The Negotiator Magazine

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How We Sometimes Fool Ourselves When Making Decisions

Kare Anderson

Think back on a decision you made in the past that cost you dearly in a work-related choice or a valued relationship. Consider some smaller decisions where you realize in retrospect that, if you’d made another choice, you’d have saved time or another resource, or simply avoided aggravation.

What if you found out that your mind played tricks on you? You could have thought things out better, and made a wiser choice? Perhaps you were relying on your “gut instincts”, yet, in fact, were fooled by unconscious decision-making traps we all fall into when trying to figure out what we should do.

According to one of my all-time heroes, negotiations guru, Howard Raiffa, we are destined to repeat the same faulty decision-making process and face more grief from the poor results if we don’t gain insights into some of these traps.

According to Raiffa, the fault often lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of the decision-maker. The way the human brain works can sabotage our decisions. Here’s some insights into the most well documented traps we set for ourselves in making decisions. Perhaps they will help you, and those in your life to make better decisions in the future.

The Routines of Decision-Making

We use unconscious routines, called heuristics, to cope with the complexity inherent in decision-making. They serve us well in most situations. For example, in judging distances, we equate clarity with proximity. The clearer an object appears, the closer we judge it to be. The fuzzier, the farther we think it is. Like most heuristics, it is not foolproof. On days that are hazier than that to which we are accustomed, our eyes will tend to trick our minds into thinking that things are more distant than they actually are. For airplane pilots this distortion could be catastrophic if they weren’t trained to use other truly objective measures and instruments. While this decision-making flaw is based on sensory perception others are based on iases, still others on irrational anomalies in our thinking. They are potentially dangerous because they are invisible to us. They are hardwired into our thinking so we fail to even recognize that we are using them.

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January 2005