8 thinking errors that sabotage your decision-making

It’s not about making the right choice. It’s about making a choice and making it right.

J.R. Rim

Success to a larger extent depends on our decision-making process. Every day we all are faced with countless decisions. Some of these decisions might be small daily decisions from how to prioritise our daily tasks to what to eat or wear and other decisions might be big, more logical and rational like what career to pursue or whom to hire. Irrespective of what decisions you are making, many different biases continuously influence your judgment.

As much as we like to think we are rational beings with sound judgment and being reasonable, psychological research shows that very often we make irrational choices and poor decisions. This is because we are always prone to certain thinking errors or cognitive biases that derail our thinking and lead to choices that impact our decision-making process. While some are openly apparent, many biases are subconscious and are hard-wired into our thinking that we may have no idea we are under the influence of a bias that is distorting our way of thinking and often fail to recognise even when we are falling right into them.

Understanding cognitive biases…

Biases are often a result of our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. Despite its decision-making power, our brain creates many mental filters and thinking shortcuts in order to make faster decisions when there is an information overload. These shortcuts make it easier to categorise information to make quick judgment. For instance, our brain automatically creates mental shortcuts when we encounter different experiences or information that is different from our preconceptions. So, even when our mind is focused on slow, conscious and logical ways, our automatic, frequent and emotional ways override our reasoning and result in different kinds of cognitive biases.

Such overlooked biases always creep into our decision-making process and instead of making decisions based on facts, we are prone to base our decisions on such thinking errors that lead to distorted judgment. These biases ultimately affect work, personal or professional relationships and our views of world around us. They are also associated with poor decision-making, lack of creativity, depression and anxiety. To make the best choice in any given situation and to work collaboratively with others, one needs to be in control of their decision-making process. Recognising such thinking distortions lessens their impact and helps in making better and effective decisions. Here are some common thinking biases that could be affecting your decision-making.

Confirmation bias

This is one of the common bias that creeps into our work and everyday decision-making. This decision trap comes from our tendency to give too much weight to evidence that supports a specific conclusion or view, decision or outcome while not giving much importance to evidence that doesn’t fit with your existing beliefs. This makes us incline more towards the information or data that aligns with our own view points resulting in biased decision-making.

When you engage in confirmation bias, you might interpret a situation according to your own pre-existing beliefs. This can distort how one collects and interpret data, and leads to overlook important facts, information or data that invalidates one’s opinion. While making a decision, you trust information that confirms your preconceptions, what you already believe, reinforcing your personal bias and stereotypes. At the same time, you ignore or dismiss opinions that disagree with your own, even if they are factual and void. This does not allow a person’s perspective to change based on evidence and makes you fall into the trap of being overconfident in your personal judgments leading to overestimating performance and underestimating risk. This can lead to drawing false conclusions and distorted reality.

How to avoid? This bias mostly occurs subconsciously, when you are probably unaware of its influence on your decision-making. So, the first step is to be aware how it effects and works, you can be more likely to identify it in you decision-making. One way to avoid is to acknowledge and seek out information that disagrees with your beliefs. Start with neutral facts and identify individual cognitive bias and ask yourself, “knowing what you know, if you could make the same decision going back in time?”

Survivorship bias

Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating only on successes, people who survived or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking failures or those that did not. It is a form of selection bias where we don’t adequately consider past failures and can causes you to think that something is easy and lead to false conclusions in several different ways. For instance, It is assuming that if we emulate the same actions we will achieve the same success. This leads you to come to conclusions based on their attributes, without looking more broadly including those with similar characteristics that failed to perform well which leads to inaccurate probability of success.

This can also lead to overly optimistic beliefs because we look at only those who prospered while failures are ignored. It can distort performance figures and tends to distort data in only one direction by making the results seem better than they actually are. Whilst everyone is told not to let past performance guide your decisions, inevitably most look at past performance. So, it is worthwhile digging deeper to understand whether performance is actually overstated. When making decisions related to finance, research or business, you might miss information that did not survive and can impact your choices, perceptions and judgments.

