The Sneaky Trap That's Hurting Your Decision-Making

12/23/2013 11:30 am 11:30:46 | Updated Feb 20, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

According to an ancient Chinese parable, an elderly woman engages in the same daily routine: She carries two large pots on the ends of a pole across her neck to a nearby stream and fills them with water. And each day, during the long walk home, one of the pots spills half its water through a crack in its side. The pot without the crack is understandably proud of its accomplishments. The cracked pot, meanwhile, feels ashamed, and confesses its feelings to the old woman. To the pot's surprise, the woman points out the cheerful flowers growing on the side of the path that the pot floats above every day. The woman explains that she enjoys picking the flowers to decorate her home--and notes that there are no flowers growing on the other side of the path, where the intact pot travels. With its narrow focus on its flaw, the cracked pot missed the bigger picture: the fact that it was helping to bring beauty to the woman's world.

Many of us fall prey to the trap of narrow focus. This is true even when objects are in plain sight, especially when our attention is diverted, as we learned in Apollo Robbins's talk "The Art of Misdirection." Apollo Robbins's talk shows us that we so easily miss the obvious, such as the fact that our watch or wallet disappeared under our eyes. Similarly, in a well-known experiment, psychologists Daniel Simons (of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Christopher Chabris (of Union College at Schenectady in New York) asked a group of participants to watch a short video clip in which two groups of people pass a basketball around. (You can watch the video here). One group of players is wearing black T-shirts, the other white T-shirts. Participants were told to count the number of passes made by the team wearing the white T-shirts. Halfway through the passing game, a man wearing a gorilla suit clearly walks across the screen. After watching the video, participants were asked if they had seen anything out of the ordinary. More than half of them were so intently focused on counting passes that they failed to see the gorilla.

Our thinking is hindered by an overly narrow focus on the problem at hand. The result? We miss information that could help us make better decisions. -- Francesca Gino

This finding lends support to campaigns against texting and driving, and generally suggests that our eyes don't multitask well. And as it turns out, our thinking is similarly hindered by an overly narrow focus on the problem at hand, my research suggests. The result? We miss information that could help us make better decisions.

In our research on ethical decision-making, my Harvard colleague Max Bazerman and I found that people often fail to see wrongdoing that occurs in front of their eyes, especially when ethical deterioration occurs on a slippery slope. Consider the case of an accountant with a large auditing firm. The accountant is leading an audit of a company that has a good reputation in the market. For several consecutive years, this company's financial statements have been impeccable. Given their high quality, the accountant approved them with no trepidation; meanwhile, he built a strong relationship with the company. This year, however, the client committed some legal transgressions when preparing its financial statements. Despite his strong relationship with the client, the accountant probably will notice the fact that the company broke the law, and he will refuse to certify that the financial statements were consistent with government regulations.

But what would happen if, instead, the corporation stretched the law in just one area, by a small amount? The auditor might not notice. If the firm's wrongdoings grew imperceptibly worse each year, the auditor might still overlook them. By year six, the cumulative violations might be as large as those described in the first case, yet still go unnoticed because they built up slowly, year after year.

In a series of studies, Bazerman and I found that participants' decisions mirrored those of the auditors in this example. They did not seem to notice small changes in information about others' choices, even when the decisions were clearly unethical. Narrowly focused on the task at hand, they noticed only changes that were large and abrupt.

Obviously, focus is a critical skill in our distraction-filled world. Being able to focus helps us juggle tasks and cut through swaths of information. In meetings and conference calls, we can listen in while checking our email or surfing the Internet. But when our focus is too narrow, it can lead us to miss the big picture. A wider scope would help us capture and integrate important details into our decisions.

Think of the pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in which Georges-Pierre Seurat painted patterns of dots to form an image. Pointillism relies on the eye and mind's ability to blend dots of color into a fuller range of tones. Stand close to the painting at Chicago's Art Institute, and you might admire the precise flecks of color, but won't understand what you're looking at. Back away, and a landscape--and, indeed, an entire bygone society--come into view.

When we stand too close to a decision-making problem, absorbed by our information and constraints, we see the trees but not the forest. By contrast, when we back away, we become more capable of spotting crucial information that will bring the bigger picture into view.

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