12.28.2009

Why Education Isn't a Key Factor in Decision Making

What population of educated people are making poor decisions? The answer? Most of them.

The anti-vaccination community boasts that its level of education proves it is making rational decisions. That claim is solid. Solidly wrong.

We all make poor decisions but I am wondering why mothers who refuse to vaccinate their children make decisions like high school students.

I asked my students why our H1N1 vaccination rate was so low. We talked about the flu. We talked about spreading it. We talked about mortality and chances of side effects. We talked about spreading it to elderly relatives and younger siblings. What key piece of information did I miss?

After thinking about it, one of my students volunteered what he thought should have been obvious to me. Staying home sick is a plus, not a negative. He has utmost faith in his doctor to cure whatever comes. The rest of the class nodded and looked at me like I was dense (which I am) and I realized once more they are not living in my head.

When a person's heuristic fails, he or she may not realize it. Education can't help when you don't have adequate information and don't realize it. If a decision is "good enough" to give comfort, it's the one you keep.

Looking at each step in the decision and objective measures of confidence is the only real way to do it. Sometimes this takes too long which is why we satisfice. But there is no excuse when there is ample time and ample good quality advice available.

So why, in the face of advice to the contrary do people hold tight to decisions that are poor?

The controversy surrounding climate change may provide some insight into why people deliberately ignore evidence. Better yet, let me recount a sales technique that is useful to persuade people to make decisions they will hold despite evidence to the contrary.

Probing for social attitudes in a friendly manner that has nothing to do with the goal, you find a common enemy. Then all you have to do is connect the common enemy to the decision. Finally provide a way to take advantage of or injure the common enemy by persuading the person you wish to manipulate that what you want them to to is smart, cool, or acceptable.
Everybody knows that big insurance companies are out to screw you right? You have paid unreasonable premiums to them for many years, right? Then why not tell them your stolen computer was a Mac and not a lousy e-Machine?

When you talk to a climate sceptic, you will find they dislike Al Gore. It doesn't make any difference that Al Gore has nothing to do with the global warming community, you will find that he is strongly connected emotionally in the person's opinion. If you ask an anti-vaccination nutcase about pharmaceutical companies, you will find that they are one of the reasons vaccinations are bad. Because they make too much money.