Are Government Officials Trying To Make Too Many Decisions?

This is a follow up to last week’s post about people in positions of power whose decisions are flawed because of that powerful position.

Almost
every President relishes his image as a decision maker.  In the current
election, there’s also much talk about temperament, with both major
candidates claiming how good they are at making judgments and decisions.

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But
there’s little discussion about whether – out of ego, ambition, policy
concerns or whatever – they end up trying to make too many decisions.
Huh?  Isn’t that what the job is all about?

That’s what you would
believe if you listened to candidates and President.  It’s almost as if
they are like baseball players toting up how many hits they’ve had this
season – why I made 1,000 important decisions last year!

Many academics also focus on Presidential decision-making.  Here’s a statement for students:

“Can
you imagine being the president of the United States?  Think about all
the important decisions that must be made.  A president must exercise
wise decision-making skills.  Decision making is simply the thought
process of selecting a logical choice from the available options.  For
the president, the available options must seem endless!”

John Dean, famously, formerly on the staff of President Nixon, writing just a few years ago about President Obama, stated:

“Nothing
is more important in the American presidency than decision-making.  It
is, in fact, the very essence of the job.  Presidential decisions can
and do shape our history, for better or worse.  Rarely, though, does the
decision-making style of presidential candidates receive much attention
during a campaign.”

Well, on top of the flaws in each individual decision, things only get worse when someone is making too many decisions.

When I originally wrote about this in 2011, one of the most popular articles on the New York Times website was John Tierney’s “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?”.  (It’s still one of the top hits when you search the subject.)

He
pointed out how the quality of decisions declines as too many are made,
in part because the decision makers have not conserved their willpower
for the tough decisions.  He cited a now frequently cited study of
parole decisions:

“[A]s researchers discovered by analyzing more
than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year, Judges, who would hear
the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the
board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the
probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.  
Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70
percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were
paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”

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This pattern is a reflection of decision fatigue,
trying to make too many decisions.  It is tied to the general limit on
each person’s ability to sustain will power (and, for that matter,
rationality) over the more natural emotional instincts as the day goes
on.

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The American Psychological Association has a website
devoted to will-power – the ability to make decisions that are based on
long-term, rational goals rather than immediate gratification.  While
elaborating on the various ways that having stronger will-power leads to
lives that are more successful, they also note the numerous studies
that show it is a limited resource which can be depleted after a series
of difficult decisions.

You can find all sorts of self-help
articles about how to boost your will power, including eating more to
overcome low glucose periods of the day.  FastCompany magazine even credited President Obama with reducing his decision fatigue by wearing the same suit every day.

Notwithstanding
the best efforts of even President Obama, the demands on public
officials – Presidents/governors/mayors, even legislative bodies – to
make all kinds of decisions explains a lot of some of the otherwise
inexplicable decisions we’ve observed. 

Are they too suffering from
decision fatigue?

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© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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A Fundamental Decision Making Flaw in Public Officials

As we face another Presidential election and think about the
candidates operating in the well-known bubble of the White House, I
thought it worth updating and reposting a piece from four years ago, a month before the last election.

The question I asked: Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders?

Just a few weeks ago, an article
in Fortune reminded me of this question and the phenomenon that answers
the question.  Its author, Rita Gunther McGrath, noted that:

“In
almost every disaster, you find the leaders based their decision-making
on assumptions…  A fundamental flaw in most governmental policy-making
is that those making the deals and decisions think they are operating
with facts.  The reality is that they are operating instead with
assumptions, many deeply held, about what causes what to happen.  A
policy is really a statement of assumed causality, and the law of
unintended consequences is ever-present.”

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The downside of a chief executive’s view of reality – i.e.,
assumptions – is made worse by the typical over-confidence such
positions encourage.

The popular title and sub-title of the paper
by Professor Kelly E. See of NYU and three other academic researchers
on organizational behavior, which I originally cited, make the point:
“The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with
confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.”

Some of their key findings:

“This
paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a
propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making
process: listening to advice.  Power increases confidence which can
lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to
flawed decisions.  …

"In addition to confirming the previous
experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take
advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers,
this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less
accurate in their answers than low-power participants.”

A related paper by a different group of researchers, led by USC Professor Nathanael J. Fast adds some nuance to this finding:

“Experiencing
power leads to overconfident decision-making.  The findings, through
both mediation and moderation, also highlight the central role that the
sense of power plays in producing these decision-making tendencies.

“First,
sense of power, but not mood, mediated the link between power and
overconfidence.  Second, the link between power and overconfidence was
severed when access to power was not salient to the powerful and when
the powerful were made to feel personally incompetent in their domain of
power.

“These findings indicate that only when objective power
leads people to feel subjectively powerful does it produce overconfident
decision-making.”

Unfortunately, the last finding doesn’t much
change the fundamental situation for Presidents, who are extraordinarily
powerful, except maybe when they deal with scientific issues that are
not part of their self-image – and, even then, the position lends
greater credence to their views than may be warranted.

Professor See and colleagues provided some advice about overcoming this problem:

"For
one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the
earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful
individuals have a chance to form their own opinions.  Encouraging
leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep
them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”

Whether
or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the
last point — gathering in lots of information before public leaders
decide — is a reasonable and feasible suggestion to improve decision
making in many cases.  Today, the Internet and the collaborative
discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily.

The
question is whether the next President will put in place that kind of open platform
for advice or wrongly trust the assumptions that she/he brought into the Oval
Office.

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© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/149079286814/a-fundamental-decision-making-flaw-in-public]

Head Tech

The discussion about wearable technology recently has mostly been
about various devices, like watches and bands, that we wear on our
wrists to communicate, measure our health, etc.  But from a
technological perspective, if not yet a commercial viewpoint, these are
old hat.

How about some new hats?  Like this one …

image

These more interesting – and maybe a bit more eerie – wearables are
what I’d call “Head Tech”.  That’s technology that we place on our
heads.

Last year, following along the lines of various universities such as the University of Minnesota, the Portuguese firm Tekever demonstrated
Brainflight which enabled a person to control the flight of a drone
through the thoughts of someone wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG)
skull cap with more than a hundred electrodes.  Here’s the BBC report –
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuImMOZOo0

This has become a fascination of so many engineers that a few months ago the University of Florida held the first brain-controlled drone race.  Its larger goal was to popularize the use of brain-computer interfaces.

Of
course, anything that gets more popular faces its critics and
satirists.  So one of GE’s more memorable commercials is called
BrainDrone – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0-UjJpRguM

Not to be outdone, a couple of weeks ago, the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab at Arizona State University unveiled
a system to use that approach to control not only a single drone, but a
swarm of drones.  You can see an explanation in this video – https://vimeo.com/173548439

While
drones have their recreational and surveillance uses, they’re only one
example.  Another piece of Head Tech gear comes from Smartstones, working with Emotiv’s less medical-looking EEG.

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It enables people who are unable to speak to use their minds to communicate.  As they describe it:

“By
pairing our revolutionary sensory communication app :prose with an EEG
headset powered by Emotiv, we are enabling a thought-to-speech solution
that is affordable, accessible and mobile for the first time ever. Users
can record and command up to 24 unique phrases that can be spoken aloud
in any language.”

There’s a very touching video here – https://vimeo.com/163235266

Emotiv has other ambitious plans for their product as they relate in this video –

https://vimeo.com/159560626

The geekiness of some these may remind you of Google Glass. Unlike Google Glass, though, they offer dramatic value
for people who have special but critical needs.  For that reason, I
expect some version of these will be developed further and will succeed.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/148399117751/head-tech]