Can we ever reliably judge ourselves (let alone others)?

In yesterday’s Thinking Tank debate on ethics, I was struck in particular by the change in self evaluation between the beginning and the end of the discussion. It seems, as the writers of the book we referred to (Bazerman and Tenbrunsel’s “Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It”), that we are all prone to some self delusion on this subject. Full results.

So if this is true when it comes to ethics – and other studies show it also to be true with respect to driving skills, sexual prowess, frequency of exercise, moderate drinking etc – is our own opinion ever to be trusted?

When I run a Thinking Tank, or an online or traditional focus group for a client, I always try to hold back from jumping to any conclusions. With a subconscious that filters out 99% of the evidence in order to fit in with our expectations, first impressions can be hazardous.  The good thing about having all the data to analyse afterwards is that it gets much harder to substantiate conclusions that reflect the analyst more than the subjects.

I notice the same in dispute resolution.  Both sides can be utterly convinced that they are right, yet hold conflicting memories of what has happened. Unless there is an independent third party account or other objective evidence, the only way forward seems to be to assume that both parties are indeed right about their view of events.  And instead discuss what needs to happen next. My kids always feel that track record should be taken into account “you KNOW he always lies about everything” but that can be just as arbitrary, and in research projects, usually neither available nor useful.

So when it comes to understanding behaviour, it seems to me that the most rigorous approach is to carefully observe and consider everything that is said and done during the research process. Then add the client’s historical knowledge as a checkpoint. “do you recognise this?” can be one of the most useful health checks for the feedback from a study.

By the way, if you would like to join our monthly Thinking Tank, get a brain workout, see if you can put your finger on the pulse and risk reconsidering your views, just email me and I will invite you to the next one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *