Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Anchoring! and other psychological trivia

So as it happens, making decisions involves, well, people. And people are complicated in the most bizarre ways you can imagine (myself included). I'm probably a rarity in that I never, not once, took a class in Psychology at university. Like many other things I dodged as an undergrad (inorganic chemistry comes to mind), I've recently wished I had perhaps done a little more.

For instance, it turns out that human decisions can be profoundly influenced by subtle non-linguistic signals such as the tone of voice, the posture of the speaker among others. There was a great summary of some of the "secret signals" in the Jan 29 edition of Nature (pg 528) through an interview with one of the scientists working on documenting these effects, Alex Pentland at MIT. Pentland is actually a computer scientist who has built small wearable devices to record people's "secret signals" as they go about their daily business. Using these techniques they have discovered ways for call center operators to improve their sales techniques to near 100% success. Now that's frightening. Worse, they also cite a study of faculty members that shows you can predict 70% of the variation in student evaluation scores from a 30 second slice of soundless video (Ambady and Rosenthal, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 64, 431-444)! Believe me, I grabbed that article right away - my student evaluations need all the help they can get.

So what does that have to do with adaptive management? AM involves people, from stakeholders that worry about the effects of a decision on their livelihoods, to scientists with a stake in getting their project deemed important enough to recieve funding. This means that getting people together to agree on objectives, and later, choosing actions means influencing how they think. At the beginning, I'm often trying to sell, literally sell, the process to a skeptical group of customers. I need Alex Pentland's secret signals big time. Up until now, I'm not sure that we've done a good job of recognising how important these social communication skills are for the people that help others come to good decisions - at least in the Department of Interior related AM community. In many other instances, we arrange for facilitators to be hired to provide the social skills, creating a divide between the technical experts and the social experts. I'm not sure yet what the best solution is, but it bears some careful thinking about.

Along the same lines, one of the phenomena that groups interested in AM encounter is 'Anchoring' - the tendency to interpret new data in light of personal knowledge. This can lead people to interpret new data completely differently, even when they are both looking at exactly the same graph. If this sounds like a recipe for conflict, let me assure you, it is! As it turns out, whether the group members are happy or sad may influence how strongly folks are anchoring - a recent experimental test found that anchoring disappeared for happy non-experts compared to less happy non-experts ( Intriguingly, experts were relatively unaffected by mood - they were affected by anchoring regardless of how they felt. Experts in this case were people who had alot of background knowledge of the decision being made - law graduates choosing a sentence for a crime. While that doesn't give me much hope - mostly my workshops involve teams of experts - it might help the next time I want to work with a larger group of non-expert stakeholders.

One last thought - figuring out how to use science effectively in decision making is hard enough - but what if you don't even have the scientists to turn to? Larkin Powell had some sobering thoughts on this from Namibia, as well as a good anecdote that makes me glad our restrooms have deadbolts and not keys ...

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