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The Memo: Decisions, decisions

This story was published on our The Memo from Quartz at Work newsletter, Practical advice for modern workers everywhere.
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To modern workers everywhere,

Of all the errors in judgment that humanity is prone to, overconfidence may be the most damaging. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has said it’s the “most significant of the cognitive biases” and the first thing he’d change about humans if he had a magic wand.

Overconfidence doesn’t just plague individuals—it can drag down entire teams.

In a recent study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Barbara Mellers, subjects were asked to estimate the answers to quantitative trivia questions, like the population of different countries, first individually and then through group discussion. After the discussions, participants separated and had the chance to update their answers.

In nearly every case, the subjects said the group discussion helped their accuracy. They grew more confident and their estimates became more similar. But only about half of the participants actually became more accurate as a result of the group discussions, and the group average improved only a little more than half of the time. In other words, more than 40% of the discussions didn’t help at all.

Mellers found that group discussion helped in cases where group members’ confidence was correlated with their actual knowledge. When the people who are most confident are also the ones who know the most, talking together improves the group’s overall accuracy. But when confidence and knowledge are negatively correlated—when the most confident people know the least—group discussion makes the group less accurate, because people treat confidence as a signal of knowledge and defer to their most ignorant members.

Everyone has been in a meeting where the most vocal and confident person in the room clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But the most harmful meetings are the ones where that’s happening and the group can’t even recognize it.—Walter Frick

+ Check out our tool to practice overcoming overconfidence and learn more about how teams can overcome what’s been called “the mother of all biases,” in our new field guide to better decision making.

Five things we learned this week

Regrets about the professional road not taken are particularly painful. But there are research-backed ways to get over the ruminating about missed opportunities.

Work can be a refuge during illness. Consider the case of Chadwick Boseman.

Covid-19 has been a tailwind for India’s burgeoning ed-tech sector. The proof is in the acquisitions.

The US intelligence community has a trove of research on forecasting and decision-making. It’s full of good lessons that remain stubbornly underutilized in most organizations.

“What would it take to change your mind?” can be a career-defining question. Just ask the chief decision scientist at Google.

It’s a fact

So far this year, new IPO listings on average have jumped by about 40% on their first day of trading, according to data from University of Florida professor Jay Ritter. As Quartz’s John Detrixhe reports, that’s the highest average of any year since the dot-com bubble two decades ago—and a sign that public offerings are leaving a lot of money on the table these days.

30-second case study

When a brand becomes so ubiquitous that it turns into a generic term for any type of similar product, it can lead to the loss of trademark value and hurt the ability of the brand’s owner to distinguish itself from the market. The official term for this is “genericide.”

One of the more famous instances of it occurred in 1921, when a judge ruled that “aspirin” had become public domain and could be used not just by Bayer, but by any manufacturer of the drug. Other victims of genericide include escalators (once the province of the Otis Elevator Co.), and dumpsters (a portmanteau of “dump” and “Dempster,” the surname of the industrious brothers who patented their waste-handling invention in 1935).

The sudden ubiquity of Zoom prompted The National Law Review to ask in July whether the videoconferencing brand is on the verge of becoming generic, now that Zoom “has quickly evolved into a kind of shorthand for a livestreamed substitution for physical attendance in the new normal.”

The takeaway: All of the ingredients for genericide are there. But as Quartz at Work’s Michelle Cheng reports, other well-known brands—Xerox, Jeep, Band-Aid, Kleenex, Google, Uber, and Venmo among them—have managed to escape this fate and retain protected trademarks and competitive advantages, even though their names are widely applied to whole categories of products or services. Will Zoom go the way of dumpsters, or will it be more like Xerox? The National Law Review is concluding the latter.

Words of wisdom

“It may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to learn how to sing together.”—Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at Wharton, summing up what her late friend and colleague Katherine Phillips told her about teaching MBA students about diversity.

+ Stephanie spoke with Quartz at Work’s Sarah Todd for a recent article on how business schools can raise a new generation of leaders who are thoughtful about race, gender, and equality.

ICYMI

Is that debacle actually a clusterfuck? To properly identify—and, hopefully, avoid—clusterfucks, it’s important to understand what they aren’t. In this gem from the Quartz archive, you’ll find the definitive explanation of the difference between a shitshow, a SNAFU, and a clusterfuck, plus the knowledge you need to prevent clusterfucks from ever occurring.

By the way

If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, won’t you consider becoming a Quartz member and getting access to all of the journalism Quartz has to offer? Subscribe now and get 40% off your first year of membership.

Also, our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop series returns on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 11 am US eastern time. The next topic we’re tackling: productivity. Mark your calendars and stay tuned for more details. Our live, one-hour workshops are free to attend. Recordings and detailed recaps are made available exclusively to Quartz members.

You got The Memo!

Our best wishes for a productive and creative day. Please send any workplace news, comments, helpful discussions, and generic office terms to work@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. This week’s edition of The Memo was produced by Heather Landy and Sarah Todd.

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