Think about this for a minute. A toy company finds out the products it is selling, manufactured by another firm in another country, contains lead, which can be extremely hazardous to children. The toy company had failed to test for lead in the product, since testing is expensive and is not required by government law. It continues to sell the toys.
Is this unethical? Give it a rating on a scale of 1-7.
Here’s another one to ponder. A government agency in a developing country finds itself dealing with a natural disaster in which several thousand peasants have been made homeless during the winter. It must decide what sort of short-term housing it will provide for the refugees.
The inexpensive option is tents, which will probably be fine, given the mildness of the local winters — overnight temperatures only fall below freezing every four years or so, on average. The more expensive option is to put up temporary shacks that would provide more shelter against the cold. But the shacks would be more expensive and would force the agency to cut funding to other (less urgent) programs. In the end, the agency decides to provide only tents for the refugees.
Is this decision unethical? Give it a rating on a scale of 1-7.
These and other scenarios were presented to participants in a Harvard study. What was the biggest factor influencing their judgements? The outcome. With the toy company, for example, some participants were told that six children died, others were told no one was injured. And with the refugee situation, some were told the winter turned out to be much colder than expected, resulting in 50 children dying from exposure; others were told the winter turned out to be mild and the tents provided sufficient shelter.
That is, the same decisions attracted much more condemnation when they happened to produce bad rather than good outcomes, even if the outcomes were determined by luck.
People ‘judge behaviors as less ethical, more blameworthy, and punish them more harshly’ when behaviours led to bad rather than good outcomes, the study noted. Indeed, it found this to be the case even if people saw those behaviours as acceptable before they knew the eventual outcome.
This is known as outcome bias – essentially, when you judge a decision by its outcome. Countless other studies have found that as humans, we’re prone to thinking this way.
For example, a 1988 study asked people to consider a situation where a doctor recommended a heart bypass operation. Participants were much more critical of the decision if told the patient subsequently died than when told the patient lived – despite the fact the benefits and risks were the same in each case.
Another study found a footballer's overall performance was judged to be much better if he had a lucky goal rather than an unlucky miss.
All of us should be aware of this tendency. Sometimes, you can get away with bad decisions – for example, a drunk driver not crashing on their way back from the pub – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad decision. Similarly, you can be unlucky; good decisions can lead to unforeseen outcomes.
‘Sometimes bad things happen when good people are unlucky, and sometimes scoundrels get away clean’, the Harvard study notes. ‘Judging decisions based on their outcomes will wind up condemning too many unlucky people and acquitting too many scoundrels’.
Simply being aware of this bias can help you correct it. In the Harvard study, participants overcame this bias when they were asked to make their judgments from a rational, objective perspective, as opposed to relying on intuition and gut feeling.
And all of us should try and correct this way of thinking. Outcome bias can lead to bad decisions in everyday life. It can also lead to unnecessary regret and rumination, to people thinking they should not have done XYZ when they actually made a perfectly good decision.
Instead, aim to think like a scientist and resist the appeal of snap judgments. Doing so will help you become a better, calmer thinker. You will find you are less prone to unnecessarily harsh and judgmental criticisms – both of others and of yourself.