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GBSN Fellow: The US Presidential Election – A Lesson in Evidence-Based Judgement & Decision Making

GBSN Member, The Open University Business School is hosting four faculty fellowships from Lagos Business School. The fellows are Ogechi Adeola, Yetunde Anibaba, Nubi Achebo and Obinna Muogboh. The four of them are staying with at the university for 6 weeks during November and December of 2016. This is the second guest blog from fellow Yetunde Anibaba.

anibaba-yetundeYetunde Anibaba (PhD) is a management educator and organizational development professional. She teaches Analysis of Business Problems (ABP) and decision-making on full-time and Executive MBA, as well as other senior executive education programmes at Lagos Business School.

She has designed and taught on several highly-rated, short-focused seminars and custom executive programmes in the School, including the yearly Problem Solving and Decision Making for Executives and Driving Digital Revolution.

Prior to joining the LBS, she occupied several positions in the Information Technology sector, with progressive experience in the areas of ICT and Human Resource Management.

Yetunde holds a BSc & MSc Degrees in Sociology, MILD as well as a PhD in Management (Organizational Behaviour). She is an alumna of the University of Lagos, LBS, IESE Business School and the Wharton School, and provides advisory services to a number of organisations. She is also a member of the Humanistic Management Network (HuMaNet) and is an ad-hoc reviewer for conferences such as the Academy of Management and the Southern Management Academy.

The US Presidential Election – A Lesson in Evidence-Based Judgement & Decision Making

By: Yetunde Anibaba

Within the first week of our arrival at the Open University Business School for the International Fellowship for Online Education, the world was agog with news around the upcoming US presidential election. The 2016 election has now come and gone, but lessons remain from what is perhaps the most dramatic upset in recent political history! After all, hindsight is 20/20. I am particularly fascinated by the fact that the results astounded many observers including Trump campaign staffers as reported by many news networks, and I wondered why.

Prior to the elections, most commentators had predicted a Clinton win in the region of 70 – 99% probability, perhaps with the known exception of the LA times and Prof. Allan Lichtman who has called the American presidential elections correctly for over 30 years. Up until the eve of the elections, an average of all major polls suggested that Hillary Clinton was ahead by 3.2 percentage points; Newsweek magazine had gone ahead to print its special commemorative edition, headlined ‘Madam President’, set to be released on announcement of Hillary Clinton as first female president of the United States. In a kind of self-fulfilling-prophecy-gone-awry, the first few results did confirm the polls….until they didn’t any longer. To the consternation of perhaps half of voting America and the utter surprise of the other half and the rest of the world, Donald Trump is on his way to becoming the 45th president of the United States of America. Why did the world expect Hillary Clinton to win? Why was the half of America that gave Trump the presidency not ‘seen’ through the eyes of the polls?

If you really want to believe something, you will find a reason to: Known in psychology as ‘confirmation bias,’ we tend to seek out information that confirms our preconceived views and preferences, and stick to it. One of the questions I asked myself as I listened to news stories and interviews of supporters of the candidates was whether stories of the shenanigans of both candidates had any impact on the decision to vote one candidate or the other. That is, how did the electorate evaluate the varied information they received from the news media? From Trump’s Access Hollywood stories to tax evasion and racist remarks, from ‘WikiLeaks leaks,’ to questionable Clinton Foundation funds, and Hillary’s email controversy, the stories did not stop breaking in the last few weeks to the elections. It was fascinating to hear supporters on both sides defend their preferred candidate passionately regardless of the ‘facts’. The media drove the provision and presentation of information, and whether liberal or conservative, they had their dedicated audience and neither was talking to the other.

Lesson 1: If you really want to believe something that is what you should question the most.

Emotions trump logic in decision making, especially when there is information asymmetry. Even though Clinton ran based on her qualifications and experience in government, ‘rural’ America only saw someone that would disrupt their way of life further by perpetuating an establishment they had come to distrust and dread. Incidentally, the ‘progressives’ – Clinton supporters – also saw in Trump a threat to their way of life and their conception of the America they wanted to live in. Both parties voted in opposition to their greatest fears. The famous research by Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggests that emotional processes guide/bias decision making. This may even be more evident when there is more information than the brain can readily process, or the available information is obscure.

Lesson 2: While emotions are necessary for decision making, they can often be the Achilles heel of the decision.

Data is only as useful as its robustness and the meaning you make out of it. It is again fascinating that for the most part, the major polls consistently predicted a Clinton win. It is also obvious by the advance celebration by ‘Clintonians’ around the world that the polls had become a crystal ball of sorts, by which we could confidently predict the outcome of the American elections. This naturally begs the question, how come Trump won? While some observers have sworn never to believe data again, others are beginning to admit to the weaknesses inherent in the polling system amidst the evidence that behavioural considerations were not sufficiently captured. Perhaps the more fundamental of these, is that the polls failed to capture the so-called rural America who had been as it were, socially excluded by the popular liberal media and were traditionally less likely to respond to polling, but supported the Trump candidacy in droves. The following excerpt from a viral video by a Clinton supporter is telling:

“My parents live in rural Indiana, they live in a town that is mostly conservative, they talk to other conservatives on a regular basis, everybody watches Fox News, they share the same memes on the internet…I said all of these to my mum (why she should not vote Trump) and I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. She’s so concerned about the economy and jobs, she’s willing to let everything else go ….and she doesn’t believe that someone like Hillary Clinton can help. I think that a lot of liberals and a lot of progressives see Trump supporters as these ignorant, hateful people, who don’t know what they are doing, don’t know who they are voting for, have no idea what’s going on in the world. And I think that this holier-than-thou kind of perspective that we offer to them, it shuts them out….because we don’t understand where they are coming from.”

Lesson 3: Data is only as reliable as its representativeness – data analysis for decision making is both an art and a science.

While this is by no means an exhaustive analysis of why Trump won and why Clinton lost, it does bring to fore important lessons in decision making, particularly how easy it is to get blindsided when data is either incomplete, or misconstrued as evidence upon which judgement can be made.

Speaking of evidence, I have been quite amazed at the intensity of the OUBS evidence-based approach to learning design and curriculum management. From modules and courses developed based on extensive research into what is relevant and important, to the use of development testers (archetype students) in order to ensure an optimal user learning experience, the OUBS takes its mission of providing first-class business education to people across a broad spectrum very seriously. Over the last few weeks that my colleagues and I have been on the Fellowship, it has been our privilege to get a close look at the extensive operations that define and support the OUBS in the fulfilment of its mission over the last three- plus decades. We look forward to maximizing the learning for the benefit of the Lagos Business School and her audience.