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Sandy Says: When Smart Employees Make Stupid Choices

Sandy Says: When Smart Employees Make Stupid Choices

Are we hardwired to make poor choices? At least one researcher says, "yes."

For the second year in a row, our "Idiots on Ladders" photo gallery has garnered more page views than anything else on This year, it also resulted in a number of people taking offense at the use of the term "idiot" to describe the risk-takers in the photos.

We were accused of blaming the workers who found themselves in unsafe situations, when, claimed commenters, the fault is with a lack of training, lack of supervision, management’s emphasis on working quickly but not safely, etc.

My knee-jerk reaction to these comments was a) What has happened to everyone’s sense of humor? And b) Sometimes workers make bad choices and I don’t see why I should apologize for pointing that out.

Upon discussion and reflection, this is what I think: I think it is naive to believe that all of the workers in the photo gallery were untrained in hazards or are poorly trained or, even, unaware of the danger in which they were placing themselves.

We’ve all done it: Climbed on a chair rather than made a trip out to the garage to grab a ladder; scrubbed a toilet using caustic chemicals without wearing safety goggles; painted something without double-checking ventilation; allowed ourselves to be distracted while driving; didn’t wear hearing protection while operating a lawn mower or weed wacker.

I contend that if you showed any of the workers in that photo gallery his photo and said, "Was that a smart thing to do?" he would call himself an idiot and agree that the photo captured one of the dumber decisions of his life.

Steve Minter, executive editor of our sister publication IndustryWeek, recently interviewed author Bob Nease, PhD, and suggested I take a look at his new book, "The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results."

Nease spearheaded efforts that applied behavioral science to optimize the healthcare experience for patients. One focus of his research was determining why patients don’t take their prescribed medication. "Some of us thought it was an education issue, that patients just didn’t understand how important taking their medications was. Others were sure it was a cost problem; that the copayments were just too high and patients couldn’t afford to take their medications every day... We learned that 69 percent of the problem was due to forgetting or procrastination – inattention and inertia," says Nease.

He contends in his new book that there is a divide between what he calls the "good intentions" we have to do the right thing when it comes to the choices we make and "our often faulty day-to-day decisions."

According to Nease, our brains can process 10 million bits of information a second, but our conscious brains can only process about 50 bits a second. Why the disparity?

Our ancient environment wired us for quick, instinctual reactions to a dangerous world.

But 100,000 years later, we’re left with brains that Nease says are "stuck in the past." As a result, we are hardwired to behave in ways that may seem to contradict what is best for us.

Our inattention to much of what happens around us "creates a gap between what we want to do if we were to stop and think about it and what we actually do," says Nease. "This represents a fundamental shift – bad behaviors stem from good intentions that lay dormant, not bad intentions that are acted upon."

Again and again, says Nease, we act without thinking and then have to deal with the fallout from poor choices. The impulse to make those quick, poor decisions cannot be trained or punished away.  

Nease suggests seven strategies to help overcome our default impulses: Require employees to stop and deliberately choose among options; lock in good intentions by allowing people to make decisions today that will lead to better behaviors in the future; let it ride by setting the default to the desired option and allowing employees to opt out; get in the flow by going to where people’s attention is likely to be; reframe the choices by setting the framework that people use to think about and react to options; piggyback the desired choice or behavior to something that already is attractive; and simplify wise choices by making them easy but create hesitation when a less optimal choice is likely.

"Once we understand that there is a gap between intention and behavior, we stop focusing on changing people’s intentions – trying to educate them or persuade them – and start looking at strategies to activate the good intentions most of them already have," Nease contends.

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