Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 16;   April 21, 2021:

Choice-Supportive Bias


Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to assess our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes.
A possibly difficult choice

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 indeed
choice 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 non-occurrence) 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! Go to top Top  Next issue: The Self-Explanation Effect  Next Issue

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[Pronin 2002]
Emily Pronin, Daniel Y. Lin, and Lee Ross. "The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28:3 (2002), 369-381. Available here. Retrieved 11 March 2014. Back
[Mather 2000]
Mara Mather and Marcia K. Johnson. "Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age?," Psychology and Aging 15:4 (2000): 596-606. Available here. Retrieved 6 April 2021. Back
[Lind 2017]
Martina Lind, Mimì Visentini, Timo Mäntylä, and Fabio Del Missier. "Choice-supportive misremembering: A new taxonomy and review," Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017), 2062. Available here. Retrieved 6 April 2021. Back
[Nickerson 1998]
Raymond S. Nickerson. "Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises," Review of General Psychology, 2:2 (1998), 175-220. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back

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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

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See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor WatsonComing May 19: Pre-Decision Discussions: Reasoning
When we meet to resolve issues related to upcoming decisions, we sometimes rely on reasoning to help find solutions. Contributions to these discussions generally use mixtures of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning. How do they differ, and what are their strengths and risks? Available here and by RSS on May 19.
A bullying managerAnd on May 26: Even "Isolated Incidents" Can Be Bullying
Many organizations have anti-bullying policies that address only repeated patterns of interpersonal aggression. Such definitions expose the organization and its people to the harmful effects of "isolated incidents" of interpersonal aggression, because even isolated incidents can be bullying. Available here and by RSS on May 26.

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