Some readers may know of my passion for endurance sports. And while I don’t follow football religiously, I did catch some of this year’s awesome Super Bowl. Pretty incredible stuff!

Post-game analysis often seems like so much hot air. Nevertheless, I found Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas’s article from the ‘Science of Sport’s’ website interesting. In it, they note the odd spectacle of NFL player’s eating bananas to ward off cramping:

“…in spite of all of the technology the NFL teams and coaches have at their disposal, all the high-tech strategies they employ, their wealth of human resources… they rely on techniques that are entirely unproven and which no scientific evidence supports.”

The full article is available here.

This isn’t an isolated example of pseudo-science in the world of sports. In cycling, the longstanding myth that athletes should apply equal force throughout the pedal-stroke has spawned a variety of free-spinning cranks. Many elite cyclists and triathletes train (or even race) on these cranks, despite almost no evidence of their efficacy, and some evidence that they compromise performance.

In the world of basketball, the concept of hot hand (the belief that players are more likely to make a shot if they’ve just made a successful shot) still shapes game strategy, despite studies debunking this myth (See Gilovich below, and Robert Carroll’s clustering illusion entry.)

Finally, a huge number of elite endurance athletes use antioxidant supplements despite evidence that supplementation either has no effect, or is detrimental to performance. Also, given that the US supplement industry is largely unregulated, shouldn’t athletes be concerned about the risk of supplements being contaminated by performance enhancing drugs?

The reality is that very few individuals have the ability, time, or inclination to sift through reams of data in making decisions. We must rely on others to do so for us. Despite the rise of google, athletes rely on coaches and trainers, and – you saw it coming – homeowners rely on builders for house advice. Here enters the problem of selection criteria. What selection criteria should we use in determining the best individual to perform these services?

Selecting a Builder

The beauty of hiring a full service construction company is that you have to make one good decision. Pick the right builder! Choose wisely, and everything falls into place. But, as any episode of ‘Holmes on Homes’ can attest, poor decisions can be catastrophic.

Just like Mike Holmes, we’ve bailed out many homeowners from construction nightmares. In almost every instance, the clients used a flawed approach in selecting their initial contractor. Let’s start by looking at the common judgment errors I see homeowners making.

People tend to like it when others around them have their same values and physical characteristics. These commonalities put us at ease. But your builder doesn’t have to share your ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or favorite sport team in order to do a good job. In fact, these characteristics are totally irrelevant. Yet many of the homeowners we’ve rescued fell into the trap of choosing a builder who shared some superficial commonality. How can we avoid discriminating based upon the superfluous? Ending discrimination falls outside the scope of this blog entry. However, my advice is to be conscious of your own preferences, and whether you’re gravitating towards an individual based upon an irrelevant bond.

Another common form of bias is holding preconceived ideas of what individuals in certain occupations should look like. Clients often select builders because they fulfill their expectation of what a builder should look like. Although I think highly of Mike Holmes’ work, I’ve long suspected that his popularity partly stems from his appearance. He precisely fits our notion of how a carpenter should appear! He’s a strapping guy, wears Carhartt’s, and has a gruff voice. Yet these traits are wholly irrelevant to his merits as a builder. And what about the iconic craftsman Norm Abrams? Will someone please get him a shirt that isn’t flannel? In my experience, many cases of contracting fraud are built upon confirming the victim’s notions of what a builder should look like.

People frequently engage in wishful thinking with regards to the scope of work or their budget. Several years ago I bid on an architecturally designed job in Princeton. After submitting my bid, I learned that the job had already been estimated by almost 10 contractors. According to the clients, the prices were ‘much too high’. Both the owners and architect felt the problem was contractor greed! They clung fast to the belief that the job could reasonably be built for within their budget. Perhaps most remarkable is that one of the clients is a philosophy professor! In another instance of outright fraud, a homeowner we spoke with had a contractor submit a very low estimate on a big painting job, but requested that the owner provide the paint. At the job start, the contractor disappeared with the deposit check and all of the paint and never returned. Perhaps most bizarrely, the clients expected subsequent estimates to be roughly the same as the estimate from the person who robbed them. Psychologists would probably describe this as anchoring.

