Avoiding The Narrow Frame

Photo by David Beatz on Unsplash

Judge Judy is a fun show that pulls a lot of levers in our collective minds. Curious narratives, rivalry in the form of arguments from a plaintiff and defendant, human emotion, tension via uncertainty. And that’s just in the first half of a case. Initial arguments from early testimony set up a cloudy picture of what’s true until a razor sharp arbiter (Judge Judy) clarifies with her questions, draws more information out, and sets up a simple picture for all to see, a situation laid out in black-and-white terms. Once it’s all laid bare, Judge Judy holds this situation before the audience, judges it against her own supremely-confident set of common sense principles, assigns fault, and levies a verdict.

In almost every instance, this broad arc ends with what feels like justice being served. It’s surprisingly gratifying. Which is what makes it the most popular daytime show in the country.

Is the Judge ever wrong? Absolutely. And her over-dramatized manner of badgering certain people, berating them and chastising them before ever rendering a decision, is repellent. Masterpiece Theater, this is not. In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything redeeming about the show. It’s just … fun.

We Are All Judge Judy

Anyway, anyone who manages people has found themselves in a Judge Judy situation. Teachers and parents also get in these situations. As the judge (aka “the boss” or “the adult”), we sit in the middle between two people who cannot work out a problem and have to make a decision to favor one or the other’s argument. Or neither. It might not be a formal meeting where you literally sit in the middle of these two parties. Sometimes, you just hear from one aggrieved person, then the next, and you’re stuck having to decide if you should intervene.

Sometimes, especially in my initial encounters with these situations, my interventions make matters worse. Not because I intervened, but because I did so incorrectly without a full picture of things. It’s hard not to take people at face value. So my rookie mistake would be to listen carefully to what both the parties told me, weigh the evidence, and make a decision. Only to find out afterward, by some third party, that Person A had not told the full story. Or Person B had spun it a certain way, making themselves out as a victim when, in fact, they were the ones who instigated things.

After a few occasions of this, I learned to have these parties work it out among themselves wherever possible. They have to work together or live together and they know the full story. So they know how each other should make it right. If they don’t know, they should learn it themselves. Together. In the management setting, this gets to the wisdom of the great book by Roger Schwartz called Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. This is also adjacent to the more laissez-faire parenting style of Free Range Kids and, in education, the technique of discovery learning.

The point, of course, is that no one should depend on Judge Judy to solve all their problems. It’s onerous. It’s also highly unlikely to always render the best possible decision. This week’s featured book, Thinking Fast and Slow, explains why the decision isn’t always best:

Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is so important to an understanding of intuitive thinking and comes up so often in this book that I will use a cumbersome abbreviation: WYSIATI. System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.

The acronym WYSIATI stands for “What You See Is All There Is”. As it suggests, our System 1 thinking has a very hard time distinguishing the quality of information (what is true? how true is it?). System 1 also has a hard time questioning the completeness of any quantity of information. What it sees is all there is though, in fact, that information might only be the tip of the iceberg.

The character of Judge Judy, as depicted on the show, is System 1 Thinking personified. She gets information quickly and in limited quantity. After all, she hears a case in less than thirty minutes. She appears to be in a rush at all times. She doesn’t even let people finish their sentences.

What makes her far better than me is that she has a highly developed System 1 (i.e. intuition) for this kind of work. After decades of practice, she can identify what information she needs and can measure the quality of the information with great alacrity. If asked how, she’d probably say “I’ve seen it all.”

This, of course, is not true. She hasn’t seen it all. But she’s seen enough.

What Separates Experts From Novices

There is a distinction to be made in Daniel Kahneman’s line about System 1 thinking being “radically insensitive to both the quality and quality of information.” System 1 is radically insensitive. For non-experts. But for practiced experts, System 1 isn’t so radically insensitive. It is highly developed for that specific application. This explains the “thin-slicing” phenomena from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink and the fantastic insights on expert decision-making from Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power (my review of that book can be found here).

The point is that experts like Judge Judy can use their System 1 to great effect in their areas of expertise. They’ll never be perfect but they’ll be better than the rest of us. And then, when they still get something wrong, the reasons are the same as the rest of us: bad information and/or not enough information.

In those instances, our biases take over. As explained by Kahneman:

Much of the time, WYSIATI develops a coherent story close enough to reality to support reasonable action. However WYSIATI also explains a long and diverse list of biases of judgement and choice, such as: overconfidence, framing effects, and base-rate neglect — the effect of ignoring a statistical fact to suit some image of a proper idea (John is a meek and tidy soul; is he a farmer or a librarian? You’d think librarian though statistically it’s much more likely he’s a farmer).

I love the question posed here: Is John a farmer or a librarian? Kahneman is right: statistically, John should be a farmer. We often fail to think statistically in this situation though. But that’s not the biggest mistake. The biggest mistake might be feeling the need to answer the question at all. What’s worse? To give a wrong answer or no answer?

This might be the biggest lesson in the problem of the narrow frame. Someone gives you a snippet of information (John is a meek and tidy soul). Then they give you a question (Is he a farmer or librarian?). We just can’t help ourselves when we get those questions. We want to respond right away.

This habit leads us to all manner of (usually harmless) mistakes.

But there’s a third way. Rather than answer, or not answer, we can simply ask another question. So when someone offers the challenge (Is he a farmer or librarian) we can pay attention to the fact we’re only guessing at this point and we can say “I don’t know. Tell me what he wears on any given day. Slacks or jeans?”

In other words, expand the frame. Broaden the set of information. Why answer the question or render the verdict right away?

I have a feeling that Judge Judy would take that approach. And if you asked her to invest $2,000 in either Apple or Amazon, she’d probably resist the temptation to answer immediately and probe instead for more information. Because while she’s seen enough in the courtroom to know what to do rather quickly, she hasn’t spent a lot of time as a stock investor.

In closing, it’s always entertaining when we see people make quick, confident, fiery decisions. Judge Judy is a fun show. But it’s frightening to see it happen when something is on the line. Because chances are, the decision-maker looked at things through a narrow frame. And even if they’re a true expert, I get nervous about that. I’d never send my case to that particular court.