The devastating effects of opinion-based decisions - a case study

The devastating effects of opinion-based decisions

opinion-based decisions

There are two types of decisions made in organisations on a daily basis. The vast majority of decisions are opinion-based decisions even though most people think they are making evidence-based decisions.

A paper I was reading yesterday as part of some research I am conducting on learned helpless for my next book, showed a heartbreaking example of opinion-based decisions and the effects it can have.

The paper is a case study of learned helplessness in school children and cites the case of LuAnn. LuAnn was a 13 year old student in North Carolina who was displaying extreme learned helplessness in that she would not take part in sports and games as she expected not to be able to either do the sport very well or expected that her peers would deride her efforts. She was also pessimistic about her chances of success in her school work, forming relationships and just about every other area of her life.

She would give up easily often saying “I can’t do this”. Additionally LuAnn was still bedwetting and was also not ‘dry’ during the daytime, necessitating special pants… at school, which really didn’t help things.

When the researchers investigated her background and home-life found a number of issue which appeared to lead to this state. The first of which was that from an early age, if she wet the bed her mother would punish her by spanking her. Her mother believed that the bed wetting behaviour was actually attention seeking behaviour and needed to be punished in order to stop it.

From the mother’s point of view this all made sense and led to the decision to spank LuAnn for wetting the bed from an early age. In fact this decision only made the situation worse.

This is how a world view or set of beliefs lead to actions which appear to be very logical from that system of thinking. This is an example of opinion-based decision-making.

Having our own opinion and decision making…

Our opinions are based on our beliefs or perceptions of what we think is happening. How many times in your life have you suspected that someone is up to something and pretty soon the evidence starts to stack up to prove that your suspicions are right only to find later, that you were wrong? This is confirmation bias.


Our opinions are based on our beliefs or perceptions of what we think is happening


Confirmation bias


Once we have a belief about something our brains starts to actively filter for evidence that our belief is correct. A simple example of this is when we are looking to buy a car, say a Ford. We work out what model we might be interested in and start to do some research. Pretty soon you are noticing Fords of the model you are interested in almost everywhere you go! The universe hasn’t conspired to put all these Fords around you. You are now filtering for them, where you never noticed them before.

This is the issue with opinion-based decisions. The moment we make up our mind that something is a certain way our brains start to look for the evidence to confirm it. The problem is at the same time it also neatly discards any evidence to the contrary. In effect, a belief quickly becomes reality as we gather more and more evidence that the belief is true. This is the basis of prejudices like racism and sexism for example. Once the belief is in there, from our parents, peers etc. we quickly start to see the evidence to support the belief and the belief quickly becomes a reality.


Once we have a belief about something our brains starts to actively filter for evidence that our belief is correct


decision-making opinion

Opinionsdecision-making opinion


Opinion-based decisions


Opinion-based decisions are actually the majority of decisions made in organisations. They are based on the beliefs of the individuals concerned and they are based on a process that self-confirms those beliefs. Even if we are using data to back up or decisions, this is a confirmatory process. If you hear something like “The data is telling us x” then you have to wonder if this is just confirmatory bias (opinion-based decisions) or real evidence of a trend..


Evidence-based decisions


Evidence-based decisions however are of an entirely different nature. They are based on a research foundation. This is to say that they are based on testing not confirming evidence. What this means is that evidence based decisions takes the belief and then tests the opposite of the belief. So if I was to say that crime is increasing I would actually look for the evidence that crime isn’t increasing. In an organisation if I was to form the belief (based on the data) that sales are increasing I would actually turn that around and test the belief or hypothesis that sales aren’t increasing. I would look for evidence that refutes the original belief.

Research from peer reviewed sources will (should) have been put through this process. The underlying beliefs will have been tested.

…evidence-based decisions …are based on testing not confirming evidence

decision-making opinion
Why opinion-based decisions are also known as power-based decisions 


Opinion-based decisions are based on the conformation of someones beliefs. In an organisation you can probably guess who’s beliefs win. Yes the managers or the boss’s beliefs. They have the power and it carries through into which evidence is used to confirm which decisions. Opinion based decision making in organisations is frequently based on the logic and belief system of the most powerful people in the system. The managers and leaders. And it is based on their ability to back up their decisions. Rarely do these decisions come as a result of proper research. These opinion-based decisions are in effect a process of filtering for and confirming the beliefs of the most powerful in the organisation.




