Archive for November, 2013

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Dutch Proverbs", 1559

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Dutch Proverbs”, 1559

I’ve been revisiting a book that has been on my shelf now for about 15 years (and fairly well thumbed in that time). It’s by Scott Plous and is called ‘The psychology of judgment and decision-making’.  An interesting read, covering the ways that psychologists have devised to test, experiment and hypothesise about how we perceive, think and come to decisions. It is built around practical and academic examples of the results from cognitive psychology research, so that narrows the presuppositions of its thesis, but the chapter I’ve been reviewing is about ‘behavioral traps’ in decision-making, and I thought it would be of interest to the readers of this blog.  A behavioural, or social, trap is

“a situation in which individuals or groups embark on a promising course of action that later becomes undesirable and difficult to escape from.” (Plous, 1993,  p. 241).

Speaking of behavioural traps (that is, erroneous action), Plous used Cross and Guyer’s (1980) taxonomy of ‘countertraps’, in which sometimes we avoid certain useful behaviours (sins of omission) and ‘traps’, in which sometimes we undertake potentially harmful actions (sins of commission). He then presents 5 types (these are seen as individual thinking traps, as opposed to group traps such as groupthink) which may intertwine or overlap but which have distinct origins:

  1. Time delay traps              as a trap, this would be doing something you see as positive in the short-term  but which will have negative consequences in the future. As a countertrap, this would be avoiding doing something  which in the long-term would have a positive benefit (such as, for example, going to the dentist for a check-up) because it is unpleasant in the short term. Time delay traps are often known about.
  2. Ignorance traps               Here the negative consequences of one’s actions are not known or cannot be easily predicted at the time. Plous here cites the use of DDT in the United States in the 1940s and follows the ‘unforeseen events’ that followed from this, namely the effect on the food chain of the mass use of pesticides. The premises of this behavioural trap are problematic from a systems thinking perspective (see critique below).
  3. Investment traps             Plous includes this kind of trap as an illustration of how people tend to adopt certain behaviours after investments of time or money, or other sunk costs, have already been made. You’ve just spent 10 months of your life and 90% of your budget preparing and planning to launch a brand new product with a feature that no-one else in the market has got. You hear that an unknown competitor, with a superior product that has exactly the same new feature that your product has. Do you abandon your project, or do you push on regardless? Or, let’s say that you’ve paid full price for your MBA tuition. Will you be more committed than someone else in your group who was given a 40% discount? Research, says Plous, tends to show that the higher the investment the more likely there will be commitment to action.
  4. Deterioration traps        similar to investment traps, but when what starts out as what was rewarding at first gradually becomes less and less so, sometimes with disastrous results. The example given by Plous is of heroin use, but one wonders whether the current debate around the growing use of pay-day loan companies in the UK has some common ground with this idea. Whenever we find ourselves with a kind of dependency on the chase for the original “thing”,  when the chase replaces the reward and becomes it, then we are in a deterioration trap.
  5. Collective traps            involving more than just you, a collective trap is where the “pursuit of individual self-interest results in adverse consequences for the collective” (p. 246) and has, according to Plous, been much studied.  The tragedy of the commons is perhaps the most well-known example, though another classic example given is that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I have used a variation of this, called Red-Green, with groups in workshops on occasion, though now do so only rarely because it is just so incendiary if you use it only once.

These all present us with a convenient way of slicing the world of behaviours up, and perhaps also of explaining these behaviours also. I can see the first but doubt the latter unless the thinking behind seeing the world as needing to be understood these ways is also under scrutiny.  And there is the real problem. The people who pronounce on what people do, and why, are just as prone to the same biases in their thinking, and just as laden with filters, as their subjects upon whom they experiment. So there is more work to be done, and more reason for all of you to keep an open mind.


Cross, J. G., Guyer, M. J. (1980) Social Traps, University of Michigan Press

Plous, S. (1993) The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill

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Kidney stones are the closest any man will get to experiencing the pains of bearing a child.

I have as my authority on this a female member of Oxford’s JR Hospital A & E nursing staff, so it’s not just male exaggeration.

This blog post, like the wretched stone that decided to descend in mid November, has been sitting dormant for quite a while and I am publishing it now only because:

1. the memory of writhing around in agony on the floor in the waiting area, writhing around a lot more in the treatment bay in the Accident and Emergency before and after triage and then (mercifully quickly) receiving treatment and palliative medicine – all that has by now faded to a rather pleasant sepia mental image, and yet

2. the polite and professional conduct of the staff at the hospital, and all the processes (reception, handovers, trolley rides, scans, blood tests, examinations, cups of tea and biscuits)  that dealt quickly (though the morphine helped with any sense of time passing) with diagnosis and treatment  – the fact of all this just needs to be broadcast in praise of the people at the sharp end of our health care system.

I’ve never broken a bone, never stayed a night in hospital, never really had a life-threatening illness, but I’m very glad that if any of those things happened we have an organisation, and complex and imperfect it might be, that will without question act immediately to treat me, and treat me no differently to anyone else earning more or less than I do.  So, I think Danny Boyle was quite in order to make celebration of the NHS a part of the Olympic opening ceremony. For what it’s worth, I have experienced misery of the phoney public health system of Hungary (where staff are hardly paid, and treatment is invariably bought with backhanded, back-pocket payment), and it doesn’t compare.

Mind you, I’ll also be very content never to repeat that particular need to be rushed in the back of a car to the hospital…

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