Why we often make bad decisions

Unfortunately, almost all of us harbor some myths that keep us from making good decisions. What are those myths and how do you get around them?

According to American research, each of us more or less consciously makes about 35,000 decisions in one day, several hundred of which are about what we eat alone. You may be an exception, but most of us hold some of the same deep-seated beliefs about how we make decisions, such as “I like to be goal-oriented” and “I can make rational decisions” to “My intuition is usually right”.

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is an expert in complex decision making. She comes up with at least 11 myths that cause us to often make mistakes when making decisions. According to her, those myths stem from three basic misleading notions. To combat it in ourselves, she advises us to take a conscious pause when making important decisions; to step back and look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves a few critical questions.

“know” but not know “why”

Research into decision-making among managers has shown that managers, especially those in the higher echelons and with more experience, rely heavily on their intuition, feeling, self-judgment or gut in their work . According to Daniel Kahneman , renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate, intuition is judgment surrounded by an aura of conviction, correctness and plausibility, but without strong opinion or justification – one “knows” but not “why”.

Most of us can no longer imagine living and working without a smartphone. This is perhaps even more true for managers than for others. Our “Hey Siri” culture has conditioned many of us to equate speed with efficiency and effectiveness. It also changes the way we process information. Our brains are now conditioned to respond with pleasure to the bings, pings and dings that our devices give off. In fact, according to Strauss Einhorn, they help us cultivate a set of counterproductive ideas and reactive behaviors — such as wanting to make quick decisions — that impair our ability to actually make informed decisions.

According to Kahneman, people already need to get rid of decision making as quickly as possible because we need the internal signal that an assessment or decision has been completed. Deciding takes a lot of energy and this internal signal is a reward that we like to give ourselves. It gives a nice feeling that we have done coherent work, with sufficient coherence between the facts and the assessment: it ‘feels good’. In addition, our self-confidence increases through the subjective experience of being able to judge and decide faster and more easily.

You can assume that managers – who have to make difficult decisions quickly than others – use their intuition to quickly arrive at this internal signal and that reward.

11 Myths About Decision-Making

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is a former Columbia Business School teacher and author of Problem Solved . She has been studying decision making for over 20 years and has identified a number of deep-seated and counterproductive myths that impair our ability to make decisions. The eleven most common myths are:

1. I like to be efficient

For many people, efficient decision making equals jumping right in and making a decision. But to be really effective, we need to be clear about what we’re solving. Rushing can lead you to make a decision based on the wrong information and assumptions, which you will eventually regret.

2. I  ‘m too busy to make time for this decision

Delaying a decision is in itself a decision. Whereas if you deliberately slow down to understand what and how to decide, your overall effectiveness usually increases. By taking extra time now to find a good solution, you can avoid having to spend time making a new decision later because the previous one produced an unsatisfactory result.

3. Now is the time to solve this problem

This is the classic example of ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’. Our problems always have context. With too narrow a focus you can solve the wrong problem, or come to only a partial solution. If your car breaks down unexpectedly and you rush to buy a new one, do you think about your needs beyond the here and now?

4. This is my decision that I must make alone; I don’t need to involve others in this

Our important decisions always affect others. At best, ignoring who else is affected by a decision will only partially solve the problem and may even make it worse. If you exchange the family city bike for a speed pedelec, it may just be that your partner will drive your child to school alone from now on because he or she is afraid of causing an accident with the pedelec.

5. I know I’m right: I just want data or an opinion to confirm my own thinking

This error in decision making is known as ‘confirmation bias’. We form coherent impressions very quickly, but then adapt them very slowly. This type of bias has been the cause of, for example, the accident with the NASA Challenger or the Puttense murder case. There was conflicting data available that should have raised concerns, but groupthink kicked in and no one wanted to start waving a red flag. To avoid tunnel vision, you will have to look for opposite examples and explanations. That way you can avoid seeing what you want to see instead of what is possible. You have chosen a new washing machine from Bosch but want to look further.

6. I trust my intuition

It’s okay to trust your intuition when choosing your toppings. But when we rely on gut feeling for bigger, high-stakes decisions, we rely on our biases and flawed memory. Important decisions benefit from opening up your cognitive space to enable new information and insights.

7. Decision-making is  linear

In reality, good decision-making is circular; we need a feedback loop as we collect and analyze information. Sometimes we need to go back a few steps to find information we’ve neglected, or to gather new information or do some other kind of analysis.

8. I can put all the information together in my head

Big decisions are made up of a number of smaller decisions. When we try to keep up with all those moving parts in our minds, we end up relying on a rambling memory and a easily distracted mind. Our emotions can also get in the way, leading to biased thinking. Capturing data is an important aspect of thinking and analysis. Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci kept notebooks. We too can buy (virtual) notebooks and write things down to document the progress in our thinking and work.

9. I have all the information I need 

Fast action is nice, but we can often improve our decisions – and our satisfaction afterwards – by investing in a little research and by testing our assumptions against evidence.

10. I can make a rational decision

Psychologists around the world have shown that, as much as we’d like to believe it, none of us are rational. For example, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that when faced with a given loss of $1,000 versus a 50% chance of no loss or a loss of $2,500, the same people often choose the risky alternative. This is called risk-seeking behavior. We all operate through a fogged windshield of bias based on past experiences and feelings.

11. There’s Only One Way To Do This

Whether it’s how to make the bed, what diet to follow, or how to manage your old age, there is always more than one way to come to a decision. We are conditioned not to listen to other voices and are often locked in our information, environmental and social (media) bubble. But when you get outside of your routines and patterns, you start to see things differently.

Three incorrect assumptions

These myths, according to Strauss Einhorn, are based on three common and popular basic notions that we should use to prove ourselves bad: First, that as busy people we don’t have to invest time to make good decisions. Second, we believe that we are rational beings, capable of solving thoughtful, complex problems with our minds. Thirdly, we regard making difficult decisions primarily as something personal that we prefer not to involve anyone else in.

All three of these assumptions are not only incorrect – and unproductive but also hinder clear thinking and analysis. We are not computers but social beings operating in a community. We need time for reflection, to confront unconscious biases or to see the bigger picture.

Take a time out

One way to combat these biases is to put a speed bump in our thinking; making a strategic pit stop to give us time to pause, see the whole picture, involve others and reflect on what we are experiencing. Slowing down can improve our decision-making by allowing us to distance ourselves from our reliance on these decision-making myths and reflexive behaviors.

Here are five questions to ask yourself during this time-out:

1. What decision-making myths do I rely on to make this decision?

2. How will this decision bring me closer to achieving my life goals?

3. Are my feelings about this decision based on what is actually happening or do they reflect my learned behavioral patterns?

4. What information is there in the world that could help me improve this decision?

5. How can I better understand the perceptions and perspectives of others who will be affected by this decision?

These simple five questions will strengthen your decision making skills and can help you see beyond the “trees” of the decision-making myth and beyond the “forest” of prejudices on which they are based. The right decisions for you come from using the right tools and not from your smartphone.

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