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Don't "Narrow Bracket" Your Way Into Bad Decisions

(file photo)

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Deciding things is hard. It’s draining. It also can mess with your mind without you realizing it, according to a new study from Uri Simonsohn (of Wharton) and Francesca Gino (of Harvard Business School) after examining 10 years of MBA admissions.

Basically, what happens is after making important decisions, like when interviewing candidates all day, humans engage in what’s called “narrow bracketing.” Cognitive Scientist Art Markman breaks down the study’s findings in Psychology Today

It seems that interviewers like to have each day’s ratings balance out. When an interviewer sees 3 or 4 good candidates in a row, they become concerned that they are giving too many high ratings. So, if another good candidate comes walking through the door, they get a lower rating just so that the ratings for the day are not uniformly high.

It stinks, but we know it’s true. I was holding auditions all weekend for a new web series, Bike Gang, I’m doing with my friend Ceda, and although I hadn’t read this study yet I did my best to guard against it. We were having some people send in video submissions who couldn’t make the in-person auditions.

We’d sit down and discuss who we thought we’d like to see again, who we’d like to pocket for other projects and who we’d like to let down gently. At some point I realized: “Hey, we don’t have all of our best people yet, necessarily.”

It’s a sort of mental game of chicken we do: We’re sick of thinking so hard about a single decision (much less nine or 10 of them), so you just say, “Eh, sure. We’re good enough.” But “good enough” is a compromise that can backfire. At the same time, you’re also aware you can think yourself to death, so you just sort of tell yourself you’re making the best decision you possibly can, even if you know you aren’t.

All of this translates into being on the other end of the table: You can use this natural bias to your favor by simply signing up for the first possible availability and making as great an impression as you can. You’ll know people will be fatigued by the end of the day you’ll still stand out.

Sad but true. Read the full study here.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as IFC’s comedy, film, and TV blogger, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City and an adjunct professor in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. (He also co-runs a blog behind the DePaul class, DIY Game Dev.) He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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