Apart from some serious revelling (4,000 years ago the Babylonians partied for 11 days to see in the new year), we are now in the season of resolutions. We have the Romans to thank for naming this month after Janus, the god of beginnings, whose two faces could simultaneously look back to the previous year and forward to the future.
Decision making is the subject of two significant new books I read over the holiday period.
Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School and famous among management theorists for a jam experiment she ran in a luxury food store in Mento Park. Tables of free jam samples were set up. One offered six samples and another 24. While shoppers were more likely to stop at the table offering the wider selection, those who were faced with fewer choices were 10 times more likely to buy (30 per cent against 3 per cent). The Art of Choosing is filled with fascinating insights into behavioural psychology that help illustrate Prof Iyengar’s central premise:
“We frequently pay a mental and emotional tax for freedom of choice.”
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition is the latest book by Michael J. Mauboussin, chief investment strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management, the US private equity firm. It explores why smart people make dumb decisions and exposes classic errors in the cognitive processes behind our decision making. Mauboussin cites the example of die-throwing. Instinctively, if asked to throw a six, we apply speed and force to the throw; if asked to throw a one, we gently dribble the die across the table. This is, of course, illogical since the chance of throwing either number is equal and unaffected by speed of roll. The book is a much denser read than Prof Iyengar’s, with extensive analysis of, for example, baseball scores, but its exposure of false logic is revealing.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her talk for TED, the not-for-profit idea-sharing organisation, explores “Why we have too few women leaders” and suggests three important ways women can accelerate their career trajectories.
The first of these seems to me to provide a New Year’s resolution for all women with careers. She urges women to “sit at the table”, by which she means take your place in the game. She points out “no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the sidelines”.
In 2011, let successful women everywhere reach for promotion, negotiate a new challenge and “own your own success”.