Helping the Chosen People make choices

Academic, economist, philanthropist, activist – but through it all Noreena Hertz has focused on the science of free choice.

Noreena Hertz (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Noreena Hertz
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With elections looming, there are plenty of people in this country who could benefit from the wisdom of Noreena Hertz. Those people would be joining heads of state and captains of industry around the globe who have made more balanced decisions with the help of the 47-year-old British academic, economist and best-selling author.
Hertz was here last week to attend the star-studded Comedy for Change international conference in the company of her husband, BBC Television director Danny Cohen, and to present a workshop on modern-day decision-making processes. The conference was organized and curated by Benny Moran and Omri Marcus, with the support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community initiative, which seeks to advance ideas and partnerships that strengthen Jewish communities and improve society.
Hertz, whose multifarious professional pursuits include serving as a professor of decision science at University College London, has certainly earned her spurs over the years.
“My whole career has really been giving advice to leading decision-makers in politics – CEOs, presidents and prime ministers – on big strategic economic or business decisions,” she notes. She has rubbed elbows with, and drawn praise from, former US president Bill Clinton, business magnate George Soros, late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and U2 rock band frontman Bono.
However, a bout of illness led her to reexamine her direction.
“When I got very sick, around six years ago, I had to figure out for myself what was the right decision to make – in what was obviously a critical decision for me to make,” she says.
Thankfully she made a full recovery. Though she doesn’t divulge what the illness was, she nonetheless reflects an all-too-familiar scenario: facing choices of second opinions and treatment options, and the stress of knowing that whatever decision one makes could determine the final outcome of one’s health.
“As I was going in the process of seeing different expert doctors, and having numerous tests, in between MRI scans and CT scans, I started thinking about how it is we make decisions – the process of decision-making – which was not something I had thought about much before, and what it takes to make a smart decision.”
It was during those moments that she realized there was a process to decision-making and that people facing extraordinary choices might be able to offer some nuggets to better inform the average person. She got down to seeking the requisite information.
“I really dug into the academic literature in economics, in psychology, in neuroscience, in brain science, and to really try to piece together the best, the most cutting-edge thinking on what it takes to make smart decisions,” she says.
When she was ready, she went on the road, aiming to follow up her intellectual epiphany with facts and figures from the field. “I went around the world interviewing some of the smartest decision-makers out there – from Hollywood moguls to hedge fund honchos, from ER doctors to fighter pilots – piecing together what it takes to make smart decisions.”
ALL KINDS of factors affect just how we reach those conclusions, one of which may be gender. For instance, research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences, reveals gender-based differences in the way brain networks are connected. The study, which encompassed findings on nearly 1,000 young people age eight to 22, revealed small differences in thought patterns between girls and boys before puberty; those differences became larger at around age 12 or 13. That pattern, which remained throughout adulthood, showed that the women’s brains were wired to integrate emotion and reason better, while the men’s brains had stronger links between coordinated action and perception.
Hertz goes along with the cerebral gender divide.
“There has been a body of research done in finance, about women in hedge funds versus men,” she notes.
“There was a study done by a Cambridge [University] colleague of mine recently, where he tested men’s testosterone levels through saliva samples at the beginning of every day’s trading at a bank. He found that the biggest predictor of how successful they would be, in their own individual profit-loss, was their level of testosterone. Over a certain level of testosterone, it was disastrous. Those men were the worst. They were overconfident and took far too big risks.”
The Cambridge researchers, she continues, concluded “that trading teams really needed to have older men as part of the team, whose testosterone levels drop after the age of 50, and also women, who have on average a testosterone level of 10 percent.”
Hertz says that female financial advisers are a good bet. “There is other research that supports the finding that women make better financial decisions and that you want women to be part of leadership teams in organizations.”
Apparently there is tangible proof of the wisdom of having more female-oriented upper echelons.
“There was a study done recently of the biggest American multinationals, companies that are worth over a billion dollars, and such companies that have at least one woman on the board performed 26% better than companies with no women on the board,” she says.