A 2005 study found that many leadership strategic decisions are based on, and I quote, “evidence that is ill-informed, outdated, and incorrect”.


Decision-making Hacks and Shortcuts


You could of course do your own research on everything you need to make decisions about however that is both time consuming and really slows the decision making process down.

There is a really neat shortcut though. Approximately 99% of decisions people make in organisation have been made by others in other organisations before. For example, ‘What is the best way to communicate change to people’, or ‘How should I manage someone who is constantly late’ or, ‘How do I deal with conflict the best way’, or ‘How do I get my organisation to change it’s culture?’.

Of course you could get other people’s opinion, the problem with that is that what you are likely to get is just that, an untested opinion. They might say “well this worked for me”, but did it? Have you ever noticed how almost every evaluation of a new initiative is positive, how every project is a success or the get very quietly ditched? No fanfare, no learning.

Alternatively you could search the internet. The problem there is it’s a bit like the newspapers. Almost everything you read is just someones opinion with the same problems of bias and and filtered selection of evidence to support the opinion. The internet is crammed full of rubbish and I would seriously think twice about making that the basis of any decision in my organisation.


Shortcut and hacks


Proper research


No. You need proper research. Research that has been properly tested and is not merely something that is confirming someones beliefs. You and your organisation needs to get proper research evidence and use evidence-based decision making.

However there is a problem. The biggest problem is that there billions of research papers in thousands of research journals all written in academic. In fact there are over 78,000 new research papers published around the world every month. Searching through the jungle of research papers and journals is a nightmare.

Then you have to decode the scientific language much of the academic research is written in just to work out if it is practical and useful research for your purpose and then turn it into something that is actually practical and useful.


The easy way


There is a lot of very very useful research out there that can already make many of your decisions for you, for example:

Did you know that: researchers have tracked and worked out exactly what stages of development almost every organisation and business go through (or are stuck in?). There are 6 levels of organisational development. This means we can predict with relative certainty where your organisation is right now and where it is heading… or should be. This makes change a whole lot easier.

Did you know that researchers have worked out the perfect balance for innovating in an organisation and how to manage that whilst keeping business as normal?

Did you know researchers have worked out exactly what the five types of organisational conflict are and how to manage conflict successfully in organisations?

Did you know that research just published this year has found out exactly how to succeed in getting competing and conflicting groups to cooperate? It worked with conflicting Arab and Israeli groups and it is now working in organisations.

Did you know that only 30% of new employees will increase their commitment to the organisation over the first 3 years and that the remaining 70% on average will see a significant decrease in commitment? Did you also know that the study that discovered this also found there are just 4 characteristics that make the difference between being one of the 70% whose commitment reduces and one of the 30% whose commitment increases. Not only that but the 4 factors are really easy to spot.

There is a lot of very useful research out there that can already make many of your decisions for you…

As I was saying, whilst there is all this wonderful research out there, finding it, getting access to it and then decoding it is both time consuming and takes dedication and expertise.


What if


What is there was a system that just brought the research to you with no effort on your behalf? What if it that evidence was already decoded and turned into understandable human? And what if it already filtered out the rubbish and you got only the useful, mercifully short and practical ‘how to’ briefings so that you and your organisation can just focus on making amazing decisions based on great evidence? And what if those briefings also came in the form of infographics, audio and video briefings to make sure that you are right up-to-date with the very latest evidence?

This kind of service can (and does) seriously improve decision-making and turn the success rate of projects, ideas and programmes into the region of the stratospheric.

You need the Oxford Review and now. We give you the research evidence so you can make amazing evidence-based decisions, quickly, easily and with full confidence. Join The Oxford Review and be amazed at the proper evidence there is about the daily decisions being made in your organisation. CLICK HERE TO GET STARTED for free.



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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • Mark Janssen says:

    Hi David,
    I’ve just found your Oxford Review website when I was looking for evidence either supporting or refuting the “70% of all change projects fail” claim. It contains loads of interesting stuff – and debunks the 70% myth convincingly. Thanks a lot.
    I hope I don’t offend you with a comment/question I have. Could you filter out errors such as “you can probably guess who’s beliefs win”, or “The Ambiguity Advanatage”? This and weeding out duplicate paragraphs for me would greatly enhance the readability of what you write, allowing me to focus on the content.
    Thanks and all the best,

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