The Decision Science Lessons in Ink Master

September 29, 2015
Maya Stosskopf

Maybe I’m the only one who sees management theory in reality shows.  I enjoy watching Ink Master for its combination of artistry, skill and catfighting.  For those who haven’t watched it, Ink Master is your typical challenge-based talent competition with a judging panel.  Artists compete in tattoo challenges that cover a wide range of styles and obstacles.  Every episode, one artist is sent home.  A few seasons ago, the added an element to the judging section– the tattoo recipients, dubbed “human canvases”, vote among themselves to voice who they believe has the worst tattoo of the day.

Most of the time, “human canvas”, the person who is walking around with the “worst tattoo of the day” vehemently disagrees and loves their tattoo.  It doesn’t matter what might be wrong with it, so long as it represents what they wanted, they cannot believe anyone has the nerve to call it the “worst tattoo of the day.”

How is this bit of reality show evidence useful in our lives?

It is a powerful example of two different, well-documented, characteristics of humans making decisions.

  1. People like a decision more when they can’t change it.  People who commit to a course of action are happier with their decision than those who are wishy-washy. [Some of the research on this is here] It is believed that part of this is due to an inner storytelling and rationalization that happens when you must make due with an existing choice.  A tattoo is extremely challenging to alter or remove, so it is in the mind’s best interest to craft a narrative where this is a good thing.  What should you take back to the office here?  When a decision is made, don’t allow too much wiggle-room.  It feels like honesty, but the final result is that people won’t follow through.  Set benchmarks for success and measure against those.  Don’t appear to change course based on a whim or an anecdote.  People are happier with final decisions.
  2. Decisions that someone participated in are sacrosanct.  You know who doesn’t defend their tattoo? “Human canvases” who felt shut out of the decision-making process.  Those people are not happy.  Decision research has shown time and time again that a “good” solution determined by consensus in a group will always have a better chance of success than a “great” decision made without involvement or input from the group.  It wasn’t until I watched several episodes back-to-back that I saw clearly how much it mattered if the “canvas” felt the process had been collaborative.

The outcomes of most organizational decisions rest not so much on the decisions themselves, but on how the decisions are made.  People are most committed, and happiest, when they’ve been a part of the process that arrived at the decision, and when the decision is viewed as final.

If you had to vote on a recent decision in your organization that was “worst decision of the year” would it be one that you had a part in forming?  Or is it probably one that you had to live with that someone else decided?  Is the worst one of all a decision that someone else decided, but you suspect they will change course in two months?

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