Point Lookout
a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting

Archive of Past Issues

Cognitive Biases at Work

Here are links to the previous issues of Point Lookout that touch on the effects of cognitive biases at work. Bookmark this page. Or browse the Point Lookout archive by date. Subscribe now.

A home officeComing January 20: Anticipating Absence: Quarantine and Isolation
When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance. Available here and by RSS on January 20.
stacks of gold coinsAnd on January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.

Other topical archives:

October 7, 2020

Assembling an IKEA chairSeven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.

September 30, 2020

The Bay of Pigs, CubaSeven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias.

September 23, 2020

Auklet flock, Shumagins, March 2006Seven More Planning Pitfalls: I
Planners and members of planning teams are susceptible to patterns of thinking that lead to unworkable plans. But planning teams also suffer vulnerabilities. Two of these are Group Polarization and Trips to Abilene.

September 16, 2020

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeSeven 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.

September 9, 2020

Larix gmelinii forestSeven Planning Pitfalls: II
Plans are well known for working out differently from what we intended. Sometimes, the unintended outcome is due to external factors over which the planning team has little control. Two examples are priming effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.

September 2, 2020

A fly caught in a carnivorous plant known as a venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)Seven Planning Pitfalls: I
Whether in war or in projects, plans rarely work out as, umm well, as planned. In part, this is due to our limited ability to foretell the future, or to know what we don't know. But some of the problem arises from the way we think. And if we understand this we can make better plans.

August 26, 2020

The battleship USS Arizona, burning during the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941Motivated 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 looms.

August 19, 2020

Unripe grapes that are probably sourMotivated Reasoning
When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that erroneously lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security.

August 12, 2020

A so-called "Paris Gun" of World War ICognitive 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.

July 1, 2020

Boeing 737 MAX grounded aircraft near Boeing Field, April 2019On Standing Aside
Occasionally we're asked to participate in deliberations about issues relating to our work responsibilities. Usually we respond in good faith. And sometimes we — or those around us — can't be certain that we're responding in good faith. In those situations, we must stand aside.

May 13, 2020

Matt Schaub, as quarterback for the American football team known as the Houston TexansNeglect of Probability
Neglect of Probability is a cognitive bias that leads to poor decisions. The risk of poor decisions is elevated when we must select an option from a set in which some have outstandingly preferable possible outcomes with low probabilities of occurring.

March 25, 2020

Bullet pointsBullet Point Madness: II
Decision-makers in many organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of a series of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. Briefers who combine this format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions.

March 18, 2020

Examples of nonlinear relationships among conceptsBullet Point Madness: I
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think.

December 18, 2019

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.

December 11, 2019

An onion, sliced and dicedThe 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.

September 18, 2019

An unfinished building, known as SzkieletorThe Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.

September 4, 2019

An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other peopleHow Messages Get Mixed
Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.

August 21, 2019

An abandoned railwayPerfectionism and Avoidance
Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky.

July 24, 2019

Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence.The Stupidity Attribution Error
In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities.

December 12, 2018

Thomas Paine, considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United StatesEffects of Shared Information Bias: II
Shared information bias is widely recognized as a cause of bad decisions. But over time, it can also erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality and the group's perceptions of reality.

December 5, 2018

A set of wrenches from a toolkitEffects of Shared Information Bias: I
Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows. It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.

February 21, 2018

Prof. Tom PettigrewThe Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.

July 13, 2016

Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceCognitive Biases and Influence: II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.

July 6, 2016

An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeCognitive Biases and Influence: I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.

December 23, 2015

Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful Significance: II
When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.

December 16, 2015

Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerWishful Significance: I
When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.

April 15, 2015

Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence 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.

March 11, 2015

Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.

March 26, 2014

An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.

March 19, 2014

The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why 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?

March 12, 2014

The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.

February 26, 2014

Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.

February 19, 2014

A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.

May 29, 2013

A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.

November 30, 2011

Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate OrbiterConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.

November 23, 2011

World global temperature departuresConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.

July 20, 2011

Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.

January 19, 2011

The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.

January 7, 2009

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan GreenspanThe Paradox of Confidence
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!