Decision Traps

Here are some decision traps that work outside of our awareness. They are part of our thinking processes, they seem to be hard wired into us as human beings, and this makes them very powerful.

Firstly, these routines (or heuristics) allow us to take mental shortcuts, so they make living and thinking a lot easier for us. But because we are using them unconsciously, they can become decision traps.

The good news is that being aware of them allows us to overcome more frequently many of the negative effects of these routines.

Seeking confirmation

Following a decision we have a natural tendency to look for information that confirms our decision. We will ignore, and even actively avoid, information that goes against what we have decided.

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, explains that this behavior reduces any dissonance that remains after the decision. 'Dissonance' is the discomfort that we may have after taking a decision because we have had to reject a potentially a tractive alternative. If we can gather more evidence in favor of our decision and evidence against the choice we rejected, we feel better, more settled, more comfortable.

This means we attach more importance to things we believe in and less weight to contradictory ideas. The potential problems this decision trap can cause can be considerable!

Another aspect here is that we often make decisions emotionally, and then look for rational reasons to justify it. "I really want this new laptop, I can't really afford it, but... I will be able to work faster, listen to music at the same time, the kids can watch movies in the car, etc. etc...."

So what to do about this decision trap? Question your confirming evidence as rigorously as you question conflicting information. If necessary, ask someone else to play devil's advocate. Or step into someone else's shoes for a different perspective.

As much as you can, avoid asking leading questions so that people give you unbiased information.

And be truthful with yourself about whether you've already made the decision or are still gathering information to make it. In other words,
do you already basically know what your choice is and now you are just looking for a way to justify it?

The majority

Another example of decision traps is the fact that a person will often make decisions based on what the majority of the people around them think. They don't consider that these others may have different agendas, goals and desires to their own.

There is the famous experiments of Asch in the 1950's where 6 people were shown a series of pictures with lines of various lengths and asked, one at a time, to say out loud which one they thought was the longest. The first 5 people (who were 'insiders' in the experiment) all gave the same answer, which was wrong!

The results surprised Asch, because 6th person, the actual test subject, also gave the same wrong answer. 75% of people answered wrongly at least once. 32% of people gave the wrong answer many times!! Obviously people are keen to conform and not be different.

When you consider that this person knew they were part of an experiment and still went with the group, how much more powerful might it be in real life when a person is not aware of such decision traps?!?

The way to overcome it is obviously to ask yourself if what you are deciding is what you want or what everyone else wants.



The frame used and the questions asked determine the final results. The frames used can cause various decision traps.

Firstly, if a problem or decision is framed wrongly, the end result will be wrong, too. For example, if a person buys an object based on it's comfort, when the frame should be price, it can be a costly mistake.

Secondly, most people will accept the decision frame as it is initially presented. When you ask for advice about a decision, people will typically give you alternative solutions. Rarely if ever do they offer an alternative frame.

And thirdly, people usually do not like to lose things or to take risks. In experiments where the situation and the end result is the same but is framed as saving or losing, in order to make a small saving people will choose the less risky option, but to avoid a loss they will take more risks. Marketers, for example, exploit these decision traps to get people to buy things that are scarce, one-offs, offers never-to-be-repeated, etc.

A way to overcome these decision making traps is to deliberately change the frame of the decision. Consider the decision over a longer time frame, or ask who else would be affected, or reframe the situation so that there are different gains and losses.


Most of us do not have a working understanding of probabilities.

We run 'worst-case scenarios' and 'err on the side of caution'. Much time and effort can be wasted on these things when the probability of them occurring may be miniscule. Or even worse, when someone avoids taking a decision because of fear of these things occurring.

If someone has experienced a dramatic event, such as having a fire in their office, they will give this more importance in their thinking and decision making than someone who has not experienced it. For them, because it happened, it s real, and it may happen again. Even though the likelihood of it happening again may be incredibly small, it may still have a significant effect on future decision making.

Unusual catastrophes often attract a lot of media attention and so we give them a disproportionate amount of importance. Take plane crashes, for example. Plane journeys are actually safer than cars, bikes, or even walking. Yet fear of flying is extremely common. Much more so than fear of driving or cycling.

Again, awareness of these decision traps is the first step in being able to recognize undue influences on our decision making. A useful ploy here is to talk to others who have not been subjected to the same dramatic event (and so don't give it such importance) to give you a different perspective on your situation.



And remember, too, that some of the decision traps mentioned may work together in any given situation.

If you want to learn more about these ideas for yourself, I suggest you pick one at a time. For a few days, look out for examples of where this one of the decision traps is working. Then pick another of the decision traps and study it. A good place to start is with advertisements in the various media!

Read about other decision traps here...

And if you want to know more about our natural decision making process, learn about it here...

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