Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Today, something a little different.  We're going to take a look at the idea of "trusting your gut," or "using your intuition." 

This semester I am teaching "Public Service Ethics: Toward Ethical Engagement."  Actually, K-State insists on calling the course "Administrative Ethics."  Yawn...

I thought I'd bring a lesson from class into my blog.  Although it has absolutely nothing to do with the environment or sustainability or even the health care bill (that was a joke), I want to present some interesting new-ish research:  That we are not rational decision-makers, but, rather, jump to conclusions based on subconscious memories, and then defend our conclusions as "rational," by dubious means.  I hope you enjoy this, and I am, as always, very interested in your feedback.  I know many will leave feedback on facebook because that's where my most vociferous friends hang, but have a heart and copy it here too, for my non-facebook readers.

Last week, my students were each given a simple scenario and asked to analyze it first with the ethical tools I've taught them, and then again, using just the provisions of a Code of Ethics.  One of my students, Suzanne, had roughly the following scenario:

The Exec Director [ED] of a nonprofit organization saw that a former employee was maligned in a newspaper article. Although the ED was not particularly close to the former employee, based on years of experience with the man, he nevertheless felt the article’s description of the former employee was so far off the mark that the negative description had to be inaccurate.  The ED was considering whether to step forward, we assume because it bothered him that the article might harm his former employee’s reputation without merit, to challenge the article's veracity.

Rather than doing the ethical analysis for you, my intent is to deal with my apparently harmless little assumption – that the ED’s motivation was human decency or perhaps loyalty to an old employee, or some such motivator. One of Suzanne’s questions for analysis was:

Why is ED is considering “doing something?”" Is he concerned about correct reportage from the newspaper? Is the report damaging [the former employee] and/or the organization by which he is employed? How is ED a stakeholder in this issue?

Suzanne’s question, "Why is ED considering doing something?" calls into question the motivation of the ED, leaving open the possibility that my assumption might not be the only possible reason for the ED's behavior. 

Until Suzanne posed her question, I would wager (and I only wager when the odds are overwhelmingly in my favor) that most of us automatically assume the ED is considering action because he has some urge - human decency or whatever – to right a wrong - to tell what he knows - to suggest that the article might be an unfair and harmful mischaracterization.  I'll leave you to ponder for now why most of us make that assumption.

While you're pondering - assuming you can do that and read at the same time - I want to discuss why it is VERY IMPORTANT to take a few minutes to question such seemingly harmless assumptions, to ask ourselves whether these assumptions might be in error.  Might there be other reasons at play?

I am through for the moment with the actual scenario.  We don't have enough information in this small snippet of a case study to figure out what the ED's motives might have been.   And in fact, they might have been exactly the motives we assumed.  But that's not the point! 

The point is that this scenario is a great jumping off place for making a BIG DEAL out of the idea that we often act from/with underlying assumptions, or intuition about people's behavior.  

Recent neurobiological research suggests an interesting phenomenon is at play in our ethical (and actually all) decision-making. This research seems to contradict our long-standing cultural belief that we are “rational man,” (or woman) and that we make “rational decisions” based on the facts.  In fact, the old line of thinking suggests that if we make erroneous decisions, it is because we lacked some of the facts – not all facts are always knowable or known to us. But recent research suggests something entirely different is going on in human decision-making. Recent research suggests humans are “pattern seekers.”  Madrazo Jr. & Motz, 2005. When a situation presents, our brain begins a fast review of past experience and/or knowledge of similar situations, subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) looking for patterns. These patterns serve as “heuristics,” short-cuts to understanding a situation and knowing how to move forward. This amounts to making a “snap judgment,” and mostly serves us well because there is not enough time in life to start over considering each situation independently.

If you’ve ever taken a math class where you’ve been taught to quickly approximate “close enough” answers, you have experienced a similar concept at play, and know that “close enough” answers are sometimes all you need to make a decision.

Unfortunately, using pattern heuristics isn’t always wise. You can get into trouble if the facts that establish similarity between the current situation and past experience(s) are either not a close enough match, or are not the critical facts for the current decision axis.   If you use the pattern as decision-making precedent, but upon closer inspection the facts don't really overlap as much as you felt they did (and the feeling thing will become critical in a moment), you've got, as Desi Arnaz, Jr. would say "some 'splainin' to do." 

This is particularly important to public servants (those who work in government or nonprofit agencies) because we have a lot of legal obligations, and a duty to consider the ethical, fiduciary and equity ramifications of our actions - in otherwords to be able to explain ourselves beyond our gut.  It is also important to anyone who encounters ethical dilemmas in the course of their work - which is almost everyone from child care worker to president of the United States (are you listening, President-depends-on-what-your-definition-of-"is"-is-Clinton and President-weapons-of-mass-destruction-Bush?  No, I suspect you're not.). 

These days no one is immune to becoming the next headline on the front page of the newspaper.  And even though many people who are called out on ethical issues did try to make the best decision they knew how under the circumstances, sometimes that's not enough.  Understanding the way your own thought patterns might trip you up and employing additional tools to outsmart these potential pitfalls can help you avoid the front page.  I’m going to give you a working example in a moment, but first let me make one more point about our subconscious use of pattern heuristics for decision-making.

