The Cognitive Biases of Hierarchy

In a recent column (“Why Networks Defeat Hierarchies,” C4SS, Aug. 12), I examined the tendency of hierarchies to suppress negative feedback on their own performance.  Paranoia over leaks and the obsessive desire to protect the leadership’s monopoly on information leads to knowledge being denied those in the organization who need it to make effective policy.  Data from below is systematically filtered to create a false image of the world at the top of the pyramid.  And the discretion that subordinates need to cope with the unexpected, against a background of information overload, is hampered by management’s need to have a finger in every pie.

Another, related problem is the cognitive biases that authority itself implants in the mind of the individual manager.

In an essay at (of all places) The Wall Street Journal (“The Power Trip,” August 14), Jonah Lehrer describes the findings of psychologists’ experiments on how power affects one’s view of the world. According to Lehrer, the experiments found that people in a position of power display behavior patterns commonly associated with damage to the portions of the cerebral cortex that govern empathy and the ability to imagine the world from others’ perspective.  Power, in other words, kills the ability even to understand that there are other perspectives than those of the hierarchy.

One part, in particular, was interesting:  after being assigned to superior and subordinate positions in a role-playing game, participants were exposed to fake cell phone ads.  Some of the ads emphasized product quality and price, while others “featured weak or nonsensical arguments.”  Interestingly, subjects who’d been role-modeling positions of authority “were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument.”  Lehrer writes:

“This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.”

So if you wonder why the MBAs at corporate seem to be literally unaware of any alternative to the Nardelli/Fiorina/”Chainsaw Al” model of downsizing everybody and giving themselves a bonus, the answer is:  they probably are.  Their own power has made them stupid.

I think part of the explanation for the outcome of the cell phone experiment might be that people in power are encultured to shut off the capacity to critically evaluate communication based on internal logic or sense, and instead to evaluate it based on how authoritative the source is. After all, if they’re not at the very top of the pyramid,  they’re expected to “buy in” to whatever comes from above and uncritically pass it along down the conveyor belt.

And applying critical thought processes to policies or other communications from management is, for ordinary workers, clear evidence that one doesn’t have his mind right. To evaluate communications from above in terms of their content, rather than simply tucking one’s head and saying “I obey,” suggests (however faintly) that the evaluator views the source of the communication as in some sense their equal or peer, and sees the communication as an attempt at persuasion by an equal rather than someone under whose authority they have been set.

In conversations with authoritarians about the stupidity of the pointy-haired bosses, I frequently encounter statements  that “they’ve been put in authority for a reason, and it’s been decided that blah blah woof woof.”  Note the passive voice.  The people in authority, and their policies, are just part of “the way things are,” embedded in the nature of the universe.  If you state it instead in the active voice (“So-and-so says to do this”), there’s the danger that someone will see the issuer of the order as a mere mortal with individual goals and desires and subjective judgment.  Then, rather than accepting “the rules” as something that’s “been decided” like tablets handed down from Mt. Sinai, they might start actually examining the motivations and judgment of their superiors, and evaluating — from the standpoint of an equal — whether they’re good or bad.

Once you start viewing as equals the people who set the speed limits for a particular stretch of highway or write the instructions on a box of mac and cheese, or who send you all those idiotic memos every day, and you evaluate their communications based on whether they make sense rather than the authority of their source, your mind is no longer right.  Once you view the makers of rules as your equals, and their rules as arguments or suggestions to be evaluated and followed based on your own judgment of their merits (If it’s not “a good idea,” I don’t CARE if it’s “the law”), you’ve established that you’re a dog with too much ancestral wolf DNA to be safe around humans.

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