Hertz herself recently joined the board of the Warner Music Group, the largest American-owned music conglomerate, which had revenue of $2.87 billion in 2013.
“I am the first woman to go on their board,” she states.
As for the prospects of her doing the same in this country, she says that “no one has asked me to go be on an Israeli board yet. But she asserts that “the power of difference is increasingly recognized as integral to big decision-making, and when you’re building leadership teams, and making sure you have different points of view – not only different genders, but different ages as well – it is a really good determinant for better decision-making and problem-solving.”
OVER THE years, she has put her hard-won strategies toward a string of good causes. She played a major role in the development of the 2006 Product (Red) campaign, fronted by Bono, to try and eliminate AIDS in Africa. A year earlier, she was on board the Live8 campaign, which sought to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries, and in April 2007, she launched the Mayday for Nurses campaign in Britain to alleviate the problems of low pay in nursing.
She is the author of several books, including 2013’s Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World. Previous well-received releases include her 2001 writing debut The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, in which she warned that corporate greed could have disastrous repercussions for the ordinary citizen, and IOU: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It, which came out in 2004 and in which she cautioned that a global financial crisis was looming. Four years later, the world learned that she was right.
Hertz may have some genetic advantages in her advisory work. Her great-grandfather was Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, who served as chief rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1913-1946. Asked if immersing oneself in religious study – particularly the style of reasoning found throughout the Talmud – might help to develop a good approach to decision-making, she admits that “that wasn’t something I’d overtly thought about when writing my book or doing the research for it.”
Nonetheless, she sees a common denominator between the talmudic debate format and one of the main tenets suggested in Eyes Wide Open.
“One of the concepts that comes through clearly in my book is the idea of the need to challenge information,” she explains, particularly in the data deluge of the Internet age.
“That is especially true today when we are confronted with so much information from so many different sources and with so many points of view. We have a responsibility to challenge the content, to interrogate the sources, and to not only surround ourselves with views that echo [or] reinforce our own. That is our human tendency. Actively behaving as something I call ‘a challenger- in-chief’ is seen to be essential to decision-making. There is this talmudic tradition of wise rabbis with different points of view challenging each other, and taking apart others’ points of view and analysis.”
So people who study Talmud may have an advantage when it comes to drawing the right conclusions.
“That kind of cut and thrust of debate is increasingly recognized as essential for good decision-making,” she says. “Innovation doesn’t just come about from the creation of ideas, but also from their destruction.”
In Eyes Wide Open, she cites two famous US presidents – one who made the mistake of not being sufficiently open-minded, and one who did a better job in that regard.
“One of the examples that I give in my book is Abraham Lincoln, who famously surrounded himself with very smart people who had different points of view, in the knowledge that through debate and discussion [he] would be better informed and come to better decisions,” she says.
However, it seems that president John F. Kennedy followed a different, less healthy decision-making route: “JFK made the terrible decision of choosing to back the CIA over the [failed] invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba [in 1961], in an environment which was characterized by group thinking where, at the time, he had surrounded himself with yes-men.”
THERE ARE, it seems, all manner of things that influence our choices subliminally as well. Hertz has noted, for example, that waitresses who wear red clothing can expect to pick up bigger tips – although cultural differences apparently come into play with colors – and soccer teams that wear a black stripe tend to get more penalty decisions given in their favor.
Food, and our physical state, can also affect our decisions.
“There was really interesting research done with judges in Israel,” she says. “The researchers wanted to work out why judges granted parole.
Was it because of the gender of the applicant, was it because of the ethnicity, or the type of crime?” But it might have been simply a matter of the judges’ lunchtimes.
“They found that the single biggest determinant was whether the judges had recently eaten. It really is incredible.
If you went before the judge before their 10 a.m. mid-morning snack, that was a terrible time.... You had a zero chance of getting parole. Before lunch, it was 10%, and just after lunch it shot up to 65%.”
Hertz rounded off her foray in Israel with the ROI-sponsored session, which involved young Israeli entrepreneurs from all walks of life. She says she is happy to help out: “It’s so great to be in Israel, and I’m delighted to be doing something here.”