Julia Minson on Decision Making

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on November 6, 2013

Different decision making strategies can reap far different results for stakeholders, and understanding the hows and whys of the dynamics at play is a major focus of research by Assistant Professor Julia Minson. Minson is a social psychologist with research interests in group judgment and decision making, negotiations, and social influence. Her primary line of research addresses psychological biases that prevent managers, consumers, and policy-makers from gaining maximum value from collaboration.

Q: What has inspired you to pursue this line of research?

Minson:
Well, most of the time, when we make important decisions, we make them with other people, right? Very few people sit in a box and think about something that really matters to them and then go forward with a fully formed decision. We have a really strong set of beliefs that talking to others and getting their input improves our decision making. So, in organizations, in our consumer lives, in the way we run our government, we often do things with others because we believe that that’s the right way to optimize our decision making. And if that’s the case, if that’s how we go about doing things, then it’s really important that we get the maximum benefit out of it. It’s not totally obvious that always making decisions with other people is helpful, and it’s important to figure out the conditions and the processes that make collaborative decision making more useful. And I am particularly very interested in the psychological biases that stand in the way of that – what is it about people that might make them less able to collaborate effectively, and what can we do to help them through that?

Q: Does this work have any relation to previous research surrounding so-called "group think"?

Minson:
Group-think is an idea that had a tremendous impact on the way we regard people’s behavior in groups. The interesting thing about group-think is that it’s an idea that’s based on accounts of very intelligent people who ought to perform very well in groups, but in reality, reach disastrous decisions. My training is in experimental social psychology, and so what that means is that we can take some of these big ideas, like group-think, and actually test them in the lab to see which pieces of that kind of behavior really matter.

What we can do with the laboratory method is to try to isolate and examine the components that are really, truly bad for group decision making. My research is related to that body of work because it deals with how people make decisions in groups and how different features of groups, and different features of the situation they’re working in, impact the outcomes. But we try to give it more precision by using an experimental method.

Q: One of your recent papers examined the impact of eye contact on persuasion and what you discovered seems to defy conventional wisdom. Can you tell us about that research?

Minson:
Certainly. The conventional wisdom on eye contact is that it’s a good thing. We have a tremendous amount of cultural belief in the value of eye contact for persuasion. This goes as far back as the Greek myth of the Medusa. The idea is that eye contact gives somebody influence over you. If you look at early 20th century theories of hypnosis, the kind of stuff that you would see in pop culture and in horror movies, the assertion is that if you make eye contact with a hypnotist, the hypnotist will be able to control your behavior. Both of these are examples of negative influence through eye contact, but the theme is that if you’re looking at an individual, you have a greater chance of persuading them to your point of view.

Until very recently, however, there has not been the technology to test those beliefs. Now we have a technology called eye tracking, which is a tool that allows you to see exactly where a person is looking. My collaborators and I use this technology to very precisely measure the amount of eye contact that happens in persuasive situations. What we were surprised to find is the opposite of the lay belief.

We found that when people make a lot of eye contact, they actually come away less persuaded than when they make less eye contact. We ran two studies. In one case, we had study participants listen to a persuasive speech on a controversial policy issue, and we used the eye tracker to keep track of where they were looking. We saw that in cases when participants made more eye contact with the speaker they ended up less persuaded than the cases in which participants made less eye contact.

During the second experiment, we instructed some participants to look into the eyes of the speaker and we instructed other participants to look at the mouth of the speaker. In natural conversation people go back and forth between looking at the eyes and the mouth of the person with whom they are interacting and then they spend a little bit of time letting their eyes wander. So, the eyes and the mouth are the two natural places that people look. What we found was that people who were explicitly instructed to look at the eyes were actually less persuaded by the speeches than were those people who had been instructed to look at the mouth. This finding goes against the conventional belief that eye contact is good for persuasion.

