Why we make bad decisions

From Occupy Wall Street to online dating, our surroundings can dictate the choices we make. An expert explains

Topics: Neuroscience, Psychology,

Why we make bad decisions (Credit: VLADGRIN via Shutterstock)

What role do our surroundings have in the choices we make? Consider the fact that we are more likely to commit a “random” act of kindness toward a person who has already done something kind toward us. We are less likely to help someone in serious trouble when we’re in a crowd, or choose different professions based on the sound and spelling of our first names. It turns out the context in which we make our decisions has a huge impact on their outcomes.

In his new book “Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World,” author Sam Sommers, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, looks at what context can teach us about everything from test questions to romantic partners to career choices. Sommers offers a fascinating glimpse into the way our most important judgments are framed by the world around us.

Salon spoke with Sommers over the phone about Occupy Wall Street, online dating and Penn State’s Joe Paterno riot.

In the book you argue that this perception that, as you describe it, “What you see is what you get” is flawed and dangerous. Why are judgments based on first impressions misguided?

It’s our default assumption. It’s our fallback, automatic assumption about other people. It serves us well in a lot of respects. It makes the world a more predictable place. It allows us to make predictions about the world. But a variety of different research over the past few decades shows that this automatic judgment is a cognitive cutting of corners. It doesn’t give an accurate perspective on how human nature works. One of the really good examples is the quickness with which we turn to the “bad apple” explanation. When we read about bad behavior, whether it’s people committing crimes, rioting, etc., we immediately assume that that person is a bad apple, that we would never do something like that. It makes us feel better about ourselves at the end of the day, but it keeps us from solving some of the root issues at the heart of human nature.

In the book you discuss crowd mentality and conformity in detail. Reading these chapters, I couldn’t help thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street is all about power in numbers, but it seems that this may also be its downfall, since there’s no clear leadership.



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It’s a good question. It can be related to the Tea Party rallies as well. I think conformity is the glue that holds our society together. Can you imagine walking down the street in Manhattan without conformity? It would be chaos, or more chaotic than it already is. The interesting thing is that we prefer being in groups of others who are similar. We like people who agree with us on issues, we even like people who imitate our own body movements. So, enjoying being in a group isn’t always the same thing as creating the most effective group. I think that is the big issue that faces the Occupy movement. Occupy has people feeling empowered, and surrounded by many other like-minded (or perceived to be like-minded) people. It feels good. At the same time, where is the mission statement or the list of directives? Where do you go from here? Conformity helps keep society together but it doesn’t always move us forward toward goals that are the most advantageous. That is one of the big challenges that Occupy is facing right now. You’ve got a bunch of people in the same place drawn together by similar concerns, but it’s unclear what those concerns are and where they are headed from here.

The Penn State riots over Joe Paterno’s dismissal in the wake of the Sandusky scandal seems to me a good example of crowd mentality gone awry.

As a social psychologist and a big-time sports fan from my days at Michigan, one thing I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t take much for any college football fan to riot. For most of us who don’t have a connection to Penn State, it was really jarring. We thought, How can you be upset about Paterno when we’re talking about dozens of children being sexually exploited? It seems crazy. It’s out of whack in terms of priority. But we need to remember what it’s like when something bad happens to a group with a strong affiliation. It’s amazing how able we are to rationalize things like this. As a Penn State fan, you are thinking, Paterno didn’t actually do anything wrong himself, he has done some great things for the University, he didn’t really know the full extent of Sandusky’s crimes, and now he is the subject of a witch hunt. You convince yourself into believing that. It’s not just being a sports fan, it’s human psychology to see the world through a self-serving filter.

I guess there is also validation in the self-deception when you have other people “on your team,” no pun intended.

Absolutely. There’s the bonding and validation of looking around and everyone supporting him. The library is named after him. They are thinking; I go to this university, Paterno is like a god here and he is a virtuous coach in a somewhat nefarious body of coaches in college athletics over the past couple of decades. You could see how, especially in a small town where everything is focused on football, you could view Paterno as being one of the victims here.

One point that I found particularly fascinating in the book is that we tend to have pretty skewed opinions of ourselves. You also mention that happier people are more likely to have an unrealistic self-perception.

I think most of us have the intuition that people who are sad or depressed are like Eeyore from “Winnie The Poo”: Woe is me, everything is terrible. What’s really interesting is that the research suggests that people with depressive symptoms often have a more accurate view of the self. People who are “normal” — or healthy, functioning individuals — tend to have a skewed view of themselves. It’s just skewed in a positive direction.