How to avoid ? You can avoid this by considering circumstances as a whole and considering what is missing instead of cherry picking information. If you know someone has succeeded, find out how many failed at the same thing and the reasons. Take time to pause, reflect and research to be fully informed can help you develop a better understanding before your decision-making moment.

Planning fallacy

This is a positivity bias and is the tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task as well as the costs and risks associated with that task. We think we can do things more quickly than we actually can. This leads to incomplete work with overpromise and underdeliver.

Planning fallacy can cause us to make decisions that ignore realistic estimates of the demands of a task, be it time, money, or energy. It also leads us to downplay the elements of risk, instead we focus only on our own abilities and this leads to an overly optimistic assessment of our abilities. This affects everyone, whether you are a student, managing a group or an organisation and leads to poor planning. It stems from overall bias towards optimism, especially where our own abilities are concerned, we are oriented more towards positivity. So, when we set out to plan a project, we are likely to overestimate our capabilities of meeting certain goals because of which we become anchored to our original approach, and discount information that challenges our optimistic outlook.

How to avoid it ? Often when we schedule work, we think of the best-case situation, blindly presuming the outcome without considering other elements that might cause delays. You can avoid this by scheduling your time and by taking both inside and outside view into account while planning.

The anchoring bias

This can occur when an individual or a group rely heavily on first piece of information they encounter about a decision where an individual’s or a group’s decisions are influenced by particular reference point or anchor. For instance, if you see a shirt that costs more and then see a second one that costs less, you are prone to see the second one cheap. Whereas if you had merely seen the second shirt priced at that value, you’d probably not view it as cheap. It’s always the first piece of information that we know unduly influences our opinion. That’s a form of anchoring bias.

This cognitive bias can cause alternatives to be clustered around the ‘anchor’, making you less focused on other estimates, possibilities or wider range of other alternatives. Interpreting newer information from the reference point of our anchor , instead of seeing it objectively can skew our judgment. When we are anchored to a specific figure or plan of action, we end up filtering all new information through the framework we initially drew up in our head, distorting our thinking. This makes us reluctant to make significant changes, even if the situation calls for it. Whether we are setting a schedule for a project or trying to decide on a budget, this bias can skew our perspective and cause us to cling to a particular number or value, even when it is irrational.

How to avoid? Like all biases, this too happens subconsciously and avoiding it is not entirely possible. One way to avoid us keeping your decisions evidence-based, and straightforward and to come up with reasons why the anchor is not appropriate for the situation. Consider alternative options might reduce the influence of an anchor.

Status quo bias

This is preference for current state of affairs where there is a tendency to maintain things as they are, even when that may be significantly less than optimal. The current situation is taken as a reference point, and any change from that is perceived as loss. This bias becomes more stronger when there is an overwhelming number of choices, make you resistant to change, and can result in opportunities not acted upon.

The status quo bias can have a serious impact on your everyday decisions like, sticking with your current choices and avoiding or trying out new choices in areas of health, finance, career or academic decisions. Even though this minimises the risks associated with change, but it also causes people to miss out on potential benefits that might outweigh the risks. While this frees up your mental resources, but you don’t necessarily make decisions based on sound reasoning and leads to choices that aren’t in our best interests. You tend to prefer action to inaction, even when the latter is more advantageous.

How to avoid? Once you are able to recognise you are engaging in status quo bias, you can work towards avoiding it. Take time to weigh all of your options carefully, giving them each equal consideration. Sometimes we engage in status quo because choosing default is easier. In such cases, having a specific plan of action increases the chances of avoiding it.

Loss aversion

This is a cognitive bias that describes why the pain of losing is twice as powerful as pleasure of gaining. It refers to individual tendency to prefer avoiding losses to get equal gains. For instance, you are less likely to buy something if it’s seen as a potential for a loss of money even though the gain potential is high. When you consider your choices, you focus more on what they stand to lose rather than how they might benefit.

