Professor Joe Goldblatt
We appear to be immersed in a deep, dark time of what appears to be exemplified by universal misjudgement. The daily news media is filled with examples of a Prime Minister, a Tennis Player and a Prince showing bad judgement to their detriment and to the embarrassment and collective shame of those who surround them.
Charlie Munger is the billionaire vice president of Berkshire Hathaway, the company founded by Warren Buffet, who is one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Munger coined the term “Lollapalooza effect” during his “The Psychology of Misjudgement” talk at Harvard University when he discribed the biases humans are subject to. According to Munger human bias means that normal people will be highly likely to succumb to the multiple irrational tendencies acting in the same direction.
In the case of Mr Djokovic, his bias against his personal use of the vaccine to protect others and his bias to compete at all costs perhaps led to his misjudgement regarding entering Australia without approval of the national government. In the case of Mr Johnson, the attendance at a party, even for twenty – five minutes, during a time when such attendance was forbidden was perhaps motivated by his need to be seen as popular and his moral compass erring on the side of needing instant gratification regardless of the damage done to others. And then there is a Prince who while vehemtly protesting innocence in terms of having sex with a minor was nonetheless keeping company with a man of great wealth with absolutely no moral scruples as proven by a U.S. court. Perhaps the Prince’s motivation was the multiple bias of seeking new business contacts for his country whilst simultaneously ignoring the evil source of that fountain of poisonous lucre.
The concept of the psychology of misjudgement is one that every human being is perhaps most capable of understanding through examples within their own lives. In my case, when I was a teenager and desperately wanting to be popular among my peers, a leader at our local leisure centre asked me if I wanted a part time job running the front desk at the local swimming pool. I readily accepted this post which allowed me to sit upon a high stool upon an even higher platform and give change to my peers to use for their locker payment or to purchase a sweetie from the local vending machine.
One day, not too long after I had assumed my post, one of the neighbourhood football heroes, who was far more popular than me, asked me if I would loan him 50 U.S. cents and he promised to return it to the cigar box the next day. I felt pressured and reached into the cigar box containing the several dollars of loose change and handed him his treasure. I then repeated this distribution of small amounts of cash several more times because once you are caught in the web of misjudgement it becomes easier and easier to spin new mistakes.
After returning home from my morning shift, my father telephoned one afternoon and said that he was coming home immediately and he would speak with me upon his arrival. Papa walked in the front door and said “The man at the leisure centre says you have been stealing money from them. You and I are going to meet with him now and get to the bottom of this.”
In my U.S. city, it would have been customary to have used the car to drive even the short two mile distance up hill, however, Papa wanted to demonstrate how serious this was and therefore we walked all the way to the leisure centre and along the way and while panting I explained how I happened to distribute cash for the honours and favours to my peers. Upon arrival at the leisure centre, Papa told the manager that I would now explain my side of the story and fighting back tears of shame, I told him that I had made a terrible mistake.
Papa then told the manager that I had something else to say. I knew immediately that I must immediately apologise, promise to never do this again and repay the debt. And that is exactly what I did. The manager then told me that he appreciated and accepted my apology and that the matter was closed.
My father did not see it that way. He told the manager in a stern voice “Joe made a mistake. He is not a thief. You were wrong to accuse him of stealing without further evidence and hearing his side of the story.” Then Papa took my hand and we walked the two miles back to my home while Papa explained that I would be doing extra work at his hardware store to earn the money to repay the leisure centre and my repayment would include interest and a donation to demonstrate my remorse. He also explained he was a member of the board of the leisure centre and my behaviour had deeply embarrassed him. He did not need to tell me this. I knew.
One of the major differences between the country that adopted me, Scotland, and my home country of the United States is the art of apology. Within the United States culture of confidence it is difficult for powerful and even ordinary people to apologise. Whereas in Scotland, many of the speakers at local events begin their talks by even apologising about the weather! We apologise easily and sincerely in Scotia and it is something I respect greatly about the Scottish people. It is a quality that our First Minister has been praised for even by her opposition.
We also apologise ‘unreservedly’ which I have done many times with family, friends, and business associates to demonstrate that my apology is not only sincere but it is also without qualification. Therefore, I believe that the psychology of misjudgement that Munger and others have studied may be something that needs to be better understood by not only players, prime ministers and princes, but indeed by all of us.
One of the founding fathers of the United States, Dr Benjamin Franklin, the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” wrote “If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason.” Munger, many years after his original speech at Harvard posited that one must never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives. All of us are subject to bias and we must avoid bias to avoid misjudgement in the future.
It is my hope that future generations will learn from the current lollapalooza of misjudgement all around us and seek new ways to avoid bias in order to make better judgements that may be celebrated rather than shamed by others. The lesson my father taught me about contrition and courage to confront our mistakes during that long and hot up hill walk is one that some of today’s players, prime ministers and princes would benefit from learning and demonstrating to better influence future generations.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot