Mythbusters Series: The Great Chain of Being

hogan-mythbustersJudgment and decision-making are highly consequential in human affairs, and many of us tend to be influenced by experts and those with power. Here’s a scary thought mentioned by Ian Ayers in his book Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart: Germ theory was proposed in the mid-16th Century but not universally accepted until the end of the 19th Century because doctors, and those in power within the medical community, were unable to come to grips with data supporting that doctors were causing patient deaths when they didn’t wash their hands. In fact, the individual proposing this hypothesis was fired and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Although melodramatic, this example illustrates the fallibleness of the long philosophized great chain of being concept detailing a rigid hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Turns out, those at the top of the social strata aren’t stronger, faster, funnier, or superhuman. In fact, they’re just like all of us: biased, influenced by personality, and wrong most of the time.

Three experiments conducted by Adam Galinsky and colleagues found the powerful to be more committed to their own perspective and less empathetic towards others. So, why do many of us – notably the highly dutiful and conforming – place excess trust in authority? Well, at the broadest level human behavior should be explained using an evolutionary psychology framework. Strong group level selection pressures, such as warfare, may have created the need for leadership to serve as an adaptive resource with the function of solving group-related problems and influencing self-interested individuals to act on behalf of the group (e.g., coordination, conflict resolution, motivation, direction). Considering the importance of leadership for survival, we’ve developed psychological mechanisms to identify leadership worth following. We look for integrity, expertise, good judgment, and vision; however, the façade of expertise and higher social standing may cloud our evaluations of effective leadership—especially when combined with the appearance of nobility and charisma.

Everyone is wrong the majority of the time due to pre- and post-decision biases—regardless of expertise or social position. But, it’s not all bad news. Good judgment isn’t about getting everything right the first time around. It’s more about having strategic self-awareness around personality-driven, counter-productive biases and tendencies, and instead of telling yourself what you want to hear, being open to recalibration after you’re wrong. A little self-awareness and openness to feedback allow us to consider more data, learn from mistakes, and avoid blaming others for our own shortcomings.  

In short, we all make mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, those in power likely make more mistakes because they remain steadfast in their judgments regardless of how good they are. But, under the right circumstances we follow them through disastrous consequences. Moving forward, let’s accept that we’re all wrong most of the time and work hard to learn from our mistakes and not play the blame game.