When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. – Dale Carnegie
Behavioral Biases Can Stifle Productivity
One of the strangest things about humans is that we are full of biases, fallacies, and illusions — yet, we are either ignorant or in denial about them.
We feel so strongly about our ideas and convictions, that we feel things can’t be any other way. We believe that we are perfectly rational – always.
Even when our convictions fail us, we tend to attribute them to external factors, and not to our own biases. These are our blind spots.
We fail to think clearly almost in a systematic way. Behavioral scientists call these as Cognitive errors. We systematically deviate from logical, rational, reasonable thought, and behavior.
When we don’t think clearly, it can cause poor judgments and decision making that can heavily impair our Productivity, leading to failure.
The good news is that Social and Cognitive Psychologists have discovered many of these biases and prejudices already. All we need to do is to understand them, recognize when they are caused and apply techniques to overcome them.
Let us review 3 of the biases that have a bearing on our Productivity and Success.
(1) Confirmation Bias
It is the tendency to interpret new information so that it becomes compatible with our existing theories, beliefs, and convictions. We ﬁlter out any new information that contradicts our existing views (‘disconﬁrming evidence’). This is a dangerous practice.
‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,’ said writer Aldous Huxley.
A few months ago, I was in the market for a scooter. I had seen numerous advertisements in the media. My choice was almost clear. It was the no. 1 selling scooter (call it Model X). My reasoning was the following.
Model X had all the features that I wanted. The mileage was decent. A decent network of service stations. Riding comfort was good.
When anyone said anything to the contrary to my belief about that scooter, I didn’t take it seriously. I ignored it. Even dissatisfied current owners of Model X, couldn’t convince me that I had to look at other models.
I thought they were focused on criticizing it for the sake of it. They had no idea. So many people can’t be wrong to make it the largest selling scooter.
Upon strong persuasion by one of my friends, just prior to buying Model X, I decided to take a hard look at another brand which was the second-largest selling scooter (say Model Y).
I had clearly overlooked many facts; that it (Model Y) had a slightly larger wheelbase (which added to greater stability and safety), and fuel tank cover on the outside (which made it easy to fill fuel), in addition to having all the features of Model X, that I so admired.
I also realized that Model X had made some compromises to cut costs — which was not the case with Model Y — because they were just catching up in the market.
Finally, I bought Model Y, after a lot more research. I have been totally happy.
I hope this explains Confirmation Bias.
The Conﬁrmation bias is considered the mother of all misconceptions. Although the example quoted above is a buying decision, Confirmation bias can affect many other decisions such as human relationships, work-related decisions, investment decisions, major life decisions, religious beliefs etc.
What can you do?
If the word ‘exception’ gets tossed around, pay greater attention. Often it hides the presence of disconﬁrming evidence. Whenever observations contradict your theory, take them seriously and note them down immediately.
Note that the brain actively ‘forgets’ disconﬁrming evidence after a short time. Regardless of how strongly you feel about your judgment, more actively look for contradictions.
Play the Devil’s advocate, and prove that you are right. Get contradicting points of view, and reason them. In the world of information, gathering all the data is no big deal.
(2) Paradox of Choices
The human brain loves Choices in all situations and transactions. No doubt, the more choices just represents the Progress of our Civilization.
However, when the no. of choices exceeds a certain threshold, it causes an analysis paralysis, impairs our decision making, and even leads to unhappiness.
In other words, less is more. When we have fewer choices, we not only tend to make better decisions but also feel happier.
Where there are Choices, there are Biases
Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have smartphones. Few of us had landline phones at home. The phones would do only one thing, that is to talk to someone.
Today, if we step into a mobile store, we can get so flattened with the features, pricing, and options that we sometimes return empty-handed. An avalanche of models is out to grab our mindshare and wallet share. We even feel giddy.
It’s not only about phones. On just about anything, ranging from apple to automobiles, we have a mind-boggling number of choices.
This leads to three issues:
(i) A large selection leads to analysis paralysis: There have been many behavioral experiments that have demonstrated that customers bought less when the choices were too many. We feel that we can’t come to a decision, hence buy nothing.
