We Don’t Necessarily Know What We Think We Know

This weekend, I watched the movie Freakonomics (based on the bestselling book released in 2005). One particular segment in the film made me realize how often we ask the wrong questions based on our assumptions. We often assume that when something good or bad happens in a project, it is the result of an action we took directly related to the project at hand. When we have success, we ask what did “we do” that created this positive response. We never ask what outside factors could have contributed to the success. We focus on action and consequence, but often measure based on correlations and assumptions.

For example, the movie illustrated this fact through the phenomenon of crime rates dropping in the early 90′s. The astoundingly high crime rate prior to 1992 led to many new initiatives to “get tough” on crime including innovative police strategies, tougher penalties for convictions, the “Three-Strike Law”, etc. When crime rates began to decline in 1992, everyone wanted to claim the success was due to their efforts. The police wanted credit for their innovative strategies, while the judicial system believed they had greater impact via the Three Strike Law and tougher sentences on violent offenders.

However, when researchers took a hard look at the statistics, they looked at the situation more broadly. Is it possible the crime rate dropped for some reason OTHER than the direct actions intended to reduce crime? In other words, could there be a silent 3rd player in

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the crime drop phenomenon.

The researchers found a very interesting (and very controversial) possibility. Crime rates began to decline in 1992 and dropped sharply by 1995. Interestingly, 18 years before that a major law was passed that was seemingly unrelated to crime. In 1973, abortion was legalized. What could that possible have to do with crime? Well, a child born between in1973 and 1976 would be 18-24 years old between 1992-1995, and 18-24 year old males are the most likely to commit crimes.

The researchers theorized that once abortion was legalized in 1973, this resulted in a decreased number of “unwanted” children. Children who may have grown up in poverty, a single parent home, without an attentive parent, etc- all of which are highly correlated with future criminal activity. In essence, an unexpected phenomenon from the legalization of abortion was a decrease in unwanted children who would have been at the peak of their potential crime-committing years between 1992-1995.

Again, this theory is highly controversial, and even by the researcher’s own admission, this research should not enter into whether abortion should or should not be legal.

However, it should remind us all that sometimes we make assumptions about how or why something is happening and are likely to believe that changes in performance are based on our actions. It is important to recognize that assumption may be wrong, and we should remain open to the possibility that some unknown, outside factor is creating the changes we see.

What is your take? Have you seen a similar example in your business?

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Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. She is the chief blogger for Critical Thinkers and occasionally posts at ThinkWatson. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.

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