Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Poor decision making

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Poor decision making, especially decision making based on faulty information or flawed criteria, permeates modern* society.

*Often non-modern society too—the central problem is likely the flaws of humanity. However, in the past some decisions (e.g. concerning marriage) might have been more rational, and often there was a lack of choice that prohibited faulty decisions: The son of the blacksmith might have been happier as a shoemaker, but his becoming another blacksmith was often a foregone conclusion. (A lack of choice, obviously, can have more disadvantages than advantages…)

To look at a few examples:

  1. Employment: As I have seen again and again, for an employee to judge whether he will be happy with a certain employer and vice versa for the employer, is virtually impossible using the criteria that normally lead up to the employment (interview, CV/cover letter resp. company presentation, general reputation, …) True, it is often possible to filter out poor candidates at an early stage, but even this comes at a high risk of false negatives—people/companies who are filtered out despite that they would have proved a good match, had the attempt been made. More importantly, it is quite hard to tell the difference between an adequate, a good, and a very good candidate (people who claim to be able to are usually wrong).

    For instance, what if a prospective employee is dazzled by big promises* and a high salary, only to find that his colleagues are hard to work with, that he is stuck in a noisy “open plan” office**, or that the tools provided for his tasks are infuriatingly inefficient? When I consider a new project, I make a point of at least looking at the offices, checking out the main software used, and (if possible) exchange a few words with a regular employee in the absence of the interview team, to have at least some indication of the general mood. However, even so, the first few weeks of actual work can change the original impression massively—and the correlation between the original impression and the final is often weak.

    *Even assuming that these are truthful, which is by no means a given.

    **These being an another example of poor decision making through poor priorities: I cannot rule out that there are fields or positions where they bring value, especially where salaries are low and little thinking required, but when we look at e.g. software development, they are disastrous. Here we have decision makers seeing a small savings in office costs and failing to consider the negative impact on the work environment and the productivity of the staff. (Exactly how many people in one office is practical will depend on a number of issues, including the distance between individuals, the loudness of the work, the degree of consideration shown for each other, …; however, going beyond four is rarely a good idea, and when there is little need for interaction or the offices are small, lower numbers are better.)

    In reverse, having a great CV and being good at self-presentation is no guarantee for a good work performance. Indeed, self-presentation might even correlate negatively with performance. Even an apparently solid education brings comparatively little information with today’s grade and degree inflation, especially in the softer fields.* References and the like are sometimes based more in personal liking and contacts than in truth; and, in Germany, it is almost always forbidden to say something negative about the former employee, which has lead to a complicated set of euphemistic codes that even HR staff often misunderstands… Worse, some employers actually allow the employee to write his own reference, to his own preferences, and then sign it as is—this way the risk of being sued for a poor reference is removed… More can be gained through probing the attitude** and problem-solving skills/intelligence/whatnot of the applicant, but this is rarely done; I.Q. tests, a very valuable source of information, are basically never used, be it through PC prejudices or (as in the U.S.) unfortunate legislation or legal precedent.

    *Note that the main benefit of a higher degree was not to demonstrate acquired knowledge but to filter for innate ability, especially intelligence. This filter effect has been diminished severely over time. (Fields, like medicine, where a high degree of raw knowledge must be present, form an exception to this.)

    **Doing this can be hard when we speak of generally attitudes, like industriousness. (Anyone can claim to be this-or-that.) However, answers concerning more specific attitudes tend to reflect the truth, and can provide valuable information. For instance, in software development, in can really pay to give a few non-leading questions to probe what the applicant thinks of code quality (good), pre-mature optimization (bad), or copy-and-paste vs. abstraction and re-use (former very bad; latter usually good), …

    An almost paradoxical standard question during interviews is “Why do you want to work here?”, which leaves the non-naive applicant in an uncomfortable spot, forcing him to either lie or tell a truth that might damage his chances. Those who can truthfully give a sufficiently complimentary answer to this question are either highly naive or in an unusual situation (say, having previously had an internship at the same company). A true answer by a non-naive applicant might be “I have to work somewhere and based on my preliminary research, you have given a sufficiently good impression that I am willing to give you a shot.”, which could very easily result in a “Thank you for your time. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” as an immediate reaction. Worse, a truthful answer might amount to “either here or unemployment”…

    As an aside, an exception to this can include cases where someone has a “calling” into a certain field (e.g. religion or medicine) and the options in that field are limited. My mother, e.g., wanted to work as a priest; in Sweden, this came close to necessitating employment with the state church. Even here, however, it is not normally the employer that has drawing power—it is the field. To boot, the assumptions about the field are often naive to begin with.

