Needing the devil’s advocate

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Needing the devil’s advocate

Kang Hye-ryeon
The author is a professor of business administration at Ewha Womans University.

There is a phenomenon called the “edge effect” in the ecosystem of plants and animals. When habitats of different groups of organisms are adjacent to each other, the diversity and density of species in the border area are much higher than in the center of each habitat. Different elements of the habitats are mixed in the borderland, providing diverse food resources and environments.

But in a social ecosystem of people, the protective instinct to settle in a familiar environment is stronger than the desire to explore unfamiliar territory and discover benefits. People cannot accept other people who have different values, vices and experiences. The underlying sentiment of rejecting diversity is the unconscious cognitive bias of humans.

A human brain consciously processes 40 to 70 bits of information per second. But the brain handles as many as 11 million bits of information every moment while we are not aware. That means a tremendous filtering process is happening until we reach a certain choice or conclusion. Our brain makes a “shortcut of thinking” to make this process easier.

As this path is created based on personal processes of growing up and past experiences, it merely reconfirms the pattern in the mind even when new information is added. That’s why we are more attracted to familiar objects while feel uncomfortable toward unfamiliar objects because of this “affinity bias.”
When we judge a person, we are often confident that “I have eyes to judge.” However, from the neuropsychological perspective, people are unconsciously attracted to people who share interests, ideas and backgrounds and choose them. While you want to believe you judge objectively, the outcome actually reflects the sense of familiarity towards similar people. As the so-called “affinity bias” occurs almost unconsciously, most people can’t avoid it easily. But if a leader of an organization makes a wrong decision due to this bias, members inevitably suffer.

We need a tool to help the brain correct the cognitive bias occurring instinctively on the unconscious level. Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler proposed various forms of “nudge” 15 years ago. A “nudge” is an intervention to make people behave for the best interest while giving freedom of choice. Therefore, a “tax” without freedom of choice or a “ban” from entering a supermarket without a vaccine pass is not a nudge. A “warning” message three days before a gas bill due date about late fees or labeling fat contents on the packaging of a cheeseburger would be a nudge.

To help improve the cognitive practice that has become fixed in the decision-making process in organizations, various interventions are needed. The affinity bias of a leader would make a team of familiar and similar people, reinforcing homogeneity rather than diversity. The biggest weakness of a homogenous group is difficulties in going against a leader’s conviction or opinion.

In the decision-making process, when a senior manager believes his or her way is always right, the organization will be in jeopardy. The leader should be rescued through cognitive intervention. Here, the “devil’s advocate” is used as an intervention. The person playing this role needs to constantly counter-argue to challenge a leader’s assumptions and seek reasonable alternatives. But this is rarely successful in reality. A leader is immersed in his or her conviction emotionally, and when someone strongly opposes, the leader would consider it an attack on self, become angry and defend the argument more fiercely.

An effective method to avoid bias while not directly attacking a leader’s conviction and emotion is to set up a “red team” and “blue team.” Lately, investment genius Warren Buffett is in the spotlight. Maintaining unrivaled returns despite Covid-19 and the liquidity crisis, Buffet operates a system to rule out his biases when making major investment decisions. He calls two teams as investment advisors, listen to both arguments and rewards the advisors who proposed the final decision.

The difference between a strong leader and a weak leader is not the personality but the wisdom to seek out unfamiliar and strange things. Leaders who lead human organizations must not neglect the natural rule that the border area — where different ecosystems of the flora and fauna meet — is richer.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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