Me, Myself & I: Can Implicit Egotism Affect Business Decisions? ​

By Amanda R. Koplos, CLM, CPA - Bowman and Brooke LLP

At Bowman and Brooke LLP we have 9 women named Amanda. In fact, the name is more popular than Michael (6) and John (8), and is tied with Chris/Christine. The only more popular name is Jennifer/Jenny (10). In fact, in my Dallas office there are 3 of us. We make up 10% of the office! “The Amandas” have a special bond. At a recent firmwide meeting 5 of us got together to take a group picture. In my office, the three of us have our offices clumped down one hallway – it’s aptly named “The Amanda Side.” I have a special propensity toward these women, they are my tribe. When we call each other I’ve found I enjoy our conversations more and there is a warmth that doesn’t exist in many of my other working relationships. Oddly enough, these 8 other women are the only ones named Amanda I know or have ever known. What an amazing coincidence, right? What are the odds?

In actuality, the odds are a lot higher than you might guess. Dr. Brett Pelham, Professor of Psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland, in a recent interview on NPR[1] explained my feelings toward these women as an example of Implicit Egotism. The article says “It’s normal to feel drawn to people you share something with – whether that’s a name, a birthday, or a shared profession or background.” He goes on to explain how our names might even impact decisions like our state of residence or our profession. “There’s at least a modest tendency for women named Georgia to gravitate toward Georgia, women named Virginia to gravitate towards Virginia,” Pelham says. He even explains that people who share a birthday have a higher likelihood of getting married and that a last name like Carpenter or Baker makes one more likely to be carpenters or bakers. (Dr. Richard Chopp, based out of Austin, Texas, is one of the city’s most popular and sought-after urologists who specializes in vasectomies.)

Implicit egotism explains the reason that we feel a connection to people who are like us. Shankar Vedantm, a social scientist and host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, describes implicit egotism as a “tiny invisible nudge. It won’t shape what people do all of the time but it does shape what some of the people do some of the time.” While the bulk of Dr. Pelham’s research focuses on the effect of names and birthdays on decisions he also explains that impact egotism can also be responsible for our tendency to place a higher value on people who are like us, on ideas we have generated, or on projects we have completed.

So how could implicit egotism affect the management professional and why is it something we should be aware of? Consider, first, some of the steps made in hiring decisions. As a recruiter or HR professional is culling through resumes they will have a higher tendency to show preferences to those people who are similar to themselves; in name, in hometown, in college, in graduation year, etc. During the interview process a hiring supervisor may show preference to someone with kids the same age or who lives in the same neighborhood. After hiring, a supervisor’s implicit egotism could continue to follow this person through their tenure at the company; in the form of more favorable performance reviews, higher bonuses and faster, larger pay increases.

Three researchers from Harvard University looked further at how implicit egotism affects the value we place on products or ideas we have built or created ourselves. Their study on “The Ikea Effect”[2] surmises that if an individual takes part in creating a product they will be unable to provide an impartial analysis of the quality of that product. Researcher Daniel Mochon says, “we come to overvalue the things that we have created ourselves.”

This theory has implications beyond the building of a particleboard nightstand. It may suggest the reasons why a supervisor shows a propensity toward a person they individually hired versus one who was already working for the company when the supervisor began. If this employee was “your hire, your recommendation” then implicit egotism could cause a supervisor to be slower to reprimand or slower to terminate as the failures of this employee may call into question the competence of the supervisor.

It could also explain how bad projects or ideas take too long to be scrapped even when their failure is imminent. Vedantm uses an extreme example. “Let’s say you’re a President who starts a war but after years of using your time and effort to prosecute that war you may find it difficult to accept evidence that you made a mistake.” So while we aren’t fighting a war in our firms we probably see the effects of implicit egotism every day. This could be in the form of software systems purchased but not properly implemented or procedure manuals written that create more problems than they solve.

Further complications with implicit egotism arise when we consider the counter-effect it may have on our efforts to build diverse and inclusive workplaces. At the heart of implicit egotism is a natural propensity to create a race- or gender-homogeneous workplace. A homogeneous team will often be unable to fully consider or comprehend the needs of those that differ from those of the group. A study from the Harvard Business Review[3] states that “working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen your performance.” The article goes on to state that nonhomogenous teams focus more on facts, process those facts more carefully, and are more innovative.

As employers and supervisors, we must exercise an abundance of caution when examining the “why” behind decisions and actions that affect ourselves, our employees, and our firms. Dr. Pelham says “It at least raises tough questions to the degree with which we have free will….it suggests that very important decisions have at least a nudging influence based on things that you are completely unaware of. Learning that these subtle little influences can affect what you do. Sometimes we make a decision for one reason that we told ourselves when really the more powerful underlying reason is something we never could have put our fingers on.”

[1] ‘Me, Myself, and IKEA: What Our Love For Swedish Furniture Says About Narcissism’; National Public Radio, original air date May 22, 2017

[2] The “IKEA Effect”: When Labor Leads to Love. Michael I Norton, Daniel Mochon, Dan Ariely – Harvard Business School

[3] Why Diverse Teams are Smarter. David Rock and Heidi Grant – Harvard Business Review – November 04, 2016