Why do you make the decisions you do? Why are you in this field of work, that job, this relationship, that car? What if I said the main reason is because your brain insists on perpetuating what was probably a flawed and irrational decision in the first place?
No, no, you might insist. It was a well thought-out, rational decision. Are you sure? It’s simply frightful the number of cognitive biases our thinking is subject to. The worst part is that we are complete suckers for them. We aren’t even aware that we’re having the wool pulled over our eyes – by our own minds nonetheless! Let us pull the masks off of two and expose them to the light of day, in the hopes that we will be more wary of them in the future.
One nifty phenomenon we’ve learned about from social psychologists is called the effort justification effect. The gist of it is that the more effort you put into something, the more highly you will value it. The reason it influences us is because people don’t like to hold ideas that disagree with each other (it causes an uncomfortable state known as cognitive dissonance). Exerting a lot of effort for something that you don’t care about or which is unimportant doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Ergo, I must be doing this for a very good reason. I once spent a full afternoon trying to assemble an Ikea chair. God I love that chair. Best. Chair. Ever.
Take work itself for example. Most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives at work. We work hard, we sacrifice the time we could be spending on other experiences in order to do our best, keep on growing in our career, etc. In some careers or organizations especially, the investment is enormous. We must be doing something dreadfully important. But are we? We all want to feel like what we do matters, but when we over-inflate the importance of what we’re doing – or of our role in it – we risk overreacting when things go awry. We risk making poor decisions about how we allocate our time and energy.
Which puts me in mind of another cognitive error, this one from the field of microeconomics – the sunk cost fallacy. Imagine you spent four years and forty grand earning a graduate degree. Only now, you are beginning to suspect maybe it isn’t the right field for you after all. But you spent all that time and money getting that degree, so when you look for a job, you narrow your focus to those most closely aligned with that field. That’s the mistake – your time and money are gone, never to be seen or heard from again. The decisions you make going forward should be independent of those costs. But we all fall prey to it in both large and small decisions every day, from investment decisions to how long we are willing to stand in line for something.
The moral of the story is just because you invest in something does not make it valuable or the right thing to do at all. Whether we’re talking about decisions concerning the role your job plays in the larger context of your life, the kind of job you are in, the particular tasks you undertake in your job, or even whether to wait in line at a restaurant – it’s the same thing. Letting ourselves fall prey to these fallacies leads us to making ineffective decisions. That project you spent a year on is failing – are you going to redouble your efforts to save it and risk going down with it, or salvage what you can and move on?
Our culture really values confidence and bold action. It over-values it, unfortunately. The brutal truth is that our decisions aren’t as good – let alone rational – as we think they are. The only way to save ourselves from our own mental shortcuts, is to first shuck off the mantle of over-confidence. We have to admit that we are all of us, all of the time, at risk for considerable errors in thinking. We need to familiarize ourselves with our blind spots, and think harder about our thinking.
“Leaders need to correct for cognitive biases the way a sharpshooter corrects for wind velocity or a yachtsman corrects for the tide.” “The problem is not lack of competence, it is confidence without competence.” –Paul Gibbons
“If there’s something you really want to believe, that’s what you should question the most.” –Penn Jillette
“It is an acknowledged fact that we perceive errors in the work of others more readily than in our own.” –Leonardo da Vinci
“A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability.” –Daniel Kahneman
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