People also tend to seek out opinions that they agree with, or selectively remember opinions they like. For instance, the popular media often advises medical patients to solicit second opinions. Of course, patients aren’t likely to seek a second opinion unless there’s something disagreeable about the first one. Given the highly technical nature of medicine, on what basis should a patient choose between two (or three, or four) prescribed treatments? Most patients are ill equipped to scientifically evaluate the merits of several courses of action. So how do they choose between competing strategies? In the past year, I’ve overhead several conversations in the supplement aisle of my local health food store where clerks dispense all kinds of medical advice. In one case, my wife and I overheard a store clerk recommend that a cancer patient go to Mexico where people are ‘open-minded’ about the efficacy of crystal therapy. It’s not difficult to see how desperation might drive a terminally ill patient from Doctor #4 to the vitamin aisle.

In building construction this can manifest itself as something I refer to as the ‘caste phenomenon.’ This is the tendency of individuals to overvalue the opinions of well-intended but ignorant people from the same social class, and disregard valuable input from experts from a lower social class. Builders are asked to defer to interior designers, friends of clients, and dog-owners despite the worthlessness of their input. One interior designer told us that ‘once a species of flooring had been installed in a house, that species was the only one that could be used.’ Ever. Many clients hire architecture firms that block builders from meeting with them prior to estimating a job, and curtail builder/client contact during their jobs. This environment tends to artificially constrain contractors from freely expressing their opinions. For instance, many energy efficient electrical fixtures cost slightly more then regular fixtures, but are sound investments . Yet electricians who know this frequently bite their tongue for fear that their product recommendations will be construed as an attempt to part clients from their hard-earned cash.


Builders primarily sell technical expertise. All work flows from this expertise. While clients should have a lot of control over the design of a project, they should have almost no control over technical standards. My previous entry on best practice outlines the standards I feel are most important. My recommendation is to ensure that your builder is aware of and embrace these technical standards. To that end, you should ask what magazines and books they read.

Evaluate the depth and relevance of their experience. Don’t use age (an irrelevant characteristic) as a means of judging experience (a relevant characteristic). A lot of people choose carpentry as a second career, so they enter the building trades in their mid to late-thirties. So a fifty year old building contractors might have less experience then your thirty-four year old author.

We provide new clients with a sheet of referrals. Strikingly, only a small minority of clients calls any of our referrals. Pose tough questions to your builder and his or her referrals. Get satisfactory answers, and don’t tolerate pseudo-answers. “We’ve been doing this for years” isn’t an acceptable answer, it’s an appeal to authority, which is a logical fallacy.

Clients should aggressively shoulder certain responsibilities to improve their prospects for success. At your project’s inception, outline a clear vision for what constitutes success. Anyone can muddle their way through a kitchen remodel. What would you like your new kitchen to do for you? Is better access to storage your criteria, or would you like to have several cooks be able to efficiently use the space at once? How long would you like your new kitchen to last? If durability is paramount, then embracing high technical standards will be crucial. Setting explicit goals is critical to achieving them.

When I first sat down to write this entry, I thought that I’d be able to provide a few easy tips, and steer people clear of some bad outcomes. However, in performing just the small amount of research that I did for this entry, I realized that decision-making is an incredibly complex and difficult topic. I hope that you’ve found this article helpful or at least entertaining. I recommend perusing the links and books that I provide below.

Thanks for reading,
Jesse Smith.

References, Interesting Books and Websites:

Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, & Dangerous Delusions (John Wiley and Sons 2003).

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (The Free Press 1991).

Levine, Robert. The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (John Wiley and Sons 2003).

Sutton, Robert. Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing and Sustaining Innovation (The Free Press 2002).

Robert Carroll’s website.

Wikipedia’s cognitive bias entry and list of cognitive biases.


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