Critical thinking techniques teach us to be very mindful of our own cognitive biases. Unfortunately, these biases are rooted in human nature and are hard to overcome, but being aware of them is our first defense.
Have you ever completely missed the mark on an important project? Or witnessed others make bad decisions that seriously impact your company? While we all wonder why things go terribly wrong, it’s also wise to consider why things go absolutely fantastic. The answer usually boils down to the quality of decision-making. Great decision makers know how to really think about a problem, and actually learn about how to think better!
Suppose requirements change halfway through your project causing serious ramifications. What do you do? Most of us would react with “course corrections,” trying to adapt what we’ve already done. Maybe the schematics already were drawn, the financial analysis is already complete, marketing materials are already printed. We become blind to the fact that starting over, or at least taking a few steps back, might actually be better. Whether you are an investor, manager, engineer, politician, or a gambler, this phenomenon called the sunk cost effect, is sure to get you. First demonstrated by Barry Straw in 1976, he showed how people naturally, “…escalate commitment to a course of action where they have made substantial prior investments in time, money or resources.” So next time you’re faced with a situation that requires a change, try to step back and make sure you’re not suffering from previous sunk costs! Would you make the same decision if you were starting the process today?
Do you know someone with “selective memory?” The kind who only remembers certain parts of what they hear. Maybe your spouse or friends accuse you of behaving this way? One of the most prevalent biases in the world, the confirmation bias is to blame. Defined as “The tendency of people to favor [or remember] information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.” It can infect every decision you make.
Managers performing job interviews can easily fall victim to their own biases. They may be so desperate to fill positions that they subconsciously ask only questions that support the candidate (confirmation bias). And starting over after a “so-so” 3rd interview is painful (sunk cost), so sometimes the wrong person is hired and the company suffers.
So how can we combat these biases in our decision-making?
1.) Be aware of them – try to reflect on past work or known mistakes to see where you may be vulnerable.
2.) Seek out contrary evidence by looking for answers that you don’t necessarily “want” to hear and learn more critical thinking skills.
3.) Create or look for a group that engages in candid dialogue and vigorous debate to become more comfortable dealing effectively with conflicting or contrary information.
4.) Identify and tap into unbiased experts for feedback and assistance.