Decision Biases

It was an MBA class on Leadership, discussing how cultural context shapes decisions. It would turn out to be the class that had the most profound affect on his thinking. The professor presented a scenario; a riddle actually.

‘A 50-year old man and his son were driving down the Mass. Pike when they met with a fatal accident. They were rushed to the hospital. The chief surgeon, who was the only one on duty at the time, looked at the bodies and exclaimed – “I can’t operate; he is my son.” A hospital convention prevented doctors to operate on immediate relatives.’

“What do you think is going on here?” The professor asked this culturally diverse class.

There were various answers in the room. One student submitted that the surgeon could be the biological father while the man driving was the stepfather. Another submitted that the surgeon and the father could be gay couples, and the boy would be their adopted son. Someone suggested that the surgeon was in fact the father of the 50-year old man as it was commonplace in his country for chief surgeons to be more than 75 years old.

The professor chuckled while making an observation that most ‘such’ answers came from students from western Europe and US, while students from South America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa couldn’t make much sense of the ‘situation.’ Yet, they weren’t at the answer – the Chief Surgeon was the Mother.

It was powerful reminder of decision biases in our reasoning abilities. This was a group of students that represented 11 nationalities, had average experience of 9 years, average age of 30 years, 30% women, and were professionals from the field of management to medicine to aviation to sports to education. Yet, no one predicted that the chief surgeon could be a woman. Worse, it wasn’t specific to this group. Studies after studies of such experiments have confirmed such biases. Sheryl Sandberg may have been making some valid points in ‘Lean In’ after all.


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