The Research Project – Week Thirteen, Illinoiasis Biases

What were the factors involved in your decision to read this blog post? Was is because you have read my blogs before and liked them? Was it because you are in a class and are required to read so many blogs a day? Was it because you are from Illinois? Was it because of the funny-looking title? Maybe you have no idea why you are here.

This week in The Research Project we visit the great state of Illinois, home to one of the most prestigious private universities in the world, the University of Chicago. UC was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. The University’s land was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the legendary Chicago department store that bore his name. Rockefeller described the donation as “the best investment I ever made.” When it comes to UC there is no shortage of famous faculty members doing a great variety of research.

The UC research center that caught my attention was the Center for Decision Research. CDR’s Carlee Beth Hawkins is particularly interested in studying the biases we have that factor into our decisions.

Some biases are acceptable. For example, it is reasonable not to hire a convicted burglar as a house sitter. However, people view many social biases, such as racial prejudice or gender stereotypes, as unacceptable and wish to overcome them. How might individuals reduce or overcome the influence of unwanted biases on their behavior? Under what conditions are they successful? These are the questions my research aims to answer.

Dr. Hawkins has studied human biases in many areas of our lives including politics and religion. In politics she found that even those who consider themselves Independents still have a bias towards either conservative or liberal views.

The term often used to describe a lack of bias is objectivity. Imagine you are a hiring manager and you are choosing between two job candidates. Candidate A is slightly more qualified than Candidate B, but Candidate B happens to be your brother-in-law. Whom do you hire?

On one hand you want to hire your brother-in-law because he’s family. On the other hand at some point you are going to have to explain or justify your hiring decision and it is going to be much easier to justify the decision to hire the most qualified person than it will be to justify hiring someone because he is related to you.

Some of the biases we have are explicit. We are aware of them, comfortable with them and have no interest in changing them. Other biases are implicit meaning we are not always aware of them yet they exert influence on our decisions. Dr. Hawkins’ goal is to create “debiasing” interventions to help people be objective in their decisions. Her research will then be used to improve decision-making in business, the legal system and health care.

One of the UC professors at the CDR, Shoham Choshen-Hillel, was the 2011 winner of the “De Finetti Prize” awarded by the European Association for Decision Making.

Are you the kind of person that tends to second guess yourself after you make a big decision? Someone once told me that after every major decision I should wash my hands. This will prevent me from second-guessing my decision. I can report that I have tried this a few times and can’t really tell if it helped. One of the people I shared this with said it sounded like what Pontius Pilate did after he made the worst decision ever made, the decision to condemn Jesus to die on the cross:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:24-26 ESV)

Google’s gmail has a handy function in its settings that lets you reconsider your decision to send an email. In the settings you can tell gmail to wait between 10 and 30 seconds before the email is actually sent. I’m thinking that feature is really handy for those times when you tell someone in your email that you have attached a file and then forget actually to attach the file. Or when you just simply decide not to send an email.

I hope all of the decisions you make today are the right ones!

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