When we've made a decision that has led to serious trouble, it's possible that a cognitive bias known as neglect of probability might have played a role. This cognitive bias can affect decision making by causing us to choose among options based solely on the values of the respective "best outcomes," respectively, of those options. Using this criterion leads to trouble when the outcomes of the options are uncertain, because it ignores the probabilities of actually achieving those outcomes.
Stated a Neglect of Probability causes us
to choose among options based
solely on the values of their
respective "best outcomes,"
ignoring the likelihood of those
outcomes actually coming aboutbit more precisely, a rational decision would be based on considering both the value of an option's potential outcome and the probability of actually generating that outcome. Instead, when we're under the spell of Neglect of Probability, we tend to assess the goodness of an option by focusing solely (or excessively) on the value of its best outcome, while ignoring the probability of achieving that outcome.
An illustration might clarify this effect further.
The IT department at Dewey, Cheatham and Howe, LLP, (a fictitious global law firm), is upgrading the operating systems of DCH's fleet of personal computers from PC-OS 11 to PC-OS 12 (a fictitious operating system). The task would be relatively straightforward were it not for the enormous number of commercial and custom applications running on those computers. DCH's experts expect that the change from PC-OS 11 to PC-OS 12 will render many of those applications unusable. Among the 18,000 total applications, most are expected to operate correctly, but many will not. The full list of questionable applications is unknown.
Testing all 18,000 applications is an impractically large effort. But by working with the vendors of the commercial applications, and by collaborating with IT departments in other law firms, DCH has reduced the number of applications whose status is unknown to a mere 1,500. That number is less daunting, but it's still impossibly large.
IT has therefore decided to let users of each of the questionable applications perform the testing and certification, in three stages. In Phase I an application expert checks that the app operates in PC-OS 12. If it does, then in Phase II for that app, 10% of the app's users are authorized to use the app for up to 30 days. If they report no problems, then the app is cleared for Phase III, general use. If the Phase II users do report problems, usage of that app is suspended and IT works with the vendor or internal author to resolve the issue. When the issue is resolved, the app is returned to Phase II for another 30 days and the procedure repeats until the app is cleared.
In this way, IT can reduce the number of apps that need more thorough testing. And when an app functions properly, the cost of determining that it does so is very low. These cost-control features are very attractive to IT decision makers.
But there's a problem with this approach. In the 30 days during which Phase II users operate untested apps, those untested apps might corrupt existing data or documents, without the knowledge of the users of the apps. Based on prior experience with PC-OS 10, this corruption is almost certain to occur in many apps. Therefore, the probability of a successful outcome for IT's intended three-phase approach is very low. But the decision makers in IT who conceived of this plan are neglecting the probability of that good outcome. They're attracted by the low cost of the best outcome, and that has caused them to ignore the fact that some applications — IT knows not which ones — will almost certainly cause data corruption. In this example, IT's approach might have a very good outcome, but the probability of that outcome is small.
Neglect of Probability is most likely to play a role in decision making when the decision-making scenario involves choosing among a set of options, some of which have outcomes very much more attractive than others. In these decision-making scenarios, Neglect of Probability tends to cause the decision makers to choose options with too little regard for — or without regard for — the probabilities of success of the various options.
And even when decision makers do consider probabilities, the risk of a poor decision remains unacceptably high for some kinds of mission-critical decisions. Decision makers might in some cases estimate probabilities in a biased way that tends to favor the options with the outcomes they find most appealing. There are indeed many ways to mess things up. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of
form and meaning as distinct, humans tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that
are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase
with its aesthetics.
- Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism
- When we suddenly notice a "project-killer" risk that hasn't yet materialized, we sometimes
accept the risk even though we know how seriously it threatens the effort. A psychological phenomenon
known as naïve realism plays a role in this behavior.
- Unrecognized Bullying: III
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, perpetrators,
bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect
are two of these biases.
- Lessons Not Learned: I
- The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes us to underestimate the cost and effort involved
in projects large and small. Mitigating its effects requires understanding how we go wrong when we plan
projects by referencing our own past experience.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info