The Dangers of Armchair Psychology for Leaders

Imagine you’re driving along the highway, and see an electric sign saying “79 traffic deaths this year.” Would this make you less likely to crash your car shortly after seeing the sign? Perhaps you think it would have no effect?

Neither are true. According to a recent peer-reviewed study that just came out in Science, one of the world’s top academic journals, you would be more likely to crash, not less. Talk about unintended consequences!

The study examined seven years of data from 880 electric highway signs, which showed the number of deaths so far this year for one week each month as part of a safety campaign. The researchers found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52% within three miles of the signs on these safety campaign weeks compared to the other weeks of the month when the signs did not show fatality information. The scientists calculated that the social costs of such fatality messages amount to $377 million per year, with 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths.

The cause? Distracted driving. These “in-your-face” messages, the study finds, grabs our attention and undermines our driving.

Supporting their hypothesis, the scientists discovered that the increase in crashes is higher when the reported deaths are bigger, meaning later in the year as the reported deaths on the sign goes up. They also uncovered that the increase in crashes is largest in more complex road segments, which require more focus from the driver.

The result was what scholars call a boomerang effect, meaning when an intervention produces an effect opposite to that intended. That’s what happens when the authorities rely on armchair psychology and followed their gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work. Unfortunately, such boomerang effects happen regularly.

Consider another safety campaign, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign between 1998 and 2004, which the US Congress funded to the tune of $1 billion. A 2008 National Institutes of Health-funded study found that more exposure to advertising from the campaign led youth to be more likely to use marijuana, not less!

Why? The authors find evidence that youths who saw the ads got the impression that their peers used marijuana widely. As a result, the youths became more likely to use marijuana themselves.

We know that message campaigns can have a substantial effect. That fits broader extensive research from cognitive science on how people can be impacted by nudges, meaning non-coercive efforts to shape the environment so as to influence people’s behavior in a predictable manner.

Those with authority - in government or business - frequently attempt to nudge other people based on their mental model of how others should behave. Unfortunately, their mental models are often fundamentally flawed, due to dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots impact decision making in all life areas, including business to relationships.

Fortunately, recent research has shown effective strategies to defeat these dangerous judgment errors, such as by constraining our choices to best practices and measuring the impact of our interventions. Unfortunately, such reliance on best practice and measurements of interventions of such techniques is done too rarely.

Instead, what the authorities need to do is consult with cognitive and behavioral science experts on nudges before they start their interventions. And what the experts will tell you is that it’s critical to evaluate in small-scale experiments the impact of proposed nudges. That’s because, while extensive research shows nudges do work, only 62% have a statistically significant impact, and up to 15% of desired interventions may backfire.

It’s very doable to run a small-scale study in most cases. Yet that’s not what leaders tend to do: they tend to roll out initiatives broadly. That's why any leader should avoid relying on armchair psychology and test their intuitions before deploying internal and external initiatives to avoid resistance to change and the boomerang effect. Our feelings about how other people may respond often lead us astray due to our mental blindspots, requiring leaders to show humility and decrease their confidence in their gut impulses.

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