(ii) A broader selection leads to poorer decisions: When we have too many choices, we can get so stressed by the sheer variety, that we reduce the decision to a few perhaps non-essential parameters and consequently make a bad decision. A classic example of this is how corporations evaluate employees on too many performance dimensions, only to finally rank and rate them based on some irrelevant dimension. That leads to promoting mediocrity.
(iii) Finally, a large selection also leads to unhappiness: How can you be so sure that you made the right decision when there are thousands of models of phones (or anything for that matter) surround and confound you? You can’t. The more choices, the more unsure you are. Therefore, we are more dissatisfied.
What can you do?
Be clear on what you want and stick to it when shopping or evaluating or considering too many choices.
e.g. When you shop for a computer, if you know the type of processor, the Operating System, Memory, HDD, the model, and the budget stick to it. When the salesperson offers an upsell, don’t get swayed. You will have a limited set of options that you can further narrow and make a good choice. Always consider quality over quantity.
Think like an Essentialist
Keep your life to the essential things you care about. The less stuff you deal with, the happier, you will be. The focus is not on too much stuff, but life experiences.
Seek Expert Advice
When you aren’t clear, seek expert help to apply filters, eliminate the needless, and limit your choices.
(3) Decision Fatigue
Psychologists Roy Baumeister and his collaborator Jean Twenge conducted a pilot study on how decisions affect us. They concluded, based on the pilot study that decision making depletes our self-control.
When self-control gets depleted, our Productivity also gets degraded. Too many decisions cause fatigue.
Roy and Jean’s Pilot
Here’s a simplistic description of the pilot. They covered a table with hundreds of inexpensive items – from tennis balls and candles to T-shirts, chewing gum and Coke cans. Roy divided his students into two groups. He labeled the ﬁrst group as ‘deciders’, the second ‘non-deciders’.
He told the deciders: ‘” I’m going to show you sets containing two random items and each time you have to decide which you prefer. At the end of the experiment, I’ll give you one item you can take home.” They were led to believe that their choices would inﬂuence which item they got to keep.
To the non-deciders, he said: ‘Write down what you think about each item, and I’ll pick one and give it to you at the end.’ (In other words, they were not going to decide on anything)
Immediately thereafter, he asked each student to put their hand in ice-cold water and hold it there for as long as possible. In psychology, this is a typical method to measure willpower or self-discipline; if you have little or none, you yank your hand back out of the water very quickly.
The result: the deciders pulled their hands out of the icy water much sooner than the non-deciders did.
The inference is that the deciders had frittered their willpower (making decisions) during the pilot, while the non-deciders didn’t.
Making decisions is exhausting. If you have ever conﬁgured a laptop online, or solved a complex puzzle or researched a long trip – ﬂight, hotels, restaurants, weather etc.– you know this well: after all the comparing, considering and choosing, you get exhausted. Science calls this decision fatigue.
If we compare Willpower to a chargeable battery, that gets charged every day or after rest, then decisions consume this battery. The more decisions you make, the quicker your (Willpower) battery depletes.
What can you do?
Build Great Habits
When we build great habits, the decisions become automatic. We don’t use our willpower, instead use our muscle memory. Building habits is not easy. It takes time. But if we pick up great habits, and make it part of our automatic routine, we are conserving our willpower for better things.
Decide less, but decide better
Try to develop a weekly or daily schedule of routine activities and stick to them. Decide upfront what you are going to wear, or what you are going to eat, where and how you are going to go etc.,
Organize your life such that many of these decisions routine, without requiring your intervention. Keep your decision making confined to only those important decisions that you must make. Use the time and willpower to research and make the best decision there is. [e.g. buying a car, making a career decision, making decisions about college etc.,].
Where it is possible, automate. Paying your bills, making your investments, scheduling your car-repairs, setting up email filters to handle emails are a few examples.
Note that We may not be able to remember or pre-empt every single one of these, but the very fact — that we acknowledge, and consciously learn — will be a great first step to improve our Productivity and lives.
If you liked what you learned here, you may want to check out this book “The art of thinking clearly” by Rolf Dobelli.
In this book, Rolf describes over 99 biases that affect us in a simple and interesting language (backed by research).