You're probably aware that certain patterns of thinking known as cognitive biases can lead us to make decisions that turn out to be less than ideal. A cognitive bias is the tendency to make systematic errors of judgment based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. For example, a bias known as self-serving bias causes us to tend to attribute our successes to our own capabilities, and our failures to situational factors. These tendencies occur outside our awareness, and they occur more often than objective evidence can support.
The effects of some cognitive biases are especially costly. They not only cause us to make less-than-ideal decisions, but they also affect our ability to mitigate the effects of other cognitive biases. One such cognitive bias, known as the bias blind spot, causes us to recognize the impact of cognitive biases on the judgment of others, while failing to recognize similar or even identical effects on our own judgment. [Pronin 2002]
A second example of a bias that affects our ability to mitigate the effects of cognitive biases is choice-supportive bias. [Mather 2000] [Lind 2017] Among the effects of choice-supportive bias is distortion of our assessments of the quality of our past choices, which compounds the difficulty of improving our decision processes. That's why mitigating the effects of choice-supportive bias is of special interest to organizations that have recognized the need to monitor and continuously improve the quality of their decision-making processes.
Initiatives designed to mitigate the effects of choice-supportive bias on decision making can benefit from understanding how choice-supportive bias can affect decisions in organizations. With that goal in mind I offer the insights below.
- Mistaken evaluation of past choices
- In perhaps its must subtle form, choice-supportive bias can cause us to adopt a strong belief that a choice turned out well, when in fact it did not. The belief can be so strong that it can suppress any desire to evaluate the choice. In this way, the bias can cause us to neglect to conduct the customary review that we use to evaluate similar choices.
- The unexamined Lacking a clear and objective view of the
quality of our past choices, improving our
decision processes can be difficult indeedchoice can thus present significant risk to the organization. Because we believe that all is well, much time can pass before we become aware of problems. And because lost time cannot be recovered, correcting the effects of a bad choice might not be possible.
- A choice that seemed suitable at first might seem less so with the passage of time. When assessing the quality of decisions, pay special attention to those that weren't assessed with care because they seemed so obviously correct at first.
- Choice-supportive memory distortion
- If we do try to evaluate a past choice, choice-supportive bias has many tricks it can play. One is memory distortion. Memory plays a role in choice evaluation because we must examine the options we had at the time we made our choice, and we must examine what we knew about those options or other conditions. We also examine what we thought would happen as a result of our choice and compare that to what actually did happen.
- Although we might find some of this needed information in documents and messages, we must also rely on memory. And memory is subject to distortions. Because of choice-supportive bias, we tend to be better able to recall data that supports the choice under evaluation. And we tend to be less able to recall data that calls that choice into question. We search memory more diligently for choice-supportive recollections, and less diligently for recollections that raise doubts about the choice. These effects of choice-supportive bias suggest possible synergies with confirmation bias. [Nickerson 1998]
- Reduce dependence on memory by keeping records of the context of past decisions. Documenting options that were rejected and uncertainties surrounding past decisions can be very helpful in assessing decision quality.
- Choice-supportive standards adjustments
- When we evaluate the merits of past choices, we do so against a set of standards. The results of these evaluations are therefore strongly affected by the standards we use. By adjusting the standards we apply, we can generate evidence supporting a claim that the choice was wise. Standards adjustment thus "rigs" the evaluation process.
- To be effective, these standards adjustments must not appear to be transparently outcome-motivated. Techniques employed to make these adjustments seem more legitimate include revising the evaluation process as a part of a larger program seemingly separate from the evaluation; hiring a consultant to "bring the standards up to date," or to improve the evaluation process, or to actually conduct the process; or deferring the evaluation of the choice long enough that people forget that it hasn't happened, and then just cancelling it altogether. This last method is equivalent to eliminating the standards.
- Detect these effects by searching for correlations between standards revision efforts and decisions that might have been controversial or questionable.
- Misattribution of coincident phenomena
- Here the term "coincident phenomena" denotes events or conditions whose occurrence (or nonoccurrence) is retrospectively attributed to the choice in question. The misattribution of coincident phenomena is the mistaken conclusion that something that happened (or did not happen) after we made a particular choice was actually a result of that choice. It's analogous to the rhetorical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc.
- Think of the old joke about the man who habitually and continually snaps his fingers. When asked why he does so, he responds, "To keep the elephants away." When the questioner responds, "But there are no elephants around here," the man replies, "Don't you see? It works!"
- Advocates of controversial decisions sometimes seek post-decision justification by claiming credit for phenomena that occur after the decision, but which weren't cited or anticipated during the decision process. Tracking the incidence of these claims can reveal decision quality assessments that might improve with closer examination.
One can easily imagine an analysis in depth similar to the above for a bias that might be called choice-disparaging bias. If such a bias exists, it could account for behavior that disparages past choices or actions with intensity out of proportion to the evidence that the choices were unwise. Although I'm unaware of any reports of serious studies or experiments that might provide evidence for such a choice-disparaging bias, I have personally witnessed behavior that would be consistent with it. The phrase, "I told you so," comes to mind. As an exercise, we might all benefit from rewriting this post so as to describe the mechanisms and effects associated with choice-disparaging bias. Enjoy! Top Next Issue
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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?
- Overconfidence at Work
- Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence
— leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can
be most useful.
- Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret.
The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we
must manage the risks that come along with them.
- Motivated Reasoning and the Pseudocertainty Effect
- When we have a preconceived notion of what conclusion a decision process should produce, we sometimes
engage in "motivated reasoning" to ensure that we get the result we want. That's risky enough
as it is. But when we do this in relation to a chain of decisions in the context of uncertainty, trouble
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: III
- We usually attribute departures from plan to poor execution, or to "poor planning." But one
cause of plan ineffectiveness is the way we think when we set about devising plans. Three cognitive
biases that can play roles are the so-called Magical Number 7, the Ambiguity Effect, and the Planning Fallacy.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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