“CEO Syndrome” and Bad Decisions

By Paul Thomas Zenki
How much genetic overlap would you guess between the man photographed at left, and at right?

When expertise can drive massive failure…

Take a look at the photos of the men just above. How much DNA do you think they share?

You might guess they’re related. Brothers, perhaps, maybe cousins. But there are obvious differences between them.

The man on the left has a narrower head and neck, and less developed shoulders. His nostrils flare up, his ears angle outward at the top, and he has a straight philtrum (that cleft between the nose and the upper lip). The man on the right has a squarer jaw, a rounded philtrum, downward angled nostrils, smaller and more level eyes, a wider mouth with a flatter upper lip, and slightly lower ears that sit straight against his head.

And yet, these men share exactly the same DNA.

They are, in fact, me.

Each photo is a composite created by “flipping” half of a single photograph, like folding a picture down the middle and holding it against a mirror. For most people, this process produces two images that look like one person in different moods. But in my case, the differences are more drastic.

That’s because one side of my body is larger than the other. My legs are different lengths, which does my lower back no favors. My ribcage protrudes noticeably more on one side. And my skull is contorted so that my eyes and ears do not line up, as is obvious from the photograph below, the original shot of me directly facing a camera.

Black and white photo of a man's faceThat’s why I can’t grow a full Van Dyke and have to trim it to stubble  —  the beard can be symmetrical to itself, or to my facial features, but not to both. So when grown out, it always looks odd.

But here’s the really odd part. Most of my friends, coworkers, even family do not notice the asymmetry. If you were to meet me in person, you almost certainly wouldn’t either. This is probably difficult for you to believe as you view the photograph where the skewed features are plainly obvious. And yet, it is true.

We see what we expect to see

How can it be that something so obvious when seen in a photo can go utterly unnoticed in actual life?

The answer is simple  —  our brains take shortcuts. The world is a busy place, and it’s much easier for our brains to render things as we assume them to be, or as it is convenient for them to be, rather than as they actually are in all their complexity.

This is why some visual illusions work for adults and teens, but not for very young kids. And I’ve heard from some magicians that they avoid performing in front of small children for that very reason. A little kid’s brain hasn’t yet learned what to expect out of life, hasn’t yet developed the shortcut which creates the illusion of a ball moving from one hand into the other when in fact it hasn’t. And this isn’t just some assumption we make  —  our brains actually generate the visual sensation of seeing the ball in the air between the hands, because that’s what it expects.

Once, while I was driving and in a highly emotional state, I began turning left into the aisle of a parking lot. I heard a horn blow, and as if by magic a truck materialized directly in front of me, right where I had been looking. The effect was shocking.

It was a parking lot I knew very well, and my brain was so distracted with its thoughts that it served up an image of the parking lot from memory. Which did not include the truck. I only saw the truck when the horn blast made me focus on what was actually there. Since then, I don’t drive while emotional.

One might think that the faces of our friends and family, or indeed a truck directly in our path, would be so important that our brains would zero in on every detail, and that they would appear in our conscious experience pretty much as they actually are. But they don’t.

The greater your experience, the greater your risk

This principle is important in business, because we generally assume that experience makes us smarter, makes us better at making decisions. In fact, it can do just the opposite.

There is a well documented psychological flaw popularly known as “CEO syndrome” or “pilot syndrome” which we become prone to as we reach expert levels in our field. Because we assume that we know what we’re doing, we stop checking ourselves. And all too often, we are silently abetted by people around us who defer to our supposedly superior knowledge.

Perhaps the most tragic example of this effect came in 1977 at Tenerife, when a highly experienced KLM captain decided to take off in low visibility conditions without clearance from the tower, slamming his fully loaded 747 into another fully loaded Pan Am 747 sitting on the same runway, killing 583 people. From the Secretary of Aviation Report:

On arriving at the end of the runway, and making a 180-degree turn in order to place himself in take-off position, [the KLM pilot] was advised by the co-pilot that he should wait as they still did not have an ATC clearance. The captain asked him to request it, which he did, but while the co-pilot was still repeating the clearance, the captain opened the throttle and started to take off.

Then the co-pilot, instead of requesting take-off clearance or advising that they did not yet have it, added to his read-back, “We are now at take-off.” The tower, which was not expecting the aircraft to take off as it had not given clearance, interpreted the sentence as, “We are now at take-off position” and the controller replied: “Okay, … stand by for take-off … I will call you.” Nor did the Pan Am on hearing the “We are now at take-off”, interpret it as an unequivocal indication of take-off.

The captain disregarded his co-pilot’s warning. The co-pilot knew that they were not cleared for take-off, and yet made no effort to stop the captain. Neither the tower nor the Pan Am crew interpreted the notification of take-off as notification of take-off.

The other plane wasn’t supposed to be on the runway, therefore in the captain’s mind it wasn’t, despite the fact that he had no visibility to determine what was in front of him. A captain isn’t supposed to make mistakes like that, therefore in everyone else’s mind he hadn’t, despite what the co-pilot directly observed and what the tower and Pan Am crew heard over their radios.

Our tendency to believe in what has worked for us so far can be especially dangerous if we’ve been lucky  —  and those who are unlucky are less likely to be in the position of making important decisions. In a 2019 BBC report on outcome bias, David Robson (author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things) cited a recent study finding that pilots are more likely to feel that flights in dangerous conditions are actually safer if they’ve heard that another pilot took the risk and make it through OK.

In reality, there is no guarantee that their success would mean a safe passage for the second flight  —  they may have only made it through by luck  —  but the outcome bias means that the pilots overlooked this fact.

Catherine Tinsley, at Georgetown University, has found a similar pattern in people’s responses to natural disasters like hurricanes. If someone weathers one storm unscathed, they become less likely to purchase flood insurance before the next disaster, for instance.

Tinsley’s later research suggests that this phenomenon may explain many organisational failings and catastrophes too. The crash of Nasa’s Columbia shuttle was caused by foam insulation breaking off an external tank during the launch, creating debris that struck a hole through the wing of the orbiter. The foam had broken from the insulation on many previous flights, however  —  but due to lucky circumstance it had never before created enough damage to cause a crash.

If we’ve been there and done that, it’s simply easier on our brains to think that we were right all along than to believe we dodged a bullet and need to think again.

Stop, look, and listen

As for my misaligned face (which I obscure in my profile picture by not looking at the camera) we assume faces are symmetrical, so unless the asymmetry is glaringly obvious, that’s what our brains see. And because people who know me well have seen my face so many times, they are probably the least likely to notice, because surely if my head were warped they would have already noticed by now. The longer it is ignored, the easier it becomes to ignore.

Amazingly, when I look in the mirror to shave, I don’t notice it either, unless I’m intentionally looking for it!

So the next time you tell yourself that you don’t need to run that test because you “know what wins” already… the next time you casually draw a conclusion without having seen all the available evidence… the next time you begin to dismiss an objection by junior staff without hearing them out… stop for a minute. Ask yourself, do I really know what I think I know? Or am I taking a shortcut  —  perhaps a perilous one?