12/12/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

The University of Virginia and the Risky Illusion of Validity

As events continue to unfold at the University of Virginia, we are seeing a common element form in the actions and response from each of the major players involved: the illusion of validity.

Coined by Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, "the illusion of validity" is a cognitive bias that gives decision-makers a false sense of control when they're thrust into unnatural and novel circumstances. At its core, our human need for competence and control escalates in a crisis, and we resort to this illusion of validity. Consequently, such decision-makers as UVa President Teresa Sullivan became overconfident or overoptimistic in their judgments of the predictive accuracy of information sources. This bias is only amplified by the myriad Title IX investigations currently taking place at colleges and universities.

With Rolling Stone, its established reputation as a counter-culture media outlet that would challenge traditional models of authority led its writer and editors to ignore their own traditionally rigorous, internal fact-checking protocols. As for university administrators, this illusion reflected the over-reliance on the Rolling Stone article as fact as well as the apparent lingering sexual violence issues. The latter view is based on their condemnation of the Phi Psi fraternity involved without providing it with due process. (That's especially ironic since Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university in 1819, embraced the protection of the individual against the tyranny of the majority). Even Virginia students, eager to accept the story based on the traditional stereotypes of fraternity conduct, made a quick rush to judgment to condemn Phi Psi, including vandalizing their property and demonizing its members.

While the complete story has yet to unfold, this issue serves as a timely reminder of several key fundamentals that we, as crisis communicators, must always consider when dealing with situations involving the "perfect storm" -- a highly emotional and personal issue that has national resonance, high-profile media coverage and an organization already on the defensive with recent issues:

• Always challenge (appropriately, of course) facts and assumptions that many rely on to inform their thinking and decision-making about risk and crisis management. In the UVa case, like the celebrated case involving the Duke Lacrosse team, does the narrative too easily play into existing personal and institutional biases?

• In situations with palpable unknowns, where the illusion of validity in decision-making is a material threat, push hard to do research, polling and active listening to help identify the levers and pulleys that shape the operating and environmental realities of the present risk.

• Determine existing organizational challenges that will prevent leadership from making decisions consistently, effectively, and quickly in the face of uncertainty.

• Be aware of how current actions could dictate future strategy. In the UVa situation, President Sullivan, by making the unilateral decision to suspend all Greek activities (including sororities with no connection with this), has now established a clear precedent for future issues. If a similar situation occurs with a single sports team at UVa, would she need to suspend all athletics until further investigation? If not, she assuredly would face allegations of situational ethics and inconsistent application of policy.

• Be ready to take on current risk to manage future risk. President Sullivan has taken a very calculated risk with her deliberate decision to use this event as an opportunity to address the larger issue of sexual violence. In the short term, this almost certainly will spark unrest from influential alumni and donors upset at her potentially unjustifiable actions taken against the entire Greek system. But it also sets up the university to be a thought leader long-term and gain reputation credits for a bold step to address an issue that plagues college campuses across the U.S.

Of course, outside of the immediate issue and personal impact to those directly involved, the greatest harm has been done to future victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, due to this event, their credibility will be called into question and they won't be treated with the respect and speed of action they deserve.