This decision trap is an emotional bias which comes from our innate tendency to have strong emotions when faced with loss, which outweigh the positive emotions associated with gain. You often experience this when you are considering change of direction in how you invest your time, money and other resources. It makes us give undue importance to potential loss and may not pursue a large gain if there is a risk of small loss likely. The fear of loss or risk keeps you from taking calculated risks, trying new opportunities and innovating ideas.

How to avoid? When faced with a decision that could be influenced by loss aversion, framing a question as either loss or gain can change your decision. Ask yourself, “What is the worst outcome if this course of action is taken to put loss into perspective and to to evaluate if it’s worth making a decision or not.

Self-serving bias

This is a cognitive bias where one tends to take credit for positive events or outcomes, but blame outside factors for negative events. When we succeed at something, we attribute it to our hard work, however, if we fail, we most likely to find external factors to blame. For instance, when you receive a critical feedback from your team member, instead of taking it constructively and accepting your flaws, you may put up a defence.

It is a cognitive bias that allows you to protect your self-esteem by attributing positive events to personal characteristics to boost your confidence. One advantage of this bias is that it leads people to persevere even in the face of adversity. However, it can also lead to faulty attributions such as blaming others for their own shortcomings. This can limit your learning and can lead to poor decisions and repeating bad choices.

How to avoid? You can avoid this bias by recoding, recognising what actually happened and documenting the reasoning behind your decisions and the outcomes. This way you can identify your strengths and weaknesses.

The bandwagon effect

This bias refers to our habit of adopting certain behaviours or beliefs because many others do the same. If an idea or belief increases in popularity, we are more likely to adopt it to make a decision quickly. However, decisions that benefit others do not always benefit us.

Thinking through an idea and deciding whether it is worth supporting or not takes time. So, we rely on other people, and skip the long process of individual evaluation. We also do this to gain approval, but this leads to mob mentality or group thinking . This leads to unproductive situations where team members don’t realise their level of conformity to the group’s beliefs where it leads to a status quo that is difficult to challenge. The bandwagon bias lowers individual critical thinking abilities, stunts creativity and innovative ideas.

How to avoid? It is important to evaluate ideas on the basis of what they could mean for us instead of giving into something that is popular. Slow down your decision-making process so as to allow yourself to think critically to prevent yourself from quickly adopting a popular idea and consider alternative ideas.

Questions for self-reflection

How aware are you of your thinking errors that sabotage your decision-making?

Did you make the recent decision based on a preconception or on research and facts ?

Do you consider information that disagree with your beliefs while making decisions?

When was the last time you challenged a status quo?

Do you tend to search for facts that supports your decision while ignoring other facts and perspectives?

How often do you challenge a strategy at work that you don’t agree with?

How do you react when your view point is challenged?

Do you often jump to conclusions based on what others conform to or base your decisions on facts?

Do you own your failures as much as you do with your successes?

To conclude,

Our memories and experiences contribute to thinking errors and biases that lead us to poor and irrational decisions and judgments. Although they can’t be removed, they can be recognised and changed. Only by recognising when you’ve fallen victim to such thinking biases that you can learn to avoid such decision traps in the future.

By becoming actively aware of your biases, you can make a conscious effort in coming up with objective opinions and make more rational decisions. It is important to regularly reflect on your decisions through honest and kind self criticism. Be flexible in your thinking to reframe and to counteract your biases. Being open to various experiences, other opinions, perspectives, values and goals, you can further avoid traps of cognitive biases that sabotage your decision- making.

“If there’s something you really want to believe, that’s what you should question the most.”

Penn Jillette

2 thoughts on “8 thinking errors that sabotage your decision-making

  1. Wow, that was a very comprehensive post with all the terms included. I appreciate that, and your final part on self-reflection really does seal the deal. Thanks so much for this valuable post, Srilatha!

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