    See also e.g. an older text on application paradoxes.

  2. U.S. college applications are similar to employment. If we look at it from the college’s point of view, we have criteria like grades, suffering from severe inflation (and where top colleges can have more 4.0s than they can accept); recommendation letters that amount to who knows whom or who was liked by whom; extra curriculars that often demonstrate nothing more than a willingness to work* or even an over-reliance on school for activities and an inability get by without “organized fun”; “AP” classes that mostly compensate for the weakness of the “regular” high-school classes (and also underlie inflation); and the feared essay, the evaluation of which is extremely arbitrary and subjective, especially when the “right” opinions can come into play, which unduly favors those with an ability to write well, and which gives posers an advantage over non-posers. Then there is the whole personal connection, “my parents are alumni”, etc., which says very, very little about the suitability of the prospective student.

    *Especially on TV, where the main reason to have extra curriculars is exactly to get into college… (As opposed to a genuine interest in a certain area.)

    Today, the best shot at a good selection appears to be the SATs (and similar tests) that try to assess scholastic aptitude, but even here the value of the test has, possibly by design, grown weaker over time—and there appears to be a trend for colleges to not require it anymore… Cf. also a discussion of test vs. grades.

    How to do it better? Reverse grade inflation, strengthen the SATs (especially through an increased “g loading”), and look at some combination of grades and SATs; forget about recommendation letters and all other bull-shit. The Swedish system, while far from perfect, does a reasonable job of the combination. (But not at suppressing grade inflation and keeping the counter-part to the SATs, Högskoleprovet, at a high quality.) A particular benefit is that the admittance system is almost entirely centralized and involves far less effort on behalf of both students and colleges. My own application consisted of filling out a single form, indicating what schools and programs I prioritized how. Compare this to having to write essays, gather recommendation letters, whatnot, and send them to several or many individual colleges …

  3. Politics is an area wrought with problems, including that many or most politicians deliberately try to mislead the voters in order to be elected, some resorting to populism, some to scares, some to empty promises, some to outright lies, … This leaves the voters who have the brains and the attitude to make a good decision in the situation that they cannot, for lack of information. At the same time, the voters who lack in these regards are fooled into making the decisions that the politicians want to see (i.e. their own election).

    Worse, the elected politicians themselves are then confronted with decisions for which they often lack the intelligence or education; where lobbyists, non-neutrals, civil servants, whatnot provide flawed information; and where the decisions are often governed by the wish to be re-elected, rather than by doing what is right for the country or keeping the trust placed by the voters of the previous election. A notable complication is that promotion to a certain office in a government/administration/cabinet is often not based on expertise in the right area, but on importance within the party, previous experience as an office holder, “years of service”, … Looking e.g. at Sweden, the match between ministerial portfolio and experience/education rarely exceeds that of a random choice.

    See e.g. [1] for a longer treatment of problems with democracy.

  4. Business–consumer relationships are quite similar to the first half of the previous item: The consumers are to be tricked into becoming customers by any means necessary, including emotional manipulation, misleading product claims, the hiding of vital information in the fine-print, … Again, those with a brain have too little (or flawed) information; again, those without one fall prey.
  5. Marriage and other long-term relationships is possibly one of the most interesting areas, where there could be much to gain through rethinking the current Western approach. (But I note and fully acknowledge that this item is speculative.)

