Leadership, good decisions and ‘Motivated Numeracy’- or why the US gun control argument won’t be won with data

New research shows that emotional and political attachment can skew our perception of data to such an extent that we deliberately choose the wrong answer. This can make it difficult for a leader to make an unbiased decision, but it’s not impossible, as Iain Robertson, Senior Consultant at IDG, explains.

Sadly once again last week we have read of yet another mass shooting in the US – the 353rd of the year to date. Once again, both sides of the gun debate have sprung into action, with calls for restricting access to weapons on one side matched by suggestions that more guns (or more concealed guns) might have prevented or lessened the tragedy.

This situation is one where both sides believe that they have the answer – and neither is willing to back down or compromise. Making a decision on how to navigate and solve loaded questions like this, is one which leaders face on a regular basis. The challenge is how to make the decision without letting individual bias or preconception get in the way.

Most leaders, when confronted by this sort of challenging decision, will instinctively look for data. They will search for the most relevant, most up-to-date information and use to inform the choice they make. Unfortunately, research is increasingly showing that our ability to interpret even relatively basic data is significantly impacted by what some researchers (Kahan et al, 2013) are calling ‘Motivated Numeracy’.

Motivated Numeracy suggests that we are motivated to use the evidence and data relevant to an issue in ways that connect to and support the beliefs that “predominate in [our] particular groups” rather than to arrive at a position that is best supported by that evidence. In other words, where the data is not in line with our existing worldview we become much less good at interpreting it accurately.

Kahan and his colleagues showed clear evidence of Motivated Numeracy using an experiment where subjects had to determine the outcome of a particular scientific experiment. Where this had no link to political or group beliefs (it concerned the effectiveness of a new skin rash treatment) their ability to interpret the evidence was highly correlated with their numeracy. This makes sense – the more numerate we are, the better we are at understanding and interpreting data. So far so good for making evidence-based decisions.

Unfortunately, when the data were changed to a hypothetical experiment concerning a gun control ban, this correlation disappeared. For both sides of the political spectrum, people were much less likely to correctly interpret data that was not in line with their – or their group’s – pre-existing worldview.

Even the most numerate were approximately twice as likely to correctly interpret data that supported their worldview. Rather depressingly, therefore, it seems that even those of us who are good at analysing data are not good at recognising when the data contradicts something we already believe…

What does all of this mean for leaders making decisions? Two courses of action suggest themselves. First, use the diversity of your team to help you. If their conclusions differ from yours it may just be that they have interpreted the data correctly and you are falling prey to the biases of your pre-existing worldview. This approach is clearly more effective the more diverse the team – another good reason for creating diverse and inclusive leadership teams.

Second, if at all possible, blind the data. Empower those of your team who are responsible for gathering the information to “flip” the outcomes without telling you beforehand. If you find the “flipped” data more persuasive than the real data, perhaps you weren’t interpreting it as well as you might have been.

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