« on: April 18, 2006, 10:17:12 PM »
I'm O.K., You're Biased
By DANIEL GILBERT
Published: April 16, 2006
VERIZON had a pretty bad year in 2005, but its chief executive did fine.
Although Verizon's earnings dropped by more than 5 percent and its stock
fell by more than a quarter, he received a 48 percent increase in salary
and compensation. This handsome payout was based on the recommendation of
an independent consulting firm that relied on Verizon (and the chief
executive's good will) for much of its revenue. When asked about this
conflict of interest, the consulting firm explained that it had "strict
policies in place to ensure the independence and objectivity of all our
Please stop laughing.
The person who made this statement was almost certainly sincere.
Consultants believe they can make objective decisions about the companies
that indirectly employ them, just as legislators believe that campaign
contributions don't influence their votes.
Doctors scoff at the notion that gifts from a pharmaceutical company could
motivate them to prescribe that company's drugs, and Supreme Court
justices are confident that their legal opinions are not influenced by
their financial stake in a defendant's business, or by their child's
employment at a petitioner's firm. Vice President male private part Cheney is famously
contemptuous of those who suggest that his former company received special
consideration for government contracts.
Voters, citizens, patients and taxpayers can barely keep a straight face.
They know that consultants and judges are human beings who are pulled by
loyalties and pushed by animosities, and that drug reps and lobbyists are
human beings who wouldn't be generous if generosity didn't pay dividends.
Most people have been around people long enough to have a pretty good idea
of what drives their decisions, and when decision-makers deny what seems
obvious to the rest of us, the rest of us get miffed. Sell our democracy
to the highest bidder, but don't insult our intelligence.
So who's right — the decision-makers who claim objectivity or the citizens
who roll their eyes? Research suggests that decision-makers don't realize
just how easily and often their objectivity is compromised. The human
brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts
and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors.
When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again,
just to make sure we didn't misread the display or put too much pressure
on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the
shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and
insisting on more when it doesn't, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.
Research suggests that the way we weigh ourselves in the bathroom is the
way we weigh evidence outside it. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto and David
Lopez, told subjects that they were being tested for a dangerous enzyme
deficiency. Subjects placed a drop of saliva on a test strip and waited to
see if it turned green. Some subjects were told that the strip would turn
green if they had the deficiency, and others were told that the strip
would turn green if they did not. In fact, the strip was just an ordinary
piece of paper that never changed color.
So how long did subjects stare at the strip before accepting its
conclusion? Those who were hoping to see the strip turn green waited a lot
longer than those who were hoping not to. Good news may travel slowly, but
people are willing to wait for it to arrive.
The same researchers asked subjects to evaluate a student's intelligence
by examining information about him one piece at a time. The information
was quite damning, and subjects were told they could stop examining it as
soon as they'd reached a firm conclusion. Results showed that when
subjects liked the student they were evaluating, they turned over one card
after another, searching for the one piece of information that might allow
them to say something nice about him. But when they disliked the student,
they turned over a few cards, shrugged and called it a day.
Much of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and
thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than
at catching themselves in the act. People realize that humans deceive
themselves, of course, but they don't seem to realize that they too are
A Princeton University research team asked people to estimate how
susceptible they and "the average person" were to a long list of
judgmental biases; the majority of people claimed to be less biased than
the majority of people. A 2001 study of medical residents found that 84
percent thought that their colleagues were influenced by gifts from
pharmaceutical companies, but only 16 percent thought that they were
similarly influenced. Dozens of studies have shown that when people try to
overcome their judgmental biases — for example, when they are given
information and told not to let it influence their judgment — they simply
can't comply, even when money is at stake.
And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are
less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people
underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and
decisions, they overestimate its influence on others.
For instance, two psychologists, Dale Miller and Rebecca Ratner, asked
people to predict how many others would agree to give blood for free or
for $15, and people predicted that the monetary incentive would double the
rate of blood donation. But when the researchers actually asked people to
give blood, they found they were just as willing to do it for nothing as
they were for a $15 reward.
The same researchers measured people's attitudes toward smoking bans and
asked them to guess the attitudes of others. They found that smokers
vastly overestimated the support of nonsmokers for the bans, as did
nonsmokers the opposition of smokers to the bans — in other words, neither
group was quite as self-interested as the other group believed.
Behavioral economics bolsters psychology's case. When subjects play
laboratory games that allow them to walk away with cash, self-interest
dictates that they should get all the cash they can carry. But scores of
experiments show that subjects are willing to forgo cash in order to play
For instance, when subjects are given a sum of money and told that they
can split it with an unseen stranger in any proportion they like, they
typically give the stranger a third or more, even though they could just
as easily have given him nothing. When subjects play the opposite role and
are made the recipients of such splits, they typically refuse any split
they consider grossly unfair, preferring to walk away with nothing than to
accept an unjust distribution.
In a recent study, the economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter had
subjects play a game in which members of a team could earn money when
everyone pitched in. They found that subjects were willing to spend their
money just to make sure freeloaders on the team didn't earn any. Studies
such as these suggest that people act in their own interests, but that
their interests include ideals of fairness, prudence and generosity.
In short, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for
truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they
realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only
reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce
When doctors refuse to accept gifts from those who supply drugs to their
patients, when justices refuse to hear cases involving those with whom
they share familial ties and when chief executives refuse to let their
compensation be determined by those beholden to them, then everyone sleeps
Until then, behavioral scientists have plenty to study.
Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of the
forthcoming "Stumbling on Happiness."