Now here comes the "feelings" part.  We apparently have “emotional heuristics” too.  From Roberston, et. al., 2007: "[t]he observed posterior cingulate cortex activation may reflect the dependence of moral sensitivity on access to one's emotional, cognitive and somatic experiences related to previous moral conflicts.  In other words, not only do we subconsciously (and consciously) hang onto fact patterns, but we also have emotional memory connected to these past fact patterns. If a past experience was unpleasant, we have a negative emotional response. If the past experience was positive, we would have a corresponding positive emotional response. Depending on the story, we may have associated feelings of disgust, frustration, anger, disappointment, abandonment, rejection, etc., or feelings of pleasure, pride, gratefulness, humility, excitement, success, acceptance, etc.

Researchers from the fields of neurobiology and cognitive psychology tell us that these emotional memories often propel us to snap “emotional” decisions. Thus, rather than a cool review of the facts prior to decision-making, researchers say we look around at the available facts, and pick and choose from among those facts the ones that tend to support and buttress our emotion-driven snap decision.

All this is generally (but not always) subconscious. We choose facts with which to build a defense of our emotional decision and call it a rational decision – after all, we have collected supporting facts to point to. You might most clearly recognize this tendency in the highly polarized world of politics, where each side uses facts selectively to buttress their ideological reasoning. 

I keep mentioning that these heuristic-driven decisions can sometimes be conscious - we are aware of them. When they are, that is what we call “intuition” or "gut feeling," or, for our purposes, “intuition ethics.” Our gut is telling us that something is right or wrong. When we decide to listen to our gut, and then consciously look around for facts to support that gut feeling, we bring the usually subconscious process to the surface.

This is why, when we discuss “intuition ethics,” I will always tell you, “Treat your gut feeling like you would treat pain. Pain is only a secondary symptom of an underlying (primary) disease or injury. Rather than just treating the symptom (pain), go looking for the underlying diagnosis.  Anger offers a similar parallel. When anger flares, it is a secondary symptom of something gone wrong. But rather than acting on your anger (a secondary fix), we would rather unearth the underlying trigger and try to find a permanent fix for this primary problem.  Intuition is the same. Your “gut” doesn’t have a brain. Your gut feeling is simply an emotional memory device that clues you into something deeper.  In truly important matters, do not just “go with your gut” unless you have absolutely no time to explore the underlying driver for its relevancy.  Treat your gut reaction as a warning bell, then explore the reasons that bell is ringing by using the extensive collection of ethical tools you are learning in class.

EXAMPLE: Let’s look at one case. Consider a situation where the state has determined that a north-south transportation corridor needs to be expanded, to ease traffic from the southern suburbs into downtown (north). This actually happened in Kansas City, Missouri.  Unfortunately, the proposed highway (Highway 71) would tear through parts of an established minority community, or as one of my students told me, “They cut the highway through my uncle’s vegetable garden.”

That’s personal!

Some of my students grew up in or still reside in the impacted community, while others didn’t have a stake in the highway decision one way or the other. Yet, incredibly enough, even my students who had no connection with the impacted community, and even those who use and benefit from Highway 71 (which was already built by the time we discussed it) - these students did have all sorts of (mostly negative) emotional reactions based on other experiences – sometimes their own, sometimes drawing from injustices all the way back to the American Indians being kicked off their lands!

In class, we consciously outed their emotional responses.  We worked to separate the facts of the transportation decision from their emotions.  We looked at the specific past experiences that the students drew upon when first thinking about the Highway 71 decision, and compared the two situations for similarities and differences.  In what ways is the federal taking of Indian land and sending Native Americans to reservations like and not like using the tool of eminent domain to "take," i.e. condemn and purchase, lands for the highway?   How, if at all, does understanding these distinctions change the way I feel about the proposal?

Every group I have done this exercise with ultimately condoned the transportation corridor as a beneficial thing overall - this surprised me, by the way - even those for whom the impacted community was home. The woman whose uncle’s garden was taken said, “I never would have believed it could be a good thing for the community, but it has ultimately been beneficial.”  As an aside, while I taught some students to unearth their heuristics around the highway project, a second group was carrying out an "old-style analysis."  I noticed that the group I brought into touch with their emotions spent more time than the old-style group generating ideas to mitigate additional negative community impacts.  I don't want to assume they did it because they were feeling the project impact, but I'd like to think so.

In sum, assumptions operate silently, hidden within our subconscious, or sometimes they rise to a level of urgency, emerging as a strong "gut feeling."  These memory-driven beliefs and feelings propel us to act.   It is important to identify and recognize our human tendency to operate from past patterns.  And because what motivates us is not always obvious, rational or conscious, identifying our assumptions and questioning our "gut" is good practice.  It's good to be aware of the way our minds work, and be prepared with some additional analytical tools.
Madrazo Jr, G. and L. Motz (2005). "Brain Research: Implications to Diverse Learners." Science Educator 14(1): 5
Robertson, D., J. Snarey, et al. (2007). "The Neural Processing of Moral Sensitivity to Issues of Justice and Care." Neuropsychologia 45(4): 755-766.
Intuition vs Rational Thought photo, by Martin Pyper, from http://www.behance.com/ 
Brain illustration from http://www.sixthman.net/.
Executive decision illustration from http://www.flattland.com/.
Highway 71 photo from http://www.interstate-guide.com/index.html

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