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Do you make good judgments?

"What is it like to be a bat?"

– Thomas Nagel

Judgment in decision-making refers to our ability to evaluate evidence in order to make a decision.

It's an important skill, an important part of decision-making.


It's super nice when the evidence comes in the form of numbers (especially algorithmically processed, statistically refined, expertly collected big data).

But often our evidence comes from people. Human interactions.

How good are we at interpreting other people? Do we make sound judgments?


Frankly, we are not that good at it. When we leave it to the unchecked workings of our brains, we make poor judgements.


Here's how:

Three things we are NOT good at


1/ Empathy? Not so much


American philosopher Thomas Nagel asked this theoretical question about consciousness in his 1974 article in The Philosophical Review:


"What is it like to be a bat?"


According to Nagel:


"our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience",

meaning that each individual only knows what it is like to be them.


We struggle to appreciate the consciousness of people around us.

In a sense it’s impossible. We can’t escape our narrow view of the world.

You can put your brain in a bat, but it will still be you in a bat.

You’ll never know what it’s like to be bat.


I can never really know what it's like to be you. Just as you can never know what it's like to be me.


And that's the problem with empathy, argues Yale psychology professor and author Paul Bloom. We think we are good at empathy, but we are not.

So instead of trying to see the world through your eyes, I might be better off trying to treat you with respect. Take you seriously and give you the same rights and privileges I have.

Without having to be you.

Without needing to fully understand you.

2/ Memory? Notoriously unreliable


We search our computer for a keyword and get an objective result. Either we have created and saved a file called "Christmas presents 2023" or we haven't.


But human memory and computer memory work in very different ways.


Our memories are often reconstructions based on experience and expectations. They can be influenced by suggestions or leading questions. People can incorporate false information into their memories if they are exposed to misleading cues or information after an event has occurred.


For example, if you show someone a film and later ask, "Did you see the kids getting on the school bus?", the person is more likely to remember a school bus in the scene, even if there wasn't one. Computers don't work like that. You can search for "school bus" a hundred times; it will not create a file of "school bus" on your hard drive.


Memories can also be affected by a number of other things like interference from other similar memories. For example, if two similar events occur close together, details from one event may be mistakenly incorporated into the memory of the other.

3/ Perception? Pretty biased


Consider this:


Have you ever chastised a "lazy employee" for being late to a meeting, only to excuse yourself for being late the same day?

Have you ever been angry at a careless driver who cut you off, but when you make a mistake, you just smile apologetically?


If so, you've made the fundamental attribution error.


The fundamental attribution error exists because of how people perceive the world. While you have at least some idea of your own character, motivations and situational factors that affect your daily life, you can’t know everything that's going on with someone else.


When working with your colleagues, for example, you probably form a general impression of their character based on snippets of a situation, but you never see the whole picture.


While it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, your brain tends to make judgments based on limited information. This can lead to everything from arguments to firings to fractures in organizational culture.


In fact, it's at the root of every misunderstanding where human motivations have the potential to be misinterpreted.

Implications for decision-making


When we make judgements or decisions about others (as policy makers, colleagues, managers, parents, friends, etc.), we should never assume that we understand what it's like to be them. We cannot know why other people don't recycle, why they don't use the bus, why they are late for work, why they feel demotivated at work, why they refuse to wear socks today, why they don't answer our messages...


We can only know if they give us that information.

So we have to ask these questions, we have to try to find out.

Instead of sitting comfortably around a table brainstorming reasons, we need to connect.

We need to show curiosity and genuine interest.


Because if we don't know their reasons, we can't do anything meaningful for them.


Caveat: there are good ways to ask and bad ways to ask. Stay tuned.

Question for you


What has been a rash assumption you have made about a colleague recently? Can you recalibrate your judgement by showing curiosity?

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