Common But Invisible
Decision Making Traps

While we are constantly making decisions, there are certain decision making traps that you are prone to, regardless of which decision making process you use. These occur as a result of some aspects of our human thinking that are useful to bear in mind when making decisions.

First Impressions

When you make a decision, the first information you gather tends to have a huge impact on further evaluations.

Consider the following questions:

Is the number of people in the world with AIDS more than 13 million? How many people in the world do you think have AIDS?

Most people will answer the second question by considering the information in the first one and answering relative to it. If the number in the first one had been 43 million, people's guesses will be different by many millions.

Our minds assign disproportionate importance to initial information it receives. These initial impressions then form the foundation for further thinking and evaluation.

The implications for these decision making traps are enormous. Overhearing something on the radio on the way to work can wildly influence our decisions later in the day. A freak disaster many years ago may be given undue importance today and the important current factors are underplayed. Acceptance of stereotypes may heavily influence the gathering of information.

Expert persuaders and negotiators can leverage this idea tremendously.

Being aware of this phenomenon is the best defence against it. Be sure to gather information from many sources to widen the frame of consideration before making decisions. If you want advice from others, be careful how you ask for it. If possible give them only facts and not your opinion, so as to minimize influencing their views.


Status Quo

Another decision making trap is that maintaining the status quo is the default for most people. It's usually easier for people not to do things than to take risks. There are more punishments for things done than for things that are not done. It is safer and more comfortable for people to leave things as they are.

Studies have shown that the more choices a person has, the more likely they are to maintain the status quo. Why? Because it takes less effort! And it seems we have a natural tendency to exaggerate the effort or emotional cost when making a change.

So what can you do about it? Most people don't consider maintaining the status quo as another option. It becomes the 'default' if they don't actually make a decision.

It is very useful to consider doing nothing as an equally important option. So that if you maintain the status quo you consider that it is something you have actively chosen. This is a subtle distinction but can be significant. If the status quo was not actually what's happening now, would you choose it over other options?



If you have already made some decisions or committed yourself in a particular direction, it is much easier to continue moving in that direction than to give all that up and change direction. This is used in many sales and marketing ploys where you are invited to fill in a questionnaire saying how you enjoy a particular product, or even make a small value purchase.

This commits you in a subtle way. It then becomes difficult not to make a larger purchase later on. If you have done 8 months of a study course, it seems to make sense to finish out the year, even when there are major negative consequences.

This occurs because we are often reluctant to admit we made a mistake! We don't want to appear foolish to others.

One way around this is to recognize that with new information available to you, it is acceptable and even appropriate to make different decisions. Think of this, not as changing your mind, but as updating your decisions.

Another thing that may help is to ask advice from someone outside the situation. They are not committed in the way you are and can give a fresh perspective.

Expert Advice!

It's easy and often comforting to make a decision based on information gathered from an expert. After all, if the expert is doing it, it must be right. A more insidious form of this decision making trap is going along with everybody else. If others are doing it, we feel safer doing the same thing. There is less chance of getting it wrong.

When you realize that you are doing this it is important to check that the expert advice or popular opinion is actually good for you in the situation you are in. This presupposes, of course, that you have some kind of framework in place for knowing what's right for you.


How often do you get caught by these decision making traps?

Do you have a decision making process that takes them into account or will you continue to be influenced and controlled by others?

If your answer to the last question is no, are you ready to do something about it...?

Read about other decision traps...

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