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Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness

Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness

Lets start with a simple question: how many of each animal did Moses take into the ark? If you pounced with the answer “2,” you have fallen into the same trap as most people. (The answer is zero—figure the rest out yourself.) Cognitive biases tell us we know when we don’t, create absurdly optimistic estimates of what we can achieve, and keep us stuck in bad relationships and bad jobs.

Here are three biases and some strategies for getting out of the trap they set.

1. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Imagine you have a ticket to the movies for which you forked out 10 bucks, but you are attending with a friend who got hers for free.  The weather turns sour and they are re-running Dukes of Hazard.  Which one of you is more likely to cancel?  If you say “my friend, duh,” you are trapped by the sunk cost fallacy.

Your ten bucks is gone (assuming you can’t plead a refund).  Since you are out ten bucks whether you go or not, it should not affect your choice.  What matters is the cost-benefit of braving the weather, and whether your movie features more interesting characters than Boss Hogg. (Unlikely. Still.)

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The sunk cost fallacy traps people in bad relationships, bad investments, and traps countries in destructive, no-win wars.  (“We can’t withdraw because we have spent billions and people have given their lives.”)  What matters is the future—whether you can turn the relationship around, or whether the next billion dollars and young lives will be squandered in vain.

The sunk-cost fallacy is an example of a cognitive bias—a habitual, predictable, way of thinking that leads to error.  Wiki lists over 100; it seems the amazing human brain has many hard-wired flaws.

Some of these flaws may have conferred an evolutionary advantage.  Who knows what the exact conditions were five thousand years ago, but the hard-wiring of our brains may not have changed quickly enough to keep up with the white-heat of cultural and technological evolution that has happened in the last 5000 years (a blink of an eye in genetic evolution).

Conquering the sunk-cost fallacy is very tough.  Who has not poured time and money into something and wished they hadn’t, only to pour more in on the next occasion?  We like to self-justify (to believe that we made good decisions in the past); who likes to say “I was a fool then”?  Then, we look for confirming evidence things are going our way.  “He stopped drinking for a week, and had a job last year.”

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One technique is to create an imaginary scenario.  Imagine you parachuted into the (house, relationship, investment) for free, with nothing invested.  What would you do then?  If the answer is “run for the hills,” then you have your answer.

2. The Planning Fallacy

A second bias which causes enormous stress is the “planning fallacy.”  Humans suck at estimating how long things will take. Partly, we like to believe we are super-human, but mostly we are deluded about how complex things get.  As a writer, I’m constantly amazed that the last 5% of a project takes 30% of the time.  The average overrun on big technology projects is 27%, and many really big ones overrun by one hundred percent or more!  A group of students were asked to estimate how long a term paper would take, their “best case” guess was 29 days, and the “worse case” (excrement hits the fan) was 48 days.  They took an average of 55 days!

tough decisions

    How much stress and misery, I wonder, comes from people in offices saying “I can do it by Friday,” only to find that a couple of more Fridays are required?  We like to people-please, and to look confident and competent, but we are incompetent at estimating how long things take!

    3. Optimism Bias

    Our final bias rears its head in conflict situations, where everyone is sure of their “facts” and confident in their predictions about how different actions will pan out.  This family of biases means we take a rosy view of our knowledge, and a dim view of other’s.  Nobody is as right as they think they are.

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    Professor Philip Tetlock has studied expert predictions over a lifetime.  He found that experts (real experts, not talk radio experts) who were 100% sure of an outcome were wrong 25% of the time.  Further, when they thought an outcome had “no chance,” it happened 15% of the time.  What percentage of people are above average listeners?  96%!

    This “confidence without competence” is one cause of conflict running out of control.  People who are dogmatically sure of themselves beget adversaries who become similarly dogmatic. The next time you are in a conflict situation, make a table with two columns; write the facts (as you see them) in one column, and your opinions and conclusions in the other column. Ask your adversary to do the same (nicely!).  Check off the facts on which you agree, and where you disagree. Do some homework together.

    The difficult part of resolving conflict lies in the area of opinions, interpretations, values and predictions, so you are only part of the way there.  But going through the process of developing a shared set of facts will diminish the polarization, and allow you to get down to business.

    Learning about our biases can help.

    The sunk-cost fallacy keeps us stuck in a miserable past, throwing good time and money away after bad decisions. The planning fallacy creates tremendous stress as we struggle to meet unrealistic deadlines. Optimism biases make us feel sure of ourselves when we have no right to be, which leads us to prolong and exacerbate conflict.

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    We didn’t learn these things in school because they were not well understood, were not part of any college curricula (unless behavioral economics gives you jollies), and certainly far from mainstream understandings of how humans work.

    Learning about our biases puts us back in the game.  Like sharpshooters who correct for wind velocity and direction, knowing our thinking is skewed in a particular direction means we can auto-correct, make better decisions, and get more of what we want in life.

    More by this author

    Cognitive biases and decisions Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience Forget Resolutions: If You Only Do One Thing to Get Ready for 2014, Do This!

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    Last Updated on October 13, 2020

    How to Get Promoted When You Feel Stuck in Your Current Position

    How to Get Promoted When You Feel Stuck in Your Current Position

    Have you been stuck in the same position for too long and don’t really know how to get promoted and advance your career?

    Feeling stuck could be caused by a variety of things:

    • Taking a job for the money
    • Staying with an employer that no longer aligns with your values
    • Realizing that you landed yourself in the wrong career
    • Not feeling valued or feeling underutilized