We often assume that people are motivated by rational self-interest. In this model of behavior, people make choices that they calculate will benefit them most, and most directly. If we want to predict behavior, or direct it, all we have to do is provide the right "incentives" or "disincentives" and we can get people to do what we need them to do.
If only Life were that simple.
Although predictions on the basis of the rational model can be successful, some have come to believe that strict adherence to the rational model is not only limiting, but often wrong.
The problem is that sometimes people don't choose rationally, and even when they do, they often choose differently from what we might expect if we consider only the content of the issue. Here are some reasons why.
- It's always a judgment call
- In the organizational context, the consequences of choices are rarely all good or all bad. People have to decide what they care about and how much, and people do differ.
- Some people react to the past
- Sometimes people don't
choose rationally. Even
when they do, they
apply their own judgment,
- Something about the situation might trigger responses from childhood, or from other experiences. People then react to those past experiences instead of reacting to the here-and-now.
- Some are overloaded
- Some people must choose quickly, because of real or perceived time pressure. In haste, they make choices that differ from those they would make if they felt they had more time.
- Some feel peer pressure
- Some make choices on the basis of the choices they perceive others making. They want either to be like others, or to be unlike others.
- Some fear imaginary consequences
- When they lack concrete knowledge, some people make up some pretty terrifying scenarios. Then they react to what they've imagined, instead of to what is.
- Some have wrong information
- The information on which they base choices can be wrong, out-of-date, or incomplete. Or they might have misunderstood or forgotten the information they did have.
- Some seek revenge
- Anger or thirst for revenge can cause some to make choices to harm others, ignoring (or blinded to) consequences that are seriously harmful to themselves.
- Some have received bad advice
- Even when people have all the facts right, some follow bad advice or misguided (or worse) leaders.
- Some have cut deals
- Sometimes people make choices that are counter to their own interests, because — rightly or otherwise — they expect someone else to intervene or to support them in another context.
Finally, some believe that the world consistently works in ways that it does not. This can cause them to make choices that might not be in their own self-interest — they might even choose to use the rational model to devise ways to influence the choices of others. Top Next Issue
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For more on irrational decision-making, see the report by Paul Solman on the May 10, 2005, edition of the PBS program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. The report is available in text, streaming audio, or streaming video. It emphasizes the work of Terry Burnham, author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit from the New Science of Irrationality, published in 2005 by Wiley. Order from Amazon.com.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- When It Really Counts, Be Positive
- When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one.
We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal
meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
- When You Can't Even Think About It
- Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can
think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
- Reverse Micromanagement
- Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the
reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action
isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
- The Injured Teammate: I
- You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you
handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
- What Enough to Do Is Like
- Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new
normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.