The irrational human being and the dangerous undercurrent.

The dangerous undercurrent

  • Projects that will fail before it even starts and we still proceed;
  • odd technology acquisitions that cost a lot of money and management already knew;
  • unexplained mergers that ends in a disaster while investigations  and reports already highlighted the bad outcome and yet the reports went into the shredder;
  • implementing methodologies no one accepts and understands and we just continue.

When studying these strange phenomenons, in many cases it comes down to our irrational thinking and as a result our irrational behaviour. It has nothing to do with the complexity of the ICT or whatsoever!

Why do we comply to decisions although everybody knows the bad outcome. On the surface we evaluate the criteria, we analyse the data, we apply certain logic. This is the rational process. But what we don’t see is the dangerous underlying psychological or undercurrent, that is so strong, that it kills our judgement or it denies the facts we see.

The law of psychology!

Psychological reactance. Somebody tells you what to do and instantly your brain tells you not to comply, even if the task is challenging. This is a primitive reaction and is coming from within a deeper part of the brain called reptile brain. We don’t like to be told! It is instantly and it is not a conscious reaction. This is called psychological reactance. This is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioural freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives. Not only children but also adults are allergic to commands.

Losing face. In some culture losing face can be very dramatic to someone. In order to avoid this, every decision he/she makes is based on not losing face.  This phenomena is much stronger when somebody has an impeccable track record. There are occurrences where Sr. Management made a wrong decision. Although everybody knew about the impact of this bad decision, they did not discuss and argue it. One striking example is captain Van Zanten of KLM who crashed the airplane in 1977 at Tenerife. Explanation of the crash in 1977 KLM.

Loss aversion. Read about the amazing experiment of professor Max Bazerman who did the same experiment many times. He tells MBA students  from Harvard Business School that can buy his twenty-dollar note for any amount. The auction starts with 1 dollar and the alltime record is the astonishing amount of $204. Why does an intelligent student from Harvard pay 204 dollar for a twenty-dollar note? After bidding 20 dollar, the auction went on. Two things happened here. First loss aversion and secondly risk potential. These two psychological  events combined can make us irrational. We don’t want to lose, especially when the stakes are high.

In the last phase of the bidding opportunistic behaviour plays a major role. Both students think that the other will withdraw eventually until both recognise that this isn’t going to happen. By that time the students are actually thinking about withdrawing, he is already far above the 20 dollar limit! So, this example shows the power of loss aversion. Read more about it:  The twenty dollar experiment. An real life example of loss aversion and risk potential is about the president of USA in 1964, L.B. Johnson, The great society.

Attribution. This means that a person values another person or thing based on his/her learned values and not based on facts. We accept an advise or explanation from a doctor rather than of a  drifter. Of course you think!   But a social experiment in New York is showing an amazing result. It was about a famous violist dressed as a drifter performing his most difficult music piece in a subway. Nobody listened to his music, although under normal circumstance his audience would pay 350,– dollar. So we tend to accept explanations and decisions based on our values that we did learn from the passed without accessing actually the real facts! Click on  the URL about more details about this  Social experiment.

Prejudice. This psychological phenomena happens all the time, anytime and everywhere. During our lives we learn and store our experiences in our memory. When we see patterns we want to label these patterns. It makes our lives easier and we focus only on deviations. This becomes so strong that we sometimes can not distinguish between facts and our own beliefs although the facts are so clear. Think about beliefs regarding religion or politics. It is virtually impossible to convince people with strong beliefs since they just ignore the facts.

And now just imagine all these psychological phenomenons come together! The combination of these phenomenons are so powerful that this is the bases of our irrational thinking and behaviour.

brain_worksTranscend yourself

One way to deal with the danger of the underlying current is to be aware of these issues all the time or at least when making important decisions with a
lot of impact. Try to use reasoning and listen to the facts. This is hard since all these things happen unconsciously. Therefore try to be open for feedback and criticism. Just listen and most of all, swallow your pride and accept your loss. Losing feels bad on the short term but in the long run you, and every that is concerns, will profit from this experience. Really!

Herman Rensink

Data center Architect / CISSP




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