When it comes to such varied behaviors as taking advice, promoting an employee or deciding what is unethical, we are all irrational in a very predictable way.
That's the conclusion that Carnegie Mellon University researcher Francesca Gino and her colleagues have reached after doing a series of innovative experiments on how our emotions and hidden biases affect everyday decisions.
In one recent study, she found that the mood people are in strongly affects how willing they are to follow advice, and that in turn affects the accuracy of their decisions.
In another experiment, she showed that people will rely on how good someone's grades are in deciding whether to admit him to a master's degree program, even if they know that his undergraduate school had a liberal grading policy.
- Position: Visiting professor, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University
- Age: 30
- Residence: Point Breeze
- Education: Bachelor's degree in economics, University of Trento, Trento, Italy, 2001; master's in economics and management, 2002, and doctorate in economics and management, 2004, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy
- Previous positions: Postdoctoral fellow, technology and operations management, Harvard University, 2004-06; postdoctoral fellow, organizational behavior, Carnegie Mellon, 2006-07
- Professional honors: Best paper award, conflict management division of the Academy of Management, 2008
- Publications: "Production Systems: Handbook of Operations Management," book, 2002; 12 papers and chapters in professional journals and books
And in other studies, she has found people will routinely change their minds about how unethical a behavior is, depending on whether it leads to a positive or negative outcome.
Dr. Gino, a native of Italy who is a visiting professor in Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, is part of a fast-growing field that studies the way our emotions affect our behavior. The discipline goes by various names, including organizational behavior, decision sciences and behavioral economics.
Her study showing that people's moods affect whether they follow advice may seem like common sense, but in daily life, people often aren't in touch with their emotions, or don't realize that their feelings have nothing to do with the situation at hand, she said.
"So for example, I might drive to the office, I get stuck in traffic and I get angry as a result of that, and then that anger transfers over to my discussions with my colleagues or taking advice in certain conversations with others. I think people are often unaware of what they're feeling and they're often unaware of the carryover effects of emotions."
In the experiment, Dr. Gino had students estimate the weight of people based on their pictures. The students then took a break and watched one of three video clips -- a bullying scene from "My Bodyguard" designed to make them angry; a scene from "Awakenings" showing someone getting an unexpected favor from his co-workers, designed to produce positive feelings; and a neutral clip on the Great Barrier Reef from a "National Geographic" special.
After that, the students received advice on the weight estimates that, unbeknownst to them, was within 10 pounds of the actual weight. Far more people who had watched the "Awakenings" clip followed the advice than those who watched the other two segments, and as a result, their final guesses were much more accurate.
Working with Maurice Schweitzer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, she has just finished a study looking at advice and emotions from the other end of the telescope.
In that experiment, she and Dr. Schweitzer found that if the person giving advice was smiling happily, her recommendations were followed much more than if she was frowning or had a neutral expression.
"So even everyday facial expressions have a very strong influence on how much we trust a person and how much we will trust advice from this person or be willing to hire this person," she said.
One form of bias Dr. Gino has looked at is the "fundamental attribution error," in which people give extra weight to certain behaviors and ignore other factors that might affect the situation.
In the experiment on grade inflation that she did with Carnegie Mellon colleagues Don Moore, Sam Swift and Zachariah Sharek, Dr. Gino found that people acting as admissions officers would use a person's grade-point average as the main criterion for admitting him to a selective master's program, even when they knew that the applicant's undergraduate school had high average grades for everyone.
In another experiment, she had students pick who should be on their team, based on tests the other students had taken. Even though the people picking their teams knew that some students had taken an easy test and others had taken a more difficult one, they routinely chose people with the highest scores, even if they had taken the easy test.
This doesn't just play out in college laboratory settings, Dr. Gino said.
She has access to information from an international company on its promotion decisions, and it shows that people are most often promoted based on their employee evaluation scores, even if the job they were doing was much easier than someone else's.
"The people who promote you tend to just look at the number that is on your performance evaluation. They don't consider that everybody is doing well in that particular position or that others are struggling in another position."
A third area rife with unconscious biases is the ethical decisions we make.
In a forthcoming paper she did with Dr. Moore and Max Bazerman at the Harvard Business School, "See No Evil: Why We Overlook Other People's Unethical Behavior," the trio cited four basic errors that people make.
One is judging how unethical an action is based on whether it has a positive or negative outcome.
A real-world example is the current controversy over steroid and human growth hormone use by professional baseball players.
In that scandal, the public has paid almost no attention to athletes who used these substances but did not have stellar records. Instead, they have focused on stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, because many feel that their superlative performances have had a negative impact on the reputation of the sport.
Another quick example, Dr. Gino said, is the Iraq War, where far more people have criticized the Bush administration's actions since the war started to go badly than they did in the first days of seemingly easy victories.
Another lapse is one the authors call "failure to see through indirectness."
In one experiment done by Dr. Bazerman and his colleagues, they gave participants the example of a drug company that was making a specialty drug for $2.50 a pill and selling it for $3 a pill.
Some participants were then told that the company raised the price of the pills from $3 to $9 each.
Others were told the company sold the rights to the drug to a smaller firm, which raised the price to $15 a pill to "recoup costs."
The group that got the $9-per-pill example judged it as a bigger ethical violation than the group that got the $15-per-pill scenario, Dr. Gino said, because the process that produced the price increase in the second case was more indirect.
The experiment was based on a real-life case in which a Colorado company called Ovation Pharmaceuticals bought two specialty cancer drugs from Merck & Co., raised their prices more than tenfold, and then sold the drugs even as Merck continued to manufacture them.
"Why didn't Merck keep the two drugs and raise the prices itself?" the authors asked. "One possible answer is that the company wanted to avoid the headline, 'Merck increases cancer drug prices by 1,000 percent,' but was less concerned about the headline, 'Merck sells two products to Ovation.' "
The paper cites two other common miscues: "motivated blindness," in which people are unable to make an objective ethical decision if they have an interest in the outcome (think Enron's auditors) and "the slippery slope," in which people fail to blow the whistle on unethical behavior if it happens gradually.
Dr. Gino grew up in northern Italy and then went to Harvard while working on her Ph.D., where she met Dr. Bazerman, one of the pioneers of organizational behavior research.
"Suddenly, I started looking at the world with different eyes and looking at all the ways that people were not behaving in rational ways."
After postdoctoral work at Harvard, Dr. Gino came to Carnegie Mellon as a visiting professor last year. Because that appointment had a time limit, she will move next fall to become a professor at the University of North Carolina.
While she is excited about her new position, she will leave Carnegie Mellon with a twinge of regret, because "this is the mecca" for the kind of research she is doing.
She believes her field will become increasingly important as researchers compare people's actual decisions with the "rational behavior models" economists have traditionally used.
"By studying people's behavior, we can see how they depart from that optimal standard, and then try to fix the behavior if there is a good reason to do that."
Mark Roth can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1130. First Published May 5, 2008 4:00 AM