response. Neoclassical economics posits a direct relationship between the object and the choice made. But in behavioral economics, the choice depends on how the decision-maker describes the objects to himself. Any psychologist knows this, but it is revolutionary when imported into economics.
“We are vulnerable to how choices are described,” Wanner explains. “Advertising is a business that tries to shape how people think about their choices. Neoclassical economics can explain ads only as providing information. But if the seller can invest in advertising that frames the choice, that frame will skew the buyer’s decision. The older economic theories depend on the idea that the successful seller will produce a better product, the market will price the product correctly, and the buyer will buy it at a price that maximizes everyone’s interest—the market is simply where the buyer and seller come together. But once you introduce framing, you can argue that the buyer may no longer be acting entirely in his own self-interest if the seller has invented a frame for the buyer, skewing the choice in favor of the seller."
Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, The Marketplace of Perceptions
Large systems--whether economic, biological, social, or political--have always influenced one another to some degree. Regulators affect financial behaviors; societies organize around resources and markets; outsiders indirectly control policymaker decisions. This phenomenon is certainly becoming more intentional and directive, and the tools are being built to enable it. Look, for example, at the emerging field of behavior economics, which seeks to combine the murky theories of economics with the science of psychology.
Here is the question: have closer relationships between large systems enhanced or diminished the global conditions of freedom, security, prosperity, or health? Do conspiring systems make better decisions?
The merger of education and business is certainly worth looking at for possible answers. Big companies can't recruit the workers they want, so they are making them. I found this at a Fortune magazine forum:
"Companies like IBM, Credit Suisse and BMW are now designing and funding curricula changes at major universities, partly in response to the perception that today's graduates lack certain fundamental skills for a global economy. This means more than just donating free computers or books for a class - it means developing the curriculum from scratch, awarding financial incentives to universities to change the way they teach certain courses, and sometimes even providing the "professor" to teach the course -- all in the name of producing graduates that are better prepared to work for their companies in the future.
"The basic question, of course, is whether the extensive role played by [these companies]... in creating and promoting the new curriculum represents a breach of academic integrity."
Have you seen the new Vonage TV commercials? In one ad, the narrator chides us to make "one smart decision among many, many stupid ones." The young male actor in the commercial ditches the good-looking girl for the chance to get new phone service. Smart?
Seriously. A big phone company is telling us--potential customers--that we make many, many stupid decisions, and they are giving us a chance to make a smart one by buying their product.
I am betting that enough of us will make the "smart" decision to encourage Vonage to create more ads like this. Stay tuned (or maybe don't stay tuned).
"Dr. Singh, a fan of mystery novels, turned to fiction to explain his subject because students often find the systematic, analytical decision-making strategies taught in business school difficult to understand."
Poor grad students. They are having trouble understanding a topic. What have things come to? Why, in my day....
Never mind. What can we do to help? Forget text books. Perhaps the doctor could write a fictional series to replace the entire economics curriculum, starting with Microeconomics: Honey I Shrunk the Economy.
Perhaps business students could race shopping carts through WalMart to demonstrate their mastery of merchandising? Why couldn't students just replace professors, read what they want, and give themselves course credit?
Tuition costs should drop, right? That would be a relief.