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Good Reasons For Those Bad Decisions

One of the most important responsibilities of any library leader is to make the right decisions. When our decisions have minor consequences the long-term impact of deciding poorly will likely be minor or non-existent. But decisions involving people’s positions, large-scale automation or significant resource allocations can have long-term and profound implications for our libraries and institutions. A leader able to make good judgment calls is an asset to his or her academic library. But according to the speaker we heard at ACRL’s President’s Program at the ALA Conference, most of us are going to make plenty of bad decisions. Why? Because not only are we irrational, but we are so irrational that our bad decisions can practically be predicted.

Our speaker, Dr. Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” gave an insightful and entertaining talk about the forces of irrationality behind our decision making. Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics, MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Media Laboratory. He provided many good examples and colorful stories to prove his points, and most of them are based on experiments that support his premise that people are easily influenced and fail to know their own preferences. There are more ideas from Ariely’s talk than I can share here so if it sounds interesting to you, read the book. But I’ll share what I consider the two most important take away thoughts from the talk.

First, pay attention to how decision questions are framed. Ariely demonstrated that simply changing a question from a positive (accepting something) to a negative (rejecting something) could make a significant difference in how people responded to a decision – even if the outcome of the decision was the same in each situation. Ariely told us that humans are susceptible to visual illusions, decoys and being overwhelmed by more than a few options, and that our intuitions can be dangerous to follow. Just being aware of these basic failings should cause us carefully assess the decision situation so we truly understand the potential consequences of the decision outcome. Second, as organizations that have services and products to market it may benefit academic librarians to better understand how our users are predictably irrational so that we can better frame the decisions we give them to make. Google or a library database? Properly framed, a student may judge that the right decision involves consulting a library research guide or getting personalized help from a librarian. Telling students the library has 400 or 500 databases may sound impressive but it may actually cause them seek out web sites with far few choices – like one resource option and a single search box.

Ariely is not the first to bring to our attention that we lack the ability to make good decisions. Kahneman and Tversky were two behavioral scientists who researched human bias and risk handling. Their research showed that most people would make decisions based on loss aversion, avoiding a loss rather than making a gain. They did this by using the same technique that Ariely uses in his experiments – reframing the same situation to offer both a loss and gain proposition. In their experiments Kahneman and Tversky found people were far more likely to make decisions based on avoiding a loss, even when it was irrational. Like Ariely, Kahneman and Tversky found that our decisions could be manipulated depending on how the decision question was framed. It also reminds us that we can make bad decisions simply in trying to avoid taking a risk.

And the latest cognitive decision-making research shows that we may have even less control over our own decision making then previously thought. The Wall Street Journal reported just recently that the human brain has the capacity to make up its mind for us ten seconds before we even become conscious of a decision. A series of interesting experiments suggests that the brain uses our perceptions and experiences to plan ahead for us and to act on incomplete information to help predetermine our choices. If this is true then it may be best to base decisions on gut reactions and avoid overthinking things. But given the research of Ariely and others, our perceptive and intuitive abilities have so many flaws that it is no surprise the brain would lead us to bad decisions in any number of situations, especially those whose circumstances are so new or unpredictable that good judgment calls are difficult. So if you readers still think you have all the makings of a totally rational decision maker, better think again.

Just prior to Ariely’s presentation ACRL handed out four of its major awards. These included the winners of the doctoral reseach award and the Excellence in Academic Libraries awards. ACRL saved the presentation of its most prestigous award, ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year for last. This year’s winner is Peter Hernon, professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. Hernon is shown below with the award certificate. Oh yeah, the award winner also gets $5,000. Congratulations to Peter Hernon on being named ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.


Peter Hernon with his ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year Award