Monday, March 28, 2005

Predicting human behavior

Here we of my favorite topics, trying to predict human behavior. As a manager I wrestled with this challenge for thirty-five plus years and never got very far. I was disappointed as often as surprised by how often my expectations of new employees turned out to be not only wrong, but way wrong. I recall instances of people who had all the right stuff - experience, good attitude, intelligence in just the right amount, physical ability and a good record - who were nothing but a disappointment. In contrast there were people who I was forced to hire and retain for one reason only: we were in trouble for a "body", someone who could pass the mirror test (hold a mirror under their nose and hire them if it coulds up)...the only thing separating that person from the street was that no one else was available to do the job - and in more than a few cases some turned out to be among the most valuable and dedicated members of my team. Go figure.

Here is an interesting little essay from Kuro5hin describing the Big Five, the five important variables used by industrial phychologists in an attempt to predict by testing how well job applicants can be expected to perform in a job.

The story begins with Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert, who hypothesized [in 1936] that

Those individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people's lives will eventually become encoded into their language; the more important such a difference, the more likely is it to become expressed as a single word.

This has become known as the "Lexical Hypothesis."

What Allport and Odbert did, though, was to go through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at the time, and extract 18,000 personality-describing words. From this gigantic list, they extracted 4500 personality-describing adjectives that they found describing observable and relatively permanent traits. And then, in 1936, they rested their case.

Decades pass...research and technology march on, and finally...

At a symposium held in Honolulu in 1981, the four prominent researchers Lewis Goldberg, Naomi Takamoto-Chock, Andrew Comrey, and John M. Digman reviewed the personality tests available at the day, and decided that most of the tests that held any promise seemed to measure a subset of five common factors - in fact the same as [another analyst] had discovered in 1963.

And here they be:

1. Surgency or Extraversion
2. Agreeableness
3. Conscientiousness
4. Neuroticism or (inversely) Emotional Stability
5. Culture or Openness to Experience or Openness to Ideas

I am reminded of Ed McMahan and Johnny Carson about to open an envelope which held the answer to some question or other - great timing set-up for yet another joke - saying: "Right here. Right here inside this one envelope is everything you need to know! Imagine! All in one place, right here, right here in this envelope...I can't wait to see!"

Sure enough. We are not disappointed.
The five traits are listed and described in detail. I find it to be a great relief, now that I am going into retirement, that one of the most vexing problems that I had to overcome will no longer be part of management. Now that we have these wonderful testing instruments at our disposal, nearly all the problems that have perplexed human resource managers in our lifetime have been reduced to an easy-to-measure list of personality characteristics that will virtually eliminate performance problems in the future.

I'm so relieved.
Just think! All those years I had to struggle with trying to find people who would be appropriately placed to wash dishes, clean up dirty floors, put up with the condescending abuse of customers who wanted Ten Dollar Service for five dollars, and do it all with a smile.
If I had been able to administer the right test, I would have employed the right people years earlier. The only "turnover" I would have worried about would have been the result of retirement as the staff got old enough to receive their various private pensions.

But wait. The only plan the company had was a defined benefits pension plan which was replaced by a 401-K that no one could afford to feed.
Oh, well. If that's all they had to worry about, the Five Big emotional testing factors would have got us through.


Hoots said...

It is now November 2006 and this post is over a year old.
Thanks to the title it keeps getting hits. I suppose I should mention that I was being sarcastic as I put it together, but the substance of what I said is still not far off.

Seriously, there is one remarkably reliable way to predict human behavior: past behavior.

I know the reader understands at once from personal experience how hard it is to change any habit. Human behavior may be variable from person to person, but within the same subject it is steady and, often sadly, predictable. So much for individual behavior.

Group behavior, on the other hand, is all over the place. We can talk all day about teamwork, altruistic group sacrifice, mobs, panic in a disaster, whatever...Group behavior is always a crap shoot.

Hoots said...

Okay, then.
Yet another's now 2007. And the post still gets read about two or three times a month. (Ain't Google great?)

A word to the wise: Don't be foolish enough to disregard the question altogether because predicting human behavior can be a life and death decision. Somewhere between that extreme and guessing which line at the grocery store will move the fastest lies a big range of possibilities.

But don't imagine you will always be right, and prepare for happy surprises and bitter disappointments. My work in a retirement community reminds me how long the possibility of behavior changes, both good and bad, can occur even late in life. In these rare instances past behavior has not been a good predictor.

Sometimes the most important controlling factor is YOUR expectations. The most important variable in your future is you and your decisions.