Decision-making traps seem to be all around us

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been writing about making difficult decisions and some of the reasons they can be difficult: the traps along our way. None of us is immune to these traps: our brains are busy and therefore, rather than use huge amounts of energy each time we need to come to a decision, we develop short cuts or rules of thumb to help us get there more quickly. These short cuts are fantastically useful for much of the time but just occasionally, they can become traps leading to poor decisions.

Knowing that these traps exists means that you can recognise them when they crop up and take action to test your decision before following through. If you didn’t recognise the anchoring, framing or status quo traps, read on to see if these traps ring any bells.

Confirming evidence

Sometimes we look for information which will confirm what we already think we know and shy away from information that may contradict it. This is the confirming evidence trap.

Social media doesn’t help us in this respect. A client and I were recently discussing the concept of the echo chamber in digital life. Understandably, we surround ourselves with people with whom we have a lot in common. Our coterie has now widened to include public figures, celebrities, media organisations and causes we support. The stories we see in our news feeds on social media are based on our likes and interests and therefore inevitably we end up in a filter bubble or echo chamber.

Imagine a Board of Directors of a business has been wrestling for some time over a decision about following path A or path B over the next five years. On the day of the Board meeting, a national newspaper publishes a profile piece on a disgraced CEO who took a path very similar to path B which resulted in the downfall of her firm. ‘That’s it, I knew path B was a bad idea’ thinks each Director on the way to work. No-one discusses it but path A is the unanimous choice at the vote later that day.

I’m sure that no Board of Directors would make a decision in such a crazy way but that’s just to illustrate the point!

How to avoid the confirming evidence trap

  • Be honest with yourself: have you already made your decision and are simply looking for someone else to endorse it?
  • Find a devil’s advocate: ask a friend or colleague to present a completely opposite point of view to you.
  • If you do ask someone else’s advice, don’t frame your question in such a way that you steer them towards the answer you’re hoping for.

Sunk cost

This one’s very common. I’ve already written about how my client, Gemma, handled this trap in her professional life: you can read it here – Is it time to quit?

How to avoid the sunk cost trap

  • Set aside any incurred costs, whether financial or otherwise, and be prepared to take another look at previous choices if they are no longer appropriate.
  • Don’t consider a change of mind to be a failure.

Estimating and forecasting

There are three sides to this trap:

1   Over-confidence

Unless you’re a professional gambler or a weather forecaster, you probably don’t keep a lot of data on your performance as a forecaster and yet studies show that most of us think we’re pretty good at predicting outcomes. In his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman writes about WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – and how this can lead us to be over-confident. If we lack hard data which may help us make a more accurate prediction, our brains create a story based on the evidence we do have and we make a decision which suppresses doubt and ambiguity. Sometimes we’re right. Is that because we had good information, great intuition or was it just chance? Who can tell?

2   Prudence

The flip side of over-confidence is prudence. Your company is bidding for a huge new project. You’ve had your fingers burnt in the past by under-pricing work so your team decides to add in an extra 10%, just in case. Unbeknownst to you, the other teams have done the same thing. The company submits an over-priced bid and loses out.

3   Recallability

Our forecasts are often based on past experience. However, dramatic events loom larger in our memories than more mundane experiences. Your colleague mentions that she’s just hired a new team member and is looking forward to the value he’ll add, given his recent MBA qualification. You cringe inwardly and remember that awful guy you worked with who had an MBA who spent all his time going on about various business theories and never actually did anything. You’re completely discounting the other colleagues you have with MBAs who have never done anything dramatic enough to cause you any concern!

How to avoid the estimating and forecasting trap

  • To avoid over-confidence, first go the extremes of your range of options to avoid becoming anchored to your first forecast.
  • To avoid undue prudence, avoid building in contingency before thorough analysis to test the need and scale for any such contingency.
  • To avoid recallability, look at data and statistics rather than rely on your memory.

Here’s an example. You need to drive to the airport next weekend. Your mapping software suggests it will take 2 hours 45 minutes. Your over-confident mind might think ‘oh, they always build in a bit extra, it’ll only take 2 and a half hours.’ Result: you miss your flight.

Your prudent mind thinks ‘2 hours 45 – hmm, I’m not so sure. Better add another half an hour.’ You mention that to your partner and he says ‘Let’s not risk it. Let’s allow an extra hour.’ Result: you have plenty of time to explore the airport shops.

Your ‘prone to recallability’ mind remembers that hideous journey you had once where there was a crash on the motorway, they closed the road and it was so long before it was re-opened that you didn’t even get to the airport. Yikes! You book yourself into an airport hotel for the night before your flight. Result: you don’t miss your flight but it does cost you quite a bit of money and another night away from home.

I know that this has been a long read but my experience with my coaching clients shows me how so much of our professional and personal lives is governed by the decisions that we take. I believe recognising and challenging decision-making traps can serve us all well.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: have you ever wandered straight into one of these traps? What will you do to avoid them next time you have to make a decision?  

Any thoughts?

Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like some help with decisions you need to take either at your work and in life, email me and let’s have a conversation about how we can work together.



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4 Responses to Decision-making traps seem to be all around us

  1. I find decision making excruciating – hence my year-long deliberations over whether to leave my secure job for life (which I no longer enjoy) in favour of working freelance. I fall into every trap you’ve mentioned – and your advice (both on the blog and directly to me) has been incredibly useful over the decision-making period. Thank you!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I have saved this blog post in my emails since March, waiting for that moment I could allow myself some time to digest it! There is so much in this post! Thank you!

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