Every day, we make hundreds of little decisions, from whether or not to get up when our alarms ring to what to think about when we're lying in bed at night. So, it's unfortunate that decision-making mistakes are literally built into our brains. Humans have evolved to rely on certain thought patterns that just don't always serve us today.
"It’s generally very difficult to know we’re making mistakes when we contemplate decisions," Vijay Ram, PhD, a clarity coach and a visiting research scientist at the University of California, tells Bustle. "We don’t get graded on our work like we did as kids and get to see our mistakes and learn the 'right' way to do something."
From a cognitive science perspective, most decision-making errors boil down to logical fallacies (over-generalizations, comparing apples and oranges, circular thinking), limiting beliefs (underestimations of what's possible), and judgment biases (valuing certain factors above others), Ram explains. "Judgment biases can creep into our thinking even when we are trying to be objective. They unintentionally cause us to weigh information differently because of unconscious attachments to the data, reasoning, or outcome. The general strategy for avoiding these is to learn about them and factor them into our thinking when making important decisions."
Toward that end, here are some of the most common mistakes people make when they're thinking through decisions.
1. Confirmation Bias
If you already have an opinion about something before you've even tried to figure it out, chances are you'll over-value information that confirms that opinion, says Ram. For example, if you think your partner is cheating, you may put a lot of weight on small pieces of "evidence," like them coming home late from work. To combat this tendency, you might ask yourself, "What evidence do I have that my partner's not cheating?"
"The best way to deal with this is to be aware of the confirmation trap and think about what kinds of information you would expect to find to support alternative outcomes," says Ram. "There’s never a better time to play 'devil’s advocate.'"
2. Attribution Bias
Attribution bias, also sometimes known as the “fundamental attribution error,” is when we excuse our own mistakes but blame other people for theirs, says Ram. For example, if we’re late for a meeting, we might expect others to forgive us because we were held up in traffic. But if someone else is, we feel that they were careless.
To combat this bias, we should give other people the chance to explain themselves before judging their behavior. “Be wary of this bias and consider giving the other person the benefit of the doubt until you learn more,” Ram says.
3. Anchoring Bias
When we’re evaluating an option, we often fixate on the first piece of information we have about it, says Ram. For example, if we’re bargaining with a salesperson, we might suggest a price only slightly lower than the one they suggest because our mind has anchored onto it as a starting point.
This is where doing your research comes in. When you go to buy something or hire someone, for example, decide in advance around how much you’d be willing to spend. Then, the other person has less influence over you.
4. The Sunk Cost Fallacy
“Sunk costs” are money, time, or effort we’ve already spent and can’t get back. For instance, if you pay $15 to see a movie, that’s a sunk cost once you’ve paid it. The sunk cost fallacy is when we make decisions in order to make our sunk costs feel worth it. For example, you might sit through the movie even if you don’t enjoy it because you want to feel like that $15 was put to good use. The fallacy is that it wasn’t actually put to good use if it’s only led you to spend two hours of your life feeling bored.
The rational thing to do in that situation would be to leave once you’re not enjoying yourself anymore. That way, you may have wasted $15, but at least you didn’t also waste two hours.
This can also happen with bigger decisions, like breaking up with your partner, says Ram. We’re often reluctant to leave relationships we’ve put a lot of effort into because then all that effort feels like a waste. “The best thing to do is cultivate a habit of admitting your mistakes,” he says. “If you can do this, ask yourself: If the past didn’t exist and you’re just starting out now, what would you do?”
These biases are notoriously difficult to overcome, with some research showing that even advanced psychology students still fall prey to them. Awareness may be the first step to change, but it’s definitely not the only one. But by keeping these errors and their potential remedies in mind, you can begin to improve your decision-making skills.