    For starters, most relationships are based on superficialities like physical attraction, shared interests, or even just opportunity. In the short-term*, this is not a problem, but when something more long-term is called for, is the filtering improved sufficiently? More likely than not, aspects like a romantic love (cf. below), habit, convenience, the sunk-cost fallacy, or a fear to be alone carries a relationship into a much deeper territory than it deserves.

    *By which I here imply something that has developed into an actual relationship, as opposed to e.g. just “dating”, but which can still be shallow and definitely is comparatively short in length. (Possibly between a few months and a year.) A differentiation between dating and short-term relationship is important in as far as the former usually contains a considerable amount of probing and deliberation, while the latter does not. In a rough analogy, the one is the application and interview phase preceding an employment, the other is the early days of the employment it self.

    Then there is the question of love, which proverbial blinds us: Romantic love can develop between people who are not really suited for each other, for reasons that include e.g. an early naive internal image of the partner, wist- or wishful thinking, and those pesky oxytocins—often between people who just happen to be in an originally casual relationship. In a next step, love “hides” incompatibilities, makes annoyances easier to tolerate, and, in general, makes the relationship “smoother”. And then the love fades and two people are stuck together who do not belong together… If this is just a long-term relationship, no marriage, no children, there is still the opportunity to move apart with comparatively little pain and trouble, but if there are children or if a marriage has taken place, this is an extremely bad situation.

    As with employment above, long-term relationships are better filtered than could be done with a coin-toss—but not by that much: Many obviously poor matches can be filtered out early, but when it comes to differing between a good and a barely adequate match, or between an excellent seeming and an actually excellent one, enough information is often not present until it is to late.

    Here I have the strong suspicion that the arranged marriages of old (or as practiced by some non-Western cultures) are actually the better way, after allowing for some modifications. For instance, consider a scenario where the respective parents* make a “short-list” of half-a-dozen to a dozen promising candidates with mutual parental approval for the respective (adult!) child, and the children then work** through their respective lists until a mutually acceptable match (based on non-romantic and openly communicated criteria) has been found. Chances are that such a semi-arranged “Vernunftehe”*** would work better than a modern love story. I note that this is not only based on a more rational decision making, but also because the parties will enter the union with a more realistic view of each other and more realistic expectations.**** I also stress that there is a large difference between a marriage not based on romance/romantic love and a loveless marriage: A romantic marriage will often develop into a loveless one over time; a Vernunftehe can equally develop into a loving relationship—and the same type of loving relationship that a successful romantic marriage would eventually see: Love based on long companionship, deep knowledge of each other, mutual care-taking, having gone through hardships next to each other, …

    *In all fairness, had my parents tried this with me, I would likely have reacted very negatively. Then again, it was a long time before my more romantic take on these things started to fade. Today, I have great problems seeing myself married (if at all) outside a “Vernunftehe”.

    **Taking time to get sufficiently acquainted and to clearly communicate and discuss all relevant issues. How long this should take will vary, but going below several days of interaction spread over several weeks seems risky to me. On the other hand, increasing the amount of time too much might cause the decision making to be clouded through emotionality.

    ***Literally, “marriage of reason[ing]”. I prefer the German term over “marriage of convenience”, partially because the literal meaning of the German term catches my intentions better, partially because I am not certain of the exact equivalence: Wikipedia currently has a German link to “Scheinehe” (a sham marriage, e.g. for “green card” reasons) and an internal description that is potentially closer to that term (e.g. in that not only “love” is excluded as a motivation, but also “relationship, family”). Vernunftehe implies a genuine, honest marriage based on reason rather than romance; Scheinehe implies a mere marriage-in-name, with the “spouses” normally never even having lived together. To boot, cf. above, it is not a given that a marriage based in reason will not cause love to develop. (Wikipedia surprises me here, because the literal meaning of “marriage of convenience” has implications more compatible with Vernunftehe than Scheinehe, and my previous understanding of the term was also equivalent to Vernunftehe. A translation with “arranged marriage” would underemphasize the involvement of the spouses and overemphasize that of others.)

    ****Indeed, my impression is that many of the modern divorces go back to one party (usually the woman) having had unrealistic expectations, and then failing to stand by the promise of “or for worse”. (Often in combination with a failure to appropriately communicate these expectations.)

    Barring this, at a minimum, the prospective spouses should have a good long look at each others parents (especially the mother of the bride and the father of the groom) and how the parents relationships have fared. We are not our parents, but there is still usually quite a bit to be learned (with a reasonable degree of likelihood) from them regarding ourselves (resp. about others from their parents)—including much that might not yet be obvious when looking just at the younger generation. (For reasons that include the effects of physical aging and mental maturation, stations in life not yet encountered, and experiences not yet had—especially when it comes to marriage, parenthood, and the like.)

Excursion on knock-out criteria during affluence:
A common luxury problem is that there are “too many” alternatives. This too can lead to poor decision making. For instance, I once heard the anecdote that someone hiring had two sacks of applications and just threw one of them away, giving the reason that a good employee needed to be lucky… More generally, the more candidates there are, the less time there is for each applicant, the greater amount of early filtering is needed, and the more superficial criteria tend to be used. For instance, in a strong economy, I have myself used criteria like “website requires JavaScript” or “they demand my CV as a MS-Word document” to rule out some potential employers without any further research. Both of these criteria do tell me something about the company, but they are still superficial on a level comparable to being unimpressed with a company presentation, and in no way comparable to having worked there for a few weeks—especially since both point to problems that do not necessarily affect the department I would be working in. (However, it could also be argued that boycotting companies who are so bad at web design or so applicant unfriendly is the ethical thing to do.)

Similarly, we are now so inundated with new movies, TV series, books, …, that a very strong filtering is needed for anyone who wants to do anything else with his life than watch TV (etc.); in contrast, in the 1950s, people watched what was available. For the broad masses, such filter criteria could easily become reduced to “have I heard of it from advertising”, “was the trailer good”, or something otherwise mostly being a matter of manipulation by e.g. a TV studio. Even those more refined must use somewhat superficial criteria, e.g. deciding not to give a TV series a fair chance based on negative impressions of others on a rating web site or an own impression from just the pilot—both of which can give a very incorrect impression (for instance, the pilot of a TV series is often one of the worst episodes).

Excursion on “Black Mirror” and partners:
A particular interesting episode of the TV series “Black Mirror” provided some inspiration for the above. It centers around a simulation of relationship interactions between different partners, running at a far, far higher speed than the real world, in order to determine who would be suitable for whom and to make a corresponding recommendation. Something like that (in the unlikely event that it ever becomes technologically feasible) could go a long way towards preventing marriage problems (with obvious extensions to other areas, including employment and elections). Unfortunately, the episode still fell into the trap of romantic love: Instead of simulating what would have happened in the case of marriage, it simulated what amounted to “who feels the strongest attraction for whom” or “which pairing shows the greatest compatibility based on dating”, which implies a romantic notion of a quasi-magical connection between two people.

However, even absent simulations, parts of the approach could still be adapted in real life: Take two complete strangers; put them in a restaurant on a date; if that went well, put them alone in a cottage for a few days; if that went well, make them a couple-on-probation for a few weeks; … (Note that the schedule is considerably accelerated compared to regular dating, implying that certain revelations and experiences also happen a lot faster, in turn making the mutual evaluation a lot faster, in turn making a happy end or a move to the next partner a lot faster.)

Indeed, this (in a fortunate coincidence) ties the two excursions together: I once read an interview with the German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who described his methodology for not drowning in unread books while still keeping his filtering somewhat non-shallow: He read the first twenty pages of a book; if these were sufficiently pleasing, he skipped ahead some distance, possibly a hundred pages, and read another twenty pages; if these were also sufficiently pleasing, he read the entire book. (Presumably, his approach also contained other steps of pre-filtering to determine what books even got the benefit of the first twenty pages—I doubt that “Twilight” made his reading list…)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2018 at 10:25 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] a text on poor decision making [1], which can be valuable in understanding some of my motivations for the below. See also an excursion […]

  2. […] previous texts of mine ([1], [2]) are highly open to marriages based on reason, and would allow a fairly short period of prior […]


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