Dumbed down by decisions

People can’t fix what they can’t see. From time to time, it’s our job – as managers, teachers, parents and friends – to see for them. By providing eye-opening feedback, we eliminate some of the tunnel vision that keeps others from recognizing their personal or professional flaws. And while sharing negative feedback can be good news, we need to be particular about how much of it we share at once.

Feedback is most effective when it’s released in a slow drip, not a sudden burst. Picking the right words for the right moment demands a fair amount of restraint – raising certain issues now while leaving others for later – and forces us to make selective calls about other people’s performance. Most of the time, it’s easier and faster to just lay everything out at once in summary fashion. Resisting the urge for an information dump is hard, but right-sizing our feedback can yield a bigger payoff: It clears the way for greater clarity, more reflection, and, most importantly, fewer decisions. Because if there’s anything that keeps people from making progress, it’s having to make decisions.

The mind operates a lot like a circuit breaker. If too much information rushes in at once, our brain space becomes overstimulated and crashes. That’s what Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, found when she and a team of economists and computer scientists looked at the effects of “combinatorial auctions”—highly complex bidding wars where lots of different items can be purchased either alone or in bundles. The more information bidders had to simultaneously juggle, the more prone they became to overpaying or committing a mental lapse. The brain region responsible for smart decision-making became compromised.

It may have to do with something psychologists call “decision fatigue.” The more we decide, the less patient and prudent we become. So when people are forced to juggle lots of decisions at once rather than handle just a few, their choices can get sloppy—and the consequences can be serious.

Take the case of eight Israeli judges tasked with deciding parole requests. With an average of twenty-two years on the bench, the judges had deep expertise. But when researchers pored over 1,100 of the board’s decisions made in one year, they found an unusual trend: When appeals were heard in the morning, the court granted parole in nearly 70 percent of the cases. But for cases received in the late afternoon, the panel awarded parole less than 10 percent of the time. What gives?

Researchers pinned the swing in outcomes to a simple fact: The judges were flat-out tired of making decisions. By that time of the day, they might have listened to nearly forty appeals, each lasting upward of six minutes and requiring significant deliberation. The process was mentally exhausting. And like anyone suffering from decision fatigue, these judges opted for the default choice—which, in the case of parole hearings, is to deny parole. With the law, as in life, timing really is everything.

A similar phenomenon occurs at the polls. When voters have to sift through complicated local issues before actually casting their votes, they show greater tendency to abstain or rely on decision shortcuts, like voting for the status quo or the first-listed candidate. That explains why so many people instinctively vote “down ballot” based on party lines without knowing the candidates’ records, positions, or possibly even their names. A straight vote may be the result of ideological principle or party loyalty. But it’s also blissfully decision-free.

If we want people to act on our suggestions for improvement, the trick may not be what we say, but how much we share. While it’s tempting to try to fix all the wrongs we find in others, going after everything means getting comparatively little in return. It’s neither helpful nor productive to pile on feedback that becomes too overwhelming the moment it is delivered. Being particular about our feedback rescues people from information overload and helps them focus their decision-making energy on one choice at a time. The less we say, the more others will do.

This blog is adapted from Joe’s new book, “The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change,” now available from Rowman & Littlefield.

 

 

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