This is not to say that eye contact is bad for everything. There are many contexts in which eye contact is very helpful, and we theorize in the paper that the real difference is that when you are in a persuasive context, that context arises from some disagreement. There’s no point persuading a person who already agrees with you. When people are talking about important policy issues, ones on which they disagree, the interaction is already somewhat adversarial. In that kind of adversarial context, eye contact may feel threatening, or like an attempt at domination, and that may be the reason why people who experience eye contact essentially shut themselves down and make a greater effort to not be persuaded than are those people who receive the information while looking at the speaker’s mouth.

Q: So, would your advice to a political candidate be to not look at the voters in the eyes?

Minson:
I think the case of political candidates is particularly interesting because it really depends on who your audience is. If you’re speaking, for example, at a rally of your own supporters, that’s not a problem. The problem is persuading people who disagree with you. The other important caveat is that, in our study we controlled where the listener looked, but in an actual political context, listeners don’t have to look the candidate in the eye. The listeners can look wherever they want to. So in translating this research into practice, I think the most important thing to remember is that when you’re in a face-to-face interaction, and you’re trying to be persuasive, I would strongly warn against trying to compel the listener to make eye contact. If you’re on TV, you can’t really force the listener to make eye contact, and so that’s fine. But if you’re face-to-face with someone and you’re trying to be persuasive, you may be better off allowing the other person to look wherever it is he or she wants to look when you’re making your point.

Q: Does this research have applications in a negotiating scenario?

Minson:
There are some very important applications of this work to negotiations. Most of the time when you’re negotiating, there is some disagreement that needs addressing, and during a face-to-face interaction, it’s tempting to lean across the table and try to catch your counterpart’s eye. However, based on our findings, that’s a counterproductive behavior. It may make the other person feel intimidated; it might make them feel threatened. So while you might benefit from the psychological feeling of establishing dominance, that’s very different than actually making them change their mind. So if your goal is to change minds, to make the others at the table see your point of view, then forcing eye contact may prove to be counterproductive.

Q: Why is research around decision making and the dynamics at play significant for public policymakers?

Minson:
I believe that research around decision making is extremely important for policymakers, and it’s important for two reasons: One is, policymakers are people, and they are people who strive to make the best decisions that they can in order to accomplish their policy goals. And, so, to the extent that we can better understand how decision making works, and the contexts and processes that lead to better decisions versus worse decisions, we can help policymakers be better at their jobs.

The second reason is that when we make policy, we are essentially trying to create a situation for people based on a set of assumptions. We are postulating that if we have this kind of policy, then people will behave in this particular way, and this will result in particular outcomes that we want to enable. And it’s very important to understand and to be absolutely sure that those assumptions are true. I think that’s where decision science can really help. We can help policymakers be confident in the fact that when they write policy based on certain assumptions about human nature and human behavior, and the way people will act in a particular context, that people will actually behave in those ways – people will react to policy in the ways we expect them to, and not in the opposite way.

Ascertaining these things through the scientific method and in the lab seems to me very important and helpful because the alternative is doing it through trial and error. In that case you end up in situations where you enact a policy that affects millions of people, and then those millions of people end up doing something unintended.

Q: Your research on eye contact exposed some misconceptions. In this larger area of decision making for policymakers, have you come across some big misconceptions that people in general have about leaders and decision making?

Minson:
On the particular topic of leadership, one of the things that I have been thinking about recently is the role of advice, and the role of collaboration in leadership decision making. We still have this cultural perception of the leader as the lone cowboy, as an individual who has a strong mandate, who is very individualistic – the independent decision maker who forges ahead, and that other people feel compelled to follow. Whereas, what we know from research is that decisions are better if you make them with other people, assuming that you go about it correctly. Consulting others and making decisions jointly does, in fact, lead to more accurate judgments and more effective decisions.

I think there’s a real tension between the way one would go about decision making if you were trying to maximize the quality of your decisions, and the way one would go about decision making if one is trying to appear like the kind of leader that people expect to see. I think one of the big challenges is getting the word out there that good leadership decision making doesn’t have to be individualistic – it doesn’t have to be against the grain of popular opinion. Leaders can be great leaders when they’re inclusive and consultative, and really take advantage of the resources that are around them.

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