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How We Really Make Decisions

post # 160 — August 11, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing, Strategy post

Bob Sutton, co-author (with Jeff Pfeffer) of the terrific book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense, had a fascinating post a few days ago about “Lovaglia’s Law.”

Michael Lovaglia, (a professor at the University of Iowa) proposed Lovaglia’s Law: The more important the outcome of a decision, the more people will resist using evidence to make it. Bob discusses this, and agrees that, the more consequential the outcome, the more power, greed, stress and irrationality come into play in influencing how people react and how individual and collective decisions are made.

I think there is something very important here. I have always been fascinated by the fact that (in spite of what they teach us in school) logic, reason, rationality and sensible analysis seem to play so little part in human affairs – at the office, in our home lives, and elsewhere.

It sometimes seems as if, for all of us, nearly all the time, rhetoric triumphs over reason, personality over substance, politics over merits, neuroses over facts.

I’m not saying this as a complaint. I’m saying that it’s a more accurate critique of human affairs than the misleading interpretation we sometimes fool ourselves with – that our smarts (logic, reason and rationality) are what drive the world.

Tom Davenport (author of Thinking for a Living) recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review arguing that there is a huge competitive advantage to be gained by companies if they were to develop a more analytical approach to business, using advanced analytical abilities. It’s a great article, but its truth and its power comes from the fact that so few of us, as individuals or as institutions, in our work lives or in our personal lives, actually do make our decisions primarily through logic and analysis.

That’s why it can be a competitive advantage for anyone who can escape Lovaglia’s Law.


Andrew Smith said:

This recent USA Today piece seems to back up your view that “logic, reason, rationality and sensible analysis seem to play so little part in human affairs”

USATODAY.com – Study: Emotion rules the brain’s decisions.

According to this USA Today piece: “The evidence has been piling up throughout history, and now neuroscientists have proved it’s true: The brain’s wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making.”

posted on August 11, 2006

Coert Visser said:

Hi, One of the many nice things about your site is that it brings you into contact with other people’s sites and blogs. For instance Bob Sutton’s blog, I didn’t know he had one. By the way, David, what do you think of his ‘no asshole rule’?

posted on August 11, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

Here’s another perspective on “neuroses over facts”: Business may have something to learn from studies in neuroscience of patients who experience disconnection of emotion in experience due to neurological malfunction. If such a patient in a business environment cannot base present and future decisions on an emotional framework linked to past experiences as a guide, the “patient“ relies on reason/logic/analytical assessment to guide the decision-making process. Business can benefit from hiring people with disabilities.

posted on August 11, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

Just to add to my previous comment:

There are 2 obvious points to having such a patient make significant business decisions:

1. Their ability to judge the risk and consequences of the risk involved

2. Their empathy on how their decisions affect others

It obviously depends on the degree of the disability and what particular brain functions are being impacted. In the right environments, people with certain “neurological disorders” are extremely gifted.

posted on August 11, 2006

Carl A. Singer said:

Intriguing – Lovaglia’s Law. But there may be a rational reason (as opposed to rationalization) behind this perception.

Frequently the really BIG, bet your business decisions teeter on hard to pin down and harder to quantify factors. That doesn’t mean throw the analysis away, but augment data with experience and judgment.

I recall in 1970 or 1971 sitting in on a decision briefing regarding the future of tanks vs. helicopters. General Westmoreland, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff, was at the head of the table. Myriad quantitative simulations had been done with a helicopter popping up above the tree line and firing a wire-guided missile at a tank. (This meant the helicopter would be vulnerable as the missile was “guided” to its target.) Who would win in this scenario? Clearly the simulation results were based on many variables and assumptions. For example, the real world situation isn’t simply one-against-one, mano a mano.

The ultimate decision re: the “mi&xrdquo; of funding for these two weapons systems wasn’t made sole by the numbers, but by augmented with experience. As the briefing concluded, I recall General Westmoreland leaned back in his chair and said something to the effect of, “Gentlemen, my tank will beat your helicopter out of the sky.” (It’s been 35 years, so I can’t quote verbatim.)

Of note isn’t the decision (about the technology of that time) but of how the decision was reached. The numbers don’t always speak for themselves.

posted on August 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Very helpful addition, Andrew.

I don’t mean to beat the point to death, but in a real way I feel resentful about my (apparently successful) education. I have a bachelors in mathematics, economics and statistics, a master’s degere in operations research and a doctorate in business. I followed all that with ten years as a professor of business.

