What is the Proper Role of Judgment in Decision-Making?
There is a seemingly universal (and currently popular) quest for rational processes—what Hamilton Carvalho terms "cognitive repairs"—to counter the foibles of human judgment. Nevertheless, the predominant opinion among respondents to this month's column is that judgment has a dominant role to play in some decisions while it is an element in all decisions. That assumes, of course, that we can arrive at some agreement about what the term means.
Seena Sharp equated judgment with intuition. As she said, "Intuition is far more valuable in decisions regarding people …" However, intuition lags reality. "Use it to consider if the new idea makes sense, but don't give it more weight than it deserves." B. Graham equated judgment with a "gut check." He put it this way: "Seems to me that a 'gut check' on big decisions is always prudent. I realize that is the sort of bias these authors warn about, but the application of their methods shouldn't reduce decision-making to a formula…"
Phil Clark had a more encompassing view of the term: "The discussion you opened is not contradictory to sound judgment. It only emphasizes it…. Judgment is an encapsulation of all those elements … data, facts, processes, etc… that go into decisions from which we have learned in the past." Joe Schmid said: "Our education and work environments are analysis rich and have become synthesis poor… Synthesis is what happens when, after absorbing a subject, there is a leap in thinking that one can't quite explain."
Zuff Deo explained the semantic difficulties this way: "We do use various faculties and when we can't figure out which one we are using we call it gut feel."
There were a number of views regarding the role of judgment. Wayne Brewer commented that "judgment is needed for creating a vision, decision tools are for optimizing a decision." Mark Andrew said, "Judgment can work well in 'high validity' situations—those that are encountered frequently and provide accurate feedback…. Most situations, especially in the business world, have poor validity, in which case intuition is a poor guide. Vance Kirklin appeared to disagree with this, saying that, "Transformative decisions … (strategic decisions that transform organizations…) require a level of intuition. Organizations that preclude intuition from their decision-making will … never be, or cease to be, transformative."
Others had a more expansive view of the role of judgment. As Donald Shaw put it, "Just because we have the technology to record terabytes and terabytes of data does (not) mean we have the tools to understand what it is saying. Judgment is still crucial…." Debra Bordignon put an interesting twist on the issue, saying, "Where systems, tools, and artificial intelligence reach their limits, human judgment IS the decision support tool."
Several were quite eloquent. Aim asked: "So, I need to make a proposal to my girlfriend. What should I use to make the correct decision? Intuition or regression analysis?" Paulina Czentor added: "And going one step further, let intelligent machines make judgment-free decisions. No flawed reasoning, no more human 'interference'… replacing hordes of managers. What will one do with those?" Yan Song reminded us that, "As long as there is still mystery and new discovery to be made in life, human judgment will remain indispensable."
Are we naturally biased on the question? What is the proper role of judgment in decision-making? What do you think?
In the last several years, a veritable tsunami of advice on how to make decisions has hit the Internet and what few shelves remain in our local bookstores. The advice is a distant relative of early ideas about decision theory in which we were advised to construct decision trees, mapping outcomes, attaching values to each one, and estimating probabilities that various combinations of outcomes might occur. Judgment entered into the construction of the resulting "decision trees," but the process itself was a way of injecting a certain amount of objectivity and analysis into the decision to be made.
In recent years, we have been advised to make certain decisions in a "blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, to "think twice" by Michael Mauboussin, and to think "fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman. The replacement of customs and biases with data, "big" or "small," has been intended, at least in part, to drive out such things as tradition, habit, and even superstition in endeavors ranging from child rearing to professional sports. After all, wasn't the book and film, Moneyball, at least in part a glorification of the triumph of statistics and probabilities over intuition and managerial judgment in professional baseball?
Two recent books add to the genre of advice on decision-making. One advises us how to make better decisions. The other helps us ensure that we don't allow our decisions to get sidetracked (or sidetrack them ourselves).
In their book Decisive, the Heath brothers cite four major reasons—all linked to common human traits—why we make poor choices and how to avoid doing it. They are: (1) the "narrow framing" of problems that makes us miss options; (2) the "confirmation bias" that leads us to give undue credence to information confirming a decision while ignoring other information; (3) the injection of "short-term emotion" into the decision process; and (4) overconfidence that we naturally display about the future (something that may be peculiar to only certain of the world's cultures, by the way).
They advise us to do such things as: (1) widen our options by emphasizing the "and" over the "or" in formulating them; (2) reality-test assumptions by reviewing them with more objective associates or making small tests; (3) seek ways of attaining distance by looking at a decision through someone else's eyes or focusing on the long-term impact of the decision; and (4) prepare to be wrong by setting limits on outcomes (similar to a "stop loss" order in stock trading).
Harvard Business School's Francesca Gino cites findings from her own research studies and those of her colleagues in her book Sidetracked, to warn us of three types of forces that derail our decisions: forces coming from within, from our relationships, and from the outside. Among those that emanate from within are an inaccurate and often inflated view of ourselves that leads us to treat advice inappropriately at the wrong times, "infectious emotion," and a tendency to adopt an overly narrow focus. To cope with these she suggests ways of achieving greater self-awareness (mitigating our biases by soliciting expensive advice, which we are more likely to take seriously, for example), taking our emotional temperature (determining when our feelings regarding a decision "were triggered by an event unrelated to the decision at hand"), and "zooming out" for broader perspective (for example, by asking "What information am I missing?").
I didn't Google the texts of these books, but there is no mention of the word "judgment" in their tables of contents or indexes, and I don't recall the use of the word in the texts. In fact, if there is a sense that one gets from all of this work, it is that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to making and implementing good decisions. We need tools to correct the errors and biases of our own judgment. This is puzzling, because we are frequently reminded that the ability to exercise judgment is what sets humans apart from other forms of life. (Perhaps judgment is what leads us to adopt recommendations such as those of these authors.) Is there still a role for judgment in decision-making? What do you think?
To Read More:
Francesca Gino, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices In Life and Work (New York: Crown Business, 2013)
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011)
Michael Lewis, Moneyball (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)
Michael J. Mauboussin, Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009)