Why Experience Can Damage Your Judgment

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Why Experience Can Damage Your Judgment

Association Bias

Kevin has presented his division’s results to the company’s board on three occasions. Each time, things have gone perfectly. And, each time, he has worn his green polka-dot boxer shorts. It’s official, he thinks: These are my lucky underpants.

The girl in the jewelry store was so stunning that Kevin couldn’t help buying the $10,000 engagement ring she showed him. Ten thousand bucks was way over his budget (especially for a second marriage), but for some reason he associated the ring with her and imagined his future wife would be just as dazzling.

Each year, Kevin goes to the doctor for a checkup. Generally, he is told that, for a man of forty-four, he is still in pretty good shape. Only twice has he left the practice with worrying news. Once the problem was his appendix, which was promptly removed. The other time it was a swollen prostate, which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a simple inflammation rather than cancer. Of course, on both occasions, Kevin was beside himself with worry when leaving the clinic—and coincidentally, both days were extremely hot. Since then, he has always felt uncomfortable on very warm days. If the temperature starts to heat up around one of his checkups, he cancels right away.

Our brain is a connection machine. This is quite practical: If we eat an unknown fruit and feel sick afterward, we avoid it in future, labeling the plant poisonous or at least unpalatable. This is how knowledge comes to be. However, this method also creates false knowledge. Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was the first to conduct research into this phenomenon. His original goal was to measure salivation in dogs. He used a bell to call the dogs to eat, but soon the ringing sound was enough to make the dogs salivate. The animals’ brains linked two functionally unrelated things—the ringing of a bell and the production of saliva.

Pavlov’s method works equally well with humans. Advertising creates a link between products and emotions. For this reason, you will never see Coke alongside a frowning face or a wrinkly body. Coke people are young, beautiful, and oh so fun, and they appear in clusters not seen in the real world.

These false connections are the work of the association bias, which also influences the quality of our decisions. For example: We often condemn bearers of bad news, since we automatically associate them with the message’s content (otherwise known as “shoot-the-messenger syndrome”). Sometimes, CEOs and investors (unconsciously) steer clear of these harbingers, meaning the only news that reaches the upper echelons is positive, thus creating a distorted view of the real situation. If you lead a group of people, and don’t want to fall prey to false connections, direct your staff to tell you only the bad news—and fast. With this, you overcompensate for the shoot-the-messenger syndrome and, believe me, you will still hear enough positive news.

In the days before e-mail and telemarketing, traveling salesmen went door-to-door peddling their wares. One day, a particular salesman, George Foster, stood at a front door. The house transpired to be vacant, and unbeknownst to him, a tiny leak had been filling it with gas for weeks. The bell was also damaged, so when he pressed it, it created a spark and the house exploded. Poor George ended up in the hospital, but fortunately he was soon back on his feet. Unfortunately, his fear of ringing doorbells had become so strong that he couldn’t carry out his job for many years. He knew how unlikely a repeat of the incident was, but for all he tried, he just couldn’t manage to reverse the (false) emotional connection.

The take-home message from all this is phrased most aptly by Mark Twain: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”