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Dr. Jim Taylor

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Bad Decision Making 2.0

Posted: 06/17/11 06:32 PM ET

There has been some egregiously bad decision making in the news lately, highlighted by the revelations around now-former Congressman Anthony Weiner's ongoing sexually explicit Twitter conversations and photo sharing with six women. And just to show you that this post isn't a partisan attack, let's not forget the similarly bad decision making of also-recently-resigned Republican Congressman Christopher Lee's Craigslist sexually suggestive and photographically explicit exchanges with a woman.

But how do you explain what is so obvious to everyone but themselves that what they did, in foresight or hindsight, is beyond-belief bad decision making? Narcissism? Plenty of that. Entitlement? Oh yeah. Delusion and denial? For sure. If you want to get really reductionistic, perhaps the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with so-called executive functioning (e.g., determining good from bad, planning, recognizing future consequences, predicting outcomes, and the ability to suppress socially inappropriate behavior), never fully developed in these paragons of ill-informed decision making. But these explanations just don't do justice to the magnitude of their atrocious decision making.

There have been, I'm sure, hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts written recently by actual and arm-chair shrinks that have attempted a forensic analysis of this very question. But I'm going to focus on how recent technology has aided and abetted the clearly irrational decision making that is part and parcel of being human (or at least of being a guy).

Let's start by putting bad decisions in the proper historical context. Humans have been prone to poor decision making for as long as we have roamed the earth. Whether a mild act of embarrassing stupidity, such as putting one's foot in one's mouth with an untoward comment, or an act of career-ending idiocy, such as insulting the boss around the water cooler, bad decision making is a decidedly human attribute.

Why have we not evolved into better decision makers after so many eons of clearly ghastly decisions? Because we have yet to gain mastery over our primal urges or our unconscious needs and insecurities, both the primary drivers of poor decisions. Nor, as the psychological sciences have shown us, have we been able to avoid falling prey to the myriad of cognitive biases (e.g., selective attention, rationalization) that blur our lenses of reason. All of these forces conspire to prevent us from gathering sufficient information, analyzing it effectively, and using it exclusively to come to "rational" decisions (I doubt Mr. Spock ever sent inappropriate photos through his communicator).

Before the recent technological advances, there was time to avoid acts of bad decision making. For example, while writing that angry and insult-laden letter to the girl who just rejected you, putting it into an envelope, addressing it, placing it in the mailbox, and waiting for the mail carrier to arrive, you had ample time to reconsider the suitability of that particular course of action. Due to the slowness of communication in those primitive days, we had the opportunity to, for example, calm down, reflect on our situation, consider the consequences, change our minds, prevent impulsive behavior and moral digressions, and avoid embarrassment, disgrace, or criminal charges. Plus, the "blast area" was limited by the still unsophisticated means of communicating those poor decisions to the world (think dynamite).

The technological advances of the last decade have made bad decision making easier and more immediately and widely consequential. Technology discourages thinking and deliberation, and promotes acting on our most base impulses, emotions, and needs, for example, anger, sadness, lust, or need for approval. We can make poor decisions more quickly, be caught in badly conceived acts more readily, and be more publicly humiliated before a far broader audience than ever before. Returning to my rejection example, that entire process of rejection (by a text message perhaps) and poorly thought-out reaction can now occur in a matter of seconds, with fewer than 140 characters, and can subsequently be broadcast to millions in a matter of minutes. Making horrendous decisions has never been more efficient. And the immediate and collateral damage can be staggering (think 500-megaton nuclear bomb).

With the emergence of the Web, email, mobile phones with cameras, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, gossip web sites, and online sleuths, we have newer, faster, and more creative ways to have our dreadful decision making illuminated for anyone with an Internet connection to see. Plus, we now leave digital fingerprints all over the actions that our poor decisions spawn. And there is an entire army of technophiles ready, willing, and able to immortalize those decisions for eternity (or until an electromagnetic pulse, a la Dark Angel, destroys the Internet's infrastructure).

What do the many recent examples of uninspired decision making in this high-tech era have in common? Opportunity, ease, speed, reach, and irreversibility. I don't think that even reputation.com can ever scrub cyberspace sufficiently to remove this stain from Mr. Weiner's life (though Eliot Spitzer, who engaged in actual criminal acts, has, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion, had a pretty good second act). And everyone who has any ability to make money for others, for example, Tiger Woods, with his mind-boggling digital trail of serial infidelity, will probably get a second chance.

Are there lessons to be learned from these technology-exposed horrible decisions, most recently, those of Mr. Weiner? Of course. Will those lessons be learned by those most in need of learning them? Of course not. Why? Because there is no pre-frontal cortex below the belts of men.

 
 
 

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