Point of Inspiration: Beware the Brackets

The boxes labeled A and B are the same exact shade of gray...It’s March, and we’re all a little mad, of course, but it’s not the NCAA kind of brackets I mean here (although, that said, Harvard?!). The brackets I want to draw attention to are the ones we use, often without knowing, to confine our perception and judgment. These brackets can spell trouble for the creative and critical processes we rely on both in work and play. (In the instance above, we bracket the boxes labeled A and B within their immediate surroundings, and usually fail to see and believe that they are, in fact, the exact same shade of gray.) If you’re ever tasked with evaluating a number of things (pitches, positionings, creative concepts, and the like) you probably assume that you keep an open mind throughout the process and maintain a pretty even hand. Well, a recent study shows that’s probably not the case (sorry!). When researchers evaluated data on decisions made in over 9,000 business school interviews, they found that judgments were affected not so much by who came directly before, as we might expect, but on the overall strength of the entire day, which is, of course, completely irrelevant.

A lot of factors go into how we evaluate ideas and people, and many of them are external to the ideas and people themselves—that’s just life. But imagine someone is an absolute star in the making, but interviews last on a day full of qualified-to-good candidates. What happens? According to this study, our plucky up and comer will likely get scored low simply because of the mental brackets placed around that group of candidates. Interviewers, for a number of possible reasons, are reluctant to give high marks after giving several others high marks (or conversely, reverse all of the above, and a sub-par candidate could be recommended because of a number of preceding low marks). Now, replace “candidate” with anything you’re in charge of making a call on.

Often at fault in these situations is the gambler’s false belief in the law of small numbers, otherwise known as, “they can’t all be heads.” We tend to be suspicious of streaks in what we suppose to be a random series of events—we notice and question it when a coin lands head side up 15 times in a row. By the same token, if we read three strong proposals in a row, we might “correct” for our judgment and double down on the next one, which, when we see it for what it is, is a mistake in judgment.

Surely this is beginning to ring true, at least to some extent. If you’re not prepared to admit that you’ve probably misjudged some things in your professional life, let’s lower the stakes and say it’s just wine on the docket. Have you ever been to a tasting where you liked every single wine? Probably not. And yet, it’s entirely possible to like five wines in a row, without having low standards or a pathetic palette. We just assume a certain ordering of quality will emerge in any set of people, objects, or ideas.

Why should we care about this? Because many decisions we make are folded into arbitrary subsets created by the confines of a day, a meeting, or an attention span.  If we bring these brackets with us to new ideas or viewpoints, we can easily miss out on something good, or even revolutionary. This is not to say we can’t allow experience to inform decisions, but we should be open to the possibility that a streak of seemingly great ideas might really be great. In the end, some brackets are determined for us, but other times, we can, and should, expand them as broadly as possible.

Also, happy March Madness to you!