In all that time, the only message I got (or passed on) was – ‘be smart.’ I studied hard, worked on my rational brain, focused on the tests, tried to be well-read so I could keep up my end of a dinner party conversation.

Why did it take until my mid-to-late thirties to ‘get it’ that things didn’t get done through logic and rationality – they got done through people, at work and at home. I had been misinformed and misguided by my education. It let me down.

The whole foundation on which it was built – that it is not only good, but of primary importance to develop your rational brain functioning – is an imperfect message at best.

Why didn’t someone, somewhere along the way point out that much more was needed for a career and for a life?

The educational system has historically assumed that parents, religious organizations and social involvement will help people understand the importance of (and develop skills in) interpersonal dealings, negotiating in power situations, building empathy with others, the psychology of the everday life of everday people ( a/k/a how do I get my family members to act together, let alone my co-workers, subordinates and bosses.)

The more I think about this, the more outraged I get that my education positively encouraged me to ignore these considerations, and focus instaed on advanced logical skills so I could pass the exams at the end of the semester.

I don’t mind finally understanding that this is how the world actually works. I mind a lot that no-one gave me a “heads-up” decades earlier that it was going to be important in my life.

posted on August 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Fiona, your contribution is fascinating to think about.

But I can’t resist turning it to humorous purposes – maybe the fact that I’ve had the career I’ve had is that I am “neurologically differently abled.”

I’m sure many of my clients and colleagues over the years would agree with that diagnosis! (My sister just summed it up as “David, you’re eccentric!”)

posted on August 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Carl, your story about Westmoreland may be perfectly illustative of Lovaglia’s point. The language is telling: MY tank will beat YOUR helicopter.

The issue may not have been judgment versus numbers. It could have been that, as Sutton also points out, Westmorland wasn’t really engaging in a joint, detached thoughtful decision – he was arguing for HIS side.

The hypothesis is that power, psycholgy, self-interest help us understand what went on, not the merits of different weaponry systems.

But I wasn’t there!

posted on August 11, 2006

Eric Boehme said:


Your educational experience is not the norm for the average person. My wife and I homeschool our children. As we look at what we should teach, we often find that there is no equivalent in the public school system. I never had a logic class in public school or in college. We are teaching logic to our children.

I think it is especially important to teach our children based on classical studies. We are not teaching social studies for instance. I would prefer my kids to know what the capital of Iran is and where it is in relation to all of the other Middle Eastern nations, Europe, Asia and the world. Most kids today cannot identify where all 50 states are on a map with boundaries. (I would say most adults as well)

When I was in school I did not use logic, reason, rationality or engage in sensible analysis. I certainly did not learn this at home either. There was a total lack of logic and rationality at our house. It was an emotional rollercoaster.

You have addressed a need to teach much of what we did not learn and then put it into practice. We need something to help us fill in the gaps as we start our careers. Mentors can help with tweaking your social skills, becoming more emotionally intelligent, and thinking more critically. We need more.

Perhaps this could be the base for real corporate training?

posted on August 13, 2006

Nut Suwapiromchot said:

People alway find some logic to protect themselve whenever they make the Decision base on emotion.

Because people want others people to look to themselve as logical people

posted on August 13, 2006

Carl A. Singer said:


Definitely — I can’t speak for the late General, but although (as I recall) he was qualified as a helicopter pilot and wore those wings, his in-depth experience was with armor (tanks.)


I don’t know if it was an epiphany or late night pizza but a pre-dawn thought came to me — We make strategic decisions with only operational data in hand. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as “strategic data.” — To fill this (definitional?) data chasm we resort to other decision modes — some good, some pathological.

posted on August 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Eric and Carl – thank you both for joining in with such thoughtful comments. I haven’t finished processing either of them fully, but I have reactions to both.

First, Eric, you are of coursee correct to say that my schooling is peculiar (if the glove fits…..) But you are laso correct to say that the schools fail in other ways (not making sure our children know the basics.)

One interesting contrast between college education in the Uk and the US in my generation (the sixities) was that in the UK, you were rarely assigned more than 8 hours of classes a week. It was assumed you would use the remaining time usefully.

Because of the shining example of my sister, who was entirely self-educated but very well-read (our dad was an unreconstructed chauvinist), I actually did read quite broadly.

Here’s the key point. when I first came to the US at the age of 18 or so, someone saw me reading a book by the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Their first reaction was “For what course was that book assigned?” They seemed to find it hard to believe that I would read “serious” books willingly.

I owe a lot of thanks to my sister – who passed away a month ago. My mom and dad were always encouraging but not that educated, so it was Frances’ example that did it for me.