When you think about it, there are a huge number of tools in our toolbox of self-deception that make us look better to ourselves than we probably should. For example, 85 percent of us think we are above-average drivers, which is mathematically ridiculous. It ranges from that idea that “I’m better than average” to the behavior where we avoid situations in which we might not do well. There is research suggesting that people with more narcissistic personalities and high self-esteem are not particularly good at dealing with negative feedback. They don’t persevere when they struggle. Instead they cut their losses and try something else. The lengths we go to in order to feel good about ourselves are often considerable. Self-deception seems to be a pretty ubiquitous component with what we think of as “normal mental health functioning.” 

In the book you discuss the ways in which we tend to rely more than we should on preconceived “differences” between men and women. You mention our tendency to force gendered behavior onto children, and I found this really relevant. Raising children in less gender-specific environments is a progressive goal, but unfortunately, I don’t see the policing of children’s gender coming to an end any time soon.

It’s a really deeply ingrained norm and expectation that we have. Parents of newborns take only seconds after their child is born to describe their infant with different adjectives for a boy or a girl. I really do think some of it is owed to “what you see is what you get”; men and women have different bodies and we like to hang our hat on difference. But newborn babies are the same and they don’t act noticeably different at that age. We still treat them differently and I think it’s an illustration of how we get caught up in what we assume to be internal and immutable difference instead of a cultural institution. I go to the toy store and they have different shelves for boys’ and girls’ toys. The guy at the fast food restaurant still needs to know the gender of my child before he can give them a happy meal. It’s everywhere.

In the book you allude to how circumstance affects romantic relationships. We tend to think of love in the proverbial “fairy tale” terms. But in the book you point out that love is more practical than we’d like to think.

My wife hates that chapter but I actually think it’s still optimistic. You ask people what are the factors that influence their attraction to someone and they think in terms of body type, appearance and personal traits. But the circumstances and the context in which we live play an enormous role in who we are attracted to.

Proximity is first and foremost. Whether we are talking about romantic relationships or our close friends, most of us would have very different intimate relationships if we had gone to a different college, worked in a different building, lived in a different apartment or joined a different gym. Similarity is another one. There is this “opposites attract” theory but there is not a lot of support for it scientifically. Similarity seems to influence who we end up with both in terms of similar interests and backgrounds, but also similar appearance level and similar physical characteristics. If we look at online dating, people don’t just send emails to the most attractive profiles. Instead, people who are highly attractive tend to send emails to other folks who are highly attractive. People who are more moderate in their levels of objectively rated attraction tend to send more emails to other people who are in that moderate level. It’s like we have an implicit sense of who is “in my league.” Similarity and proximity are hugely important, but I’ve actually gotten booed before in class when I’ve said that. People think that conclusion renders love less real and meaningful, but that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing that we have the potential to form romantic connections to a wide range of people. That’s actually liberating.

Your chapter on hate seemed to posit that we prefer others who are culturally and racially similar to us while we dislike difference. One interesting point that you make, which I found to be pretty accurate, is that people feel very uncomfortable admitting that these preferences are real. I’m thinking of the term “post-racial,” which came into popularity in conjunction with Obama’s presidency, but your research might suggest that we don’t in fact live in a post-racial environment.

We don’t live in a “post-racial” environment. Absolutely not. We have a way of viewing the world around us in terms of categories. It’s how we learn, as a child, to deal with things in our environment. We see people in terms of social categories like race, gender and age. This colors the way we interact with others and what we expect of them. A lot of people are resistant to accepting this or addressing it. If we continue to maintain this party line — the one illustrated by Stephen Colbert’s joke where he looks at a black person and says, “I don’t see color. Are you a black man?” — that doesn’t solve anything. My research suggests that that tactic backfires. People don’t tend to make a very good impression this way. They are viewed as disingenuous and distracted in diverse settings when they pretend not to notice race.

So how can we improve our approach to ethnic bias?

The more uplifting take on this is, if we can all accept that we see the world in terms of categories, we can make use of that information in navigating our social universe. We need to ask how to have these kinds of conversations and how to correct these kinds of tendencies. It’s a conversation we have on my university campus and in other organizations. It’s good to want diversity and to want to have people from different backgrounds together, but if we are going to pretend that we’re all the same, then it doesn’t really do us any good. I think that resistance to talking about race and accepting that race still makes a difference in our society and affects all of us, is a big problem. The “what you see is what you get” idea comes into bearing because often when we do have these discussions it becomes about who’s racist, is this behavior racist? And that’s a discussion that no one ever wins.

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