Harvard Decision Making Lab

October 14, 2009 //

By John Esterle

I had a fun “aha” moment when I was noodling around and discovered The Harvard Decision Making Lab, which was founded less than a year ago. They’re studying all kinds of interesting stuff around the science of decisions, with a particular interest in the role of emotions in decision making. And the favorite emotion to study for the Lab’s director, Jennifer Lerner, is anger. For more about her interest in this topic and her ideas about the Lab I recommend reading this introductory profile. In the meantime, here are some statements from her that popped out at me:

“We have approximately 3,000 executive education students come through each year — over and above the enrolled students. The executive ed students are often leaders of governments around the world. And many of our enrolled students will go on to lead governments or multinational corporations. In one capacity or another, they will have international influence. I get to reach people who are in a position to structure the decision environments of their governments. I cannot think of another place in the world where I could do that.”

And this,

“Anger is a more positive emotion in the States than it is in cultures that are more interdependent and collectivistic. In America, anger pervades political culture and many styles of organizational leadership. Indeed, research shows that the effects of being in power resemble the effects of being angry. So if any emotion needs to be contextually defanged, it’s anger.”

She goes on to note what her research shows is characteristic of angry deciders: “Not feeling you need more information. Underperceiving risks. Being prone to take risks. Attributing causality to individuals rather than situations. Simplistic thought.” Reading these charactersistics certainly supports her observation that anger pervades our culture!

So, what works with angry decision makers?

According to Lerner, you shift their environment; you create situations where they are more accountable to others for what they say and think. Her research supports the finding that “being accountable created the conditions by which they could consciously monitor their thinking and perceive the issues with more nuance and complexity….In other words, context matters. The environment in which a decision is made turns out to be more important than the decider.”

The themes the Harvard Lab is exploring around leadership and designing optimal decision making environments immediately brought to mind TWI grantee Mark Gerzon’s nascent Global Leadership Lab project at Mediators Foundation, which aspires to “design an environment that raises the level of awareness of leaders in order to optimize their decision-making abilitities and to apply that environment to critical global issues.” Hmmm. Perhaps they should talk.

In the meantime, if you were designing an optimal decision making environment to address complex issues or problems what would it look like?


  1. Emily on November 20, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    What a fascinating observation! It seems to me that part of the anger equation in decision-making is due to impatience, and a need to produce some kind of tactile result. There seems to be a fine balance in taking the time to really evaluate an idea without getting so caught up in the thinking and possibility as to keep any forward motion.

  2. AHR on November 28, 2009 at 12:01 am

    Dear John,

    I believe that anger in the U.S. culture is a more recent phenomenon. It is another sign that the outcome of market democracy is ultimately disjointed from the goals of public service and good governance. Leaders are less recognize for their ability to inspire, connect, etc. We award or encourage angry behaviors in leaders when we choose to recognize those who accomplishments are founded on unethical and inhumane decisions . It is a sign that a socio-economic system based solely on material results or aimed at profit causes a culture of anxious people and an existence that has little meaning besides the pursuit of material wealth and political power. In reference to the book "In Praise of Slowness," anger is also a result of a culture that imposes a concept of time that is out of sync with nature and with organic processes. The elements that defines anger is frustration, defensiveness, indignation, and MOST importantly, a deep sense of disempowerment.

  3. AHR on November 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    I was reading about the defects of groupthink as it relates to the Bay of Pigs case and found this quote to be related to our culture of anger/aggression…"doubts were entertained but never pressed, partly out of a fear of being labeled soft or undaring in the eye of their colleagues." There are so many layers of psychology that results in our tendency towards anger as an accepted, and awarded, emotion. Anger in the case of group decision making about war is regarded as masculine, effective way to communicate, and "daring". This points to the disconnect of contemporary U.S. mindset…while insurance companies have fine tuned abilities to calculate risks, government leaders (in decisions about war) employ machismo thinking in developing strategies for mass-violence. Hmmmm