So, eric, I’m fascinated with your home schooling approach! I admire the responsibility you have taken on, because if it doesn’t start at home, it’s hard if not impossible for schools and the workplace to catch up.

Carl, looks like I’ll have to react to you later!

posted on August 13, 2006

Shawn Callahan said:

I disagree that we should simply become more rational and always seek evidence. Sure, use evidence when the process is slow and deliberate but for anyone interested in how decisions are made in the heat of the moment take a look at Gary Klein’s book ‘Sources of Power.’ His research shows that we don’t even consider options but rather we match patterns from our past and run a mini scenaria in our mind to see if our action might work, tweak it, then act. A careful reading of Pfeffer and Sutton shows they also recognise that not all decisions can be based on evidence and perhaps Lovaglia’s law is partially a reflection of Klein’s theory of naturalistic decision-making.

posted on August 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Shawn, I don’t know about other people in this conversation, but I’m not really saying we SHOULD “become more rational and seek evidence.

I’m reporting that some authors and other people I admire are pointing out the issue (and helping me reflect) that if rationality and evidence play “only” a part of what really goes on, then we all have to re-think what it means to relate to and influence other human beings, individually and collectively.

(I know this is your specialty, but for me it’s a realization that I may have been going about a lot of things the wrong way – as a manager, as a consultant, as a client, as a business school professor, as a family member.

I have known for a while how important things other than logic are (that’s what my Trusted Advisor book was all about) but with every passing year, the power and importance of facts, analytics and reasoning seem to shrink. I’m not arguing SHOULD – just my incresaing realization and understanding of what IS.

posted on August 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Carl, your epiphany (we are making strategic decisions with operational data) is, I think, the point that Tom Davenport is trying to make in his HBR article. He is saying that it is possile, through better collection and analysis of evidence, to arrive at strategic data and insights.

As true as this is, it doesn’t destroy the rest of the discussion here – that, no matter how much we need better analytics (and we do) they will never be determinitive in human decision-making.

In a previous strategy conversation on this blog (What If There Is No Final Whistle?) it was proposed that strategy is not a decision, but a set of decision rules by which organizations make decisions. Understanding how these rules come into being (and what they should be) might usefully include the non-analytical perspectives we are discussing here.

Just for provocation, here’s a challenging question. Would you rather your organization had better data and analytics or a clearer set of ideological principles? Which do you think would help it thrive more?

posted on August 13, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

David, to react to your latest provocation – it must be right that a clear set of principles is more important. Otherwise, you will collect and analyse the wrong data, reach the wrong conclusions and act on them. Which is surprisingly common.

posted on August 13, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

It depends who’s defining the set of “ideological principles” and how clear they are in what they mean — clarity to one group may not be clarity to another group in terms of messages. In the absence of clarity, conclusions can be “wrong” and likewise the resulting actions — irrespective of the data.

posted on August 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Your point is valid, Fiona, but reaffirms my position that the essence of guiding an organization is includes endless reaffirmation of core principles. The reasons for this are not just the need to stamp out the ambiguities and interpretaions that you descrie, but also flow from Lavaglia’s core proposition (with the Bob Sutton modifications.) Greed, insecurity, politics, power struggles ALWAYS keep bursting out – they’re inevitable – and evidence is too weak to hold them back. Only ideology, fervently advocated by a leader who is credibly perceived as actually believeing the ideology, is enough to overcome the inherent entropy in human affairs.

I know that sounds like a lot of intellectual rubbish, but there’s SOMETHING there I have a glimpse of that I didn’t understand until recently.

posted on August 13, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

Yes, David — you are right. It’s CONSISTANT reaffirmation. Inconsistancy in ideology breeds confusion in organizations that leads to conflict/politics and turnover.

Your blog is an interesting one. I like it!

posted on August 13, 2006

Francis M. Egenias said:

I was reminded of an article, which argued that all purchasing decisions are really emotional decisions. Reason comes in later, to justify the choice. The example often used to illustrate this is the purchase of a luxury car. Almost always, the rational justification is “I deserve this.”

posted on August 13, 2006

Bill Peper said:

This fascinating discussion reminds me of incident during our first year of marriage:

We were “discussing” a matter of some importance (but I do not remember what it was at this point.) I listed several reasons why Sharon’s proposal was not the approach we should take, employing sound reasoning and eloquence learned in trial appearances. Sharon responded, “First, this is not a court room. And second, I do not have to be logical. What am I trying to say?” I responded, “Intuitive decisions can be just as valid and logical ones.” End of discussion.

