cognitive_biases

It’s a Miracle That Humans Ever Make the Right Decision

I married when I was 24 years old.

We had our first child before I was 25.

I quit my job when I was 25, and went  back to school for my PhD.

I opened a high-end personal training studio right before the economic crash of 2008.

All of the above represent key decisions I’ve made in my life (along with my wife), and they’ve all turned out quite well (well, most of them).

My wife and I have been happily married for 35 years, we’ve raised three outstanding young men, and I’ve enjoyed a wonderful career for the past 30 years as a college professor.

We won’t talk about how the personal training studio thing ended…

Whenever you make a decision, there’s always a risk that you make the wrong one. As a result, people often delay making decisions so that they can gather more information. Or they simply delay making a decision as a way to avoid the possibility of making a bad choice.

So making a decision is not always an easy task; one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes (actually the only one I know, who am I kidding) is “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” from Henry IV. This suggests that it’s not easy being the person in charge, the one who has to make key decisions.

And to make matters worse, as humans, we have certain biases, formally known as cognitive biases, that affect our decision making.

According to Wikipedia, cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment.

Wikipedia lists 175 cognitive biases, with names such as Dunning-Kruger effectFundamental attribution errorIllusion of asymmetric insightMood-congruent memory bias, and Outgroup homogeneity bias.

Given that there are so many potential biases, it’s a miracle that anyone ever makes the right decision.

The list is overwhelming, to say the least. Fortunately, Buster Benson, a product manager at Slack, has put together a cognitive bias cheat sheet that attempts to classify the 175 biases into higher order categories. Benson notes that every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy. By looking at the biases in terms of the problem they’re trying to solve, he was able to create four higher level categories: too much information, not enough meaning, need to at fast, what should we remember.

The diagram that accompanies this post was created by John Manoogian III, an internet entrepreneur, a couple days after having read Benson’s post, and does a nice job of taking those 175 cognitive biases and breaking them into the categories created by Benson.

My favorite quote from Benson’s article was this one-liner:

Since learning about confirmation bias, I keep seeing it everywhere.

Which to me, sounds like a case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

So I guess a key takeaway is that you shouldn’t let these biases get in the way of your decision making. Know that the biases exist, and that sometimes they are there to actually help us with the process.

I also believe that in the end, things usually have a way of working out.

Unless you are thinking about opening up a personal training studio…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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