Preventing Bad Decisions: There’s No Such Thing as a No-Brainer

Posted by on Jan 9, 2013 in Creativity, Decision Making, Problem Solving | 0 comments

Making decisions is one of the hardest things most of us do as individuals, spouses, parents, leaders, and executives.  Bad decisions can damage a relationship, a business, and a career, sometimes irreparably.  So what causes bad decisions – the alternatives were not clearly defined, the right information was not collected, the costs and benefits were not thoroughly assessed.  But often the fault lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of the decision maker.  The way the human brain works can sabotage our decisions.

Research has proven that we use unconscious routines to cope with the complexity inherent in most decisions.  Some take the form of simple biases, and others appear as irrational anomalies in our thinking.  What makes biases and anomalies so dangerous is their invisibility and our failure to recognize them.

In their 2006 article, The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa stated that as decision makers we all need to understand these traps to our decision making capability and compensate for them.  The following are some of the more common traps they discussed and how you can avoid falling into them.

The Anchoring Trap

When considering a decision, the mind gives disproportionate weight to the first information it receives.  Initial impressions, estimates, or data anchor subsequent thoughts and judgements.

Here are a few techniques you can use to reduce the impact of the anchoring trap:

  • Always view a problem from different perspectives.  Try using alternative starting points and approaches rather than sticking with the first line of thought that occurs to you.
  • Think about the problem on your own before consulting others to avoid becoming anchored by their ideas.
  • Be open-minded.  Seek information and opinions from a variety of people to widen your frame of reference and to push your mind in new directions.

The Status-Quo Trap

We all have biases that influence the choices we make.  Most decision makers display a strong bias toward alternatives that perpetuate the status quo.  We want to protect our egos from criticism.  Breaking the status quo means taking action and if the action doesn’t go smoothly we open ourselves up to potential criticism.  The status quo, in most cases, is the safer course and puts us at less psychological risk.

Here a few things to consider:

  • Remind yourself of your objectives and examine how they would be served by the status quo.  You may find that elements of the current situation act as barriers to your goals.
  • Never think of the status quo as your only alternative.  Identify other options and carefully evaluate all the pluses and minuses.
  • Avoid exaggerating the effort or cost involved in switching from the status quo.

The Confirming-Evidence Trap

The confirming-evidence trap bias leads us to seek out information that supports our existing point of view while avoiding information that contradicts it.  This bias not only affects where we go to collect evidence but also how we interpret the evidence we do receive, leading us to give too much weight to supporting information and too little to conflicting information.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Always check to see whether you are examining all the evidence with equal vigor.  Avoid the tendency to accept confirming evidence without question.
  • Get someone you respect to play devil’s advocate, to argue against the decision you’re contemplating.
  • Be honest with yourself about your motives.  Are you really gathering information to help you make a smart choice, or are you just looking for evidence confirming what you think you’d like to do?
  • In seeking advice from others, don’t ask leading questions that invite confirming evidence.

The Framing Trap

A good first step in making a decision is to frame the question, but it is also one of the most dangerous steps.  The way a problem is framed can profoundly influence the choices you make.  A frame can establish the status quo or introduce an anchor.

Here are a few things to consider to over come the framing trap:

  • Don’t automatically accept the initial frame.  Always try reframe the problem in various ways.  Look for distortions caused by the frames.
  • Think hard throughout the decision making process about framing the problem.  At various points in the process, particularly near the end, ask yourself how your thinking might change if the frame changed.
  • When others recommend decisions, examine the way they framed the problem.  Challenge them with different frames.

When making decisions, there’s rarely such a thing as a no-brainer.  Our minds are always at work, sometimes unfortunately, in ways that hinder our ability to make the best decision.  It is best to uncover errors in our thinking before they become errors in our judgement.

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