Judging by the Wrong Standards… the Evolutionary Trap?

This past weekend, I went to two musical performances, a “Best of Broadway” touring show, featuring four singers who had performed a number of lead roles of well-known musicals on Broadway, and a fund-raising dinner performance by local university undergraduate music students. The Best of Broadway show received a standing ovation at the local city theatre. The student concert, to a limited and intimate audience, raised several thousand dollars.

Which was better? In terms of musical quality, there was no comparison, according to the experts who attended both concerts. I am NOT an expert, and those who are included two former orchestral concertmasters, a former music department chair, a former Ted Mack Amateur Hour winner — for those of you who are younger, think “American Idol” of the 1950s, a professional percussionist who has played with a number of first class symphonies, and, of course, in the spirit of full disclosure, my wife. The “Broadway” performers had better costumes and slightly better stage presence and charisma, but their actual singing and their arrangements left something to be desired, and were far inferior to that of the college students. Now… this is nothing new. I, and the professionals, have seen this time and time again. The vast majority of audiences key in on costumes, appearances, physical beauty, and presence… as well as the theatre setting itself. Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, has also commented on this, albeit dealing with comparing first class regional musical performances to New York performances that received great applause and were inferior, as well as noting the rise of standing ovations for performances that deserved tepid applause at best.

If these instances were limited to entertainment, we would merely have a problem of uneducated taste… but, alas… they’re not. From the experiences of the recent financial melt-down, it’s fairly obvious that all too many corporate decisions haven’t been made on the best of financial or economic grounds, but in terms of short-term profits. Likewise, it’s clear that far too many corporate CEOs are being selected on the basis of personality and charisma, image, if you will, rather than decision-making expertise. For example, the Board of Directors of General Motors has expressed confidence in the current CEO, despite the fact that the CEO has been in charge for years and that GM is in such financial trouble that it will require more than $20 billion to weather little more than a year. The same situation has afflicted a score or more of other companies.

In the educational area, again, scholarships and awards are largely awarded on the basis of grade-point-averages, regardless of the difficulty of the classes taken by the students, a slightly different form of image, but often image, nonetheless.

Recent sociological research indicates that younger women tend to be attracted to tall, dark, and “dangerous” men, and that men judge women’s attractiveness and appeal, across all cultures, largely by an unconscious relationship between waist and hip size and an equally unconscious evaluation of facial regularity.

All of these are examples of judging by inappropriate, largely inaccurate, or misrepresentative guidelines, and most of those guidelines come from evolutionary pressures. In the hunter-gatherer societies which comprise the vast majority of human experience and evolution, failure to make largely accurate instantaneous decisions generally resulted in adverse, if not fatal results. The problem today is that those kinds of judgments often don’t work, and certainly not well, in higher-tech societies. Just because a man is tall, charismatic, and friendly doesn’t mean he’ll make good judgments dealing with long-term complex situations. It may even mean that a man isn’t the best person for the position. Maximizing this year’s harvest makes great survival sense if you’re in a borderline food stock situation, as most early human cultures were, but it’s a lousy strategy for both corporations and agriculture in a world where corporate and societal survival depends on longer term social and economic stability. And evaluating ability by near-blind reliance on numbers is nothing more than a crude adaptation of seeing who’s taller and can run faster.

The question of whether our world can survive and prosper may well depend on whether we can adapt away from unconscious and sometimes blind following of our evolutionarily-derived decision-making processes before the cumulative results of recent bad decisions foreclose our options as a species.