Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Eliminating Mental Bias (Cognitive) Decision Errors

“The decision made sense at the time. How did we get stuck with such a bad result?”

Good decisions look forward to the future in an unbiased way. However, human decision makers tend to hold to the present and their individual perspective. The unrecognized clash of these two facts often leads to a mediocre decision and poor results.

In order to increase the likelihood of making the best decision in the future, watch for this clash. The first step toward improvement is become aware of these biases. Then, deliberately make an effort to change behavior in order to compensate for them.

Here are five specific examples of mental biases followed with suggestion actions to compensate and help make a better decision.

Examples of holding to the present.

1. Giving disproportionate weight to the first information received.

The initial set of facts, by virtue of their familiarity, tend to be reassuring. Consequently when additional information is received, the new information is evaluated against a higher standard and may not be properly considered. Make the effort to fully value the new information.

2. Favoring choices that allow current conditions to continue.

The status quo also has its familiarity. There is often pressure to continue with the current path. It is important to value the current situation objectively. Question if the current situation, evaluated on its own merits, would be selected now or continued.

3. Favoring choices that justify previous decisions or actions.

There is a tendency to make choices that confirm previous actions, even if the earlier decisions or actions were flawed. This bias can lead to a compounding of errors and a deteriorating situation. It is particularly important to guard against this bias since the negative consequences can be so severe. An opinion from someone not involved in the previous actions can serve to provide objective balance.

Examples of Individual Perspectives.

4. Selecting Confirming Evidence.It is natural to favor information that supports the individual view. It is very easy to ignore, or not fully evaluate, information that does not fit well into one’s perspective. Make the effort to ensure that all the information is being examined fairly. Allow others to fully evaluate all the facts.

5. Asking the decision question in a distorted way.

Very often, the questions leading to a decision are posed in a misleading way that emphasizes one preferred direction. Then, the discussion follows the logical consequences of the biased question. Check to see if the question has been properly formulated in a neutral way and revise if necessary.

It is important to keep in mind that the above five examples of mental bias are simply behavior habits. Such habits only contribute to a poor decision when people are not aware of them. Watch for these tendencies and make adjustments when possible. It is far more rewarding to catch these behaviors as they happen rather than deal with a poor result influenced by mental errors.

Other articles in this series can be found by clicking the Thinking /Perception Skills category in the right box or through the links below:

(2) Use of Working Theories

(3) Listening for Consequences

(4) Put Aside the First Idea

These types of decision errors can often be traced to the tendency to mentally hold on to old ideas that interfere with appropriate responses to the present situation. A different perspective to this type of attachment can be seen in the Zen story Two Monks and a Woman.

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