We, of course, followed Sharon’s course of action and everything went smothly.

posted on August 14, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Sounds like Sharon has what it takes to be CEO or Managing Partner. (Assumin her decssions turn out to be good ones, that is.)

posted on August 14, 2006

Eric said:


I am sorry to hear about the passing of your sister. She seems to be that someone who had a huge impact on your life.

My wife is an author and believes reading great literature is one of the best things you can do. I also must give her most of the credit for homeschooling. She is the one who does the majority of teaching our kids to learn.

Thanks for such a insightful post. I have enjoyed the discussion.

posted on August 14, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I have oscillated back and forth on the value of the “mission statement” for many years now (who can really remember what theirs is, let alone derive any value from it), but I think the ideas above may make it suddenly relevant again. Maybe it needs to capture the core principles of the business (how we work, and, as you describe it David, the non-negotiable minimum standards that will be tolerated) instead of the the core reason for the existence of the business.

A mission statement like that would be something of value.

posted on August 14, 2006

Mott Williamson said:

This thread represents the eternal tension between head and heart. I vote for heart first, then head in business and in life. Somewhere in all this there seems to be an undercurrent running that is saying “How stupid that this is the way it is!” Yes, most of us can not do what we want to do unless other people agree to help us. People make decisions emotionally, then justify them logically. Therefore, a business that does not connect emotionally in a positive way with its employees and its customers is not likely to last. What’s so bad about that? My experience is that businesses don’t win with analysis, or even strategy. First, they need a vision that connects with people’s emotions and their senses. Once, they get that right, then they go down the path of creating strategy. In my opinion, David’s discussion about the proper role of values is really all about creating a business’ vision-the shining city on the hill so to speak. In effect, when we dream about what happens when one of our people violates the rules, we dream a beautiful mythic dream. We hear us deciding to defang the serpent who lives among us. We see ourselves surrounded by happy customers and employees! We are heros who have found our way through the labryinth and slain the monster Minotaur.

posted on August 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Wow – som eheavy rferences here (who slayed the Minotaur? Was it Hercules? Perseus? I aid I read this stuff as a teenager, it doesn’t mean I remember it all!)

Where does this discussion lead us? What does it MEAN for us as individuals. For me it presents chaallenges not about what “THEY” (Organizations and managers” should be doing, but what it all means for ME.

DO I (for example):

a) Know what by core non- negotiable standards are

b) communicate them effectiveley to those around me

c) Do I understand theirs

d) Do I pick up on political, powwer, emtional, self-interested “clues” when people are talking

e_ Do I know how to responds to them and deal with them without making things worse?

f) Do I know how to reach peoples hearts? – one at a time? Or do I assume verybody responds to the same thing?

g) If Bob Sutton is right, can i learn to drop my love of making “grand sweeping dramatic” points, and deal with small change ideas presented as thing of less consequence, so that more is accepted and gotten done.

If you re-read this entire discussion asking what does it mean for you as an individual, there’s a lot of food for thought here!

posted on August 15, 2006

Mott Williamson said:

Minos’ daughter, fell in love with Theseus and helped him get out of the maze by giving him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path. Theseus killed the Minotaur (with a magical sword Ariadne had given him) and led the other Athenians back out the labyrinth (Above copied word for word from Wikipedia)

I believe your friend David Green says it well in his latest book about Trust (Trust Based Selling?”. If you are at a meeting with a client, or a prospective client, you should check your self-orientation at the door. The meeting is not about “making a sale,” it is all about being of service to them. No plan of action or solution offered by you will ever be accepted or implemented unless you obtain as much of an understanding about the large and small realities of the situation before you as it appears in the client’s sense of reality, not yours. Your personal values are important because mutuality is required for any collaboration to work. So your personal values act as a client and project screening device mostly. I believe my personal radar will pick up on all the important subtleties with respect to the clients I was meant to serve provided I always listen to them with my full attention. If I vibrate in harmony with their frequency, I will get the job or more work. If I don’t, I’ll pull out my magic sword and slay the monster! As far as Bob Sutton’s small change ideas is concerned, I believe a bunch of small successfully implemented changes can easily add up to a big change eventually. In the meantime, you are building up the client’s level of trust to the point where a major change would be possible.

posted on August 15, 2006

Dave Soteros said:

I was brought up with the scientific method and still to this day I would say that I have a hard time applying logic to the decision process. It is just too easy and compelling to make decisions the old fashioned way. Trying to apply logic involves feedback which slows down the decision process. Maybe that’s why decisive people can be so dangerous. :)

posted on February 17, 2008