Friday, February 8, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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“Most of us think that we’re better drivers than the average person, and we really think we’re more honest and morally upstanding than the average person,” says Michael Norton, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He has been studying how people can lie and yet think that they are perfectly great, honest individuals. You might think he is interested in politicians or car dealers, but actually this is about regular people like you and me. We are quite prone to engaging in questionable behavior, yet we are very good at finding excuses for problematic decisions and even tricking ourselves into believing that we did not cheat.

He described a simple experiment – college men were asked to pick between subscriptions to two sports magazines. The magazine descriptions were identical except for the fact that one offered more articles per issue and the other covered a broader array of sports. The preferences split half and half. However, when one of the magazines also offered a swimsuit edition, that magazine became the overwhelming choice. They were then asked to explain why they picked the magazine. The men in the group whose “more articles” magazine offered the swimsuit edition explained that they valued having more articles, while the men whose swimsuit issue was packaged with the “more sports” magazine were equally emphatic that they liked reading about a wider variety of sports.

Perhaps the guys just did not want the researchers to know their true motivation, but what if they were not even aware of their choice process? And what if their decision was more consequential? In a similar experiment, hypothetical managers of a cement manufacturing company (a stereotypically male field) were asked to select between two applicants – one had more education, the other more experience. Those ‘employers’ whose more experienced candidate was named Lisa, overwhelmingly chose the other candidate named Dan, citing the importance of education credentials. But those whose Lisa was more educated, hired Dan because he had more experience. When told in advance that they would be accountable for their decision, the subjects simply became more vociferous in explaining the importance of whichever non-questionable characteristic they picked, sometimes writing whole essays about their choice and how they never took gender into account.

These experiments have implications for hiring, promotions, political recruiting and college admissions, among other fields.  Are we really guided by objective criteria when we read an application, interview someone or consider them for promotion? All signs point to people making the biased choice and then justifying it with the most conveniently available “objective” information. Perhaps even more troubling is the notion that you and I might be completely unaware of our own questionable behaviors, whether they are gender-biased, race-biased or simply dishonest. After all, we are more morally upstanding and more enlightened than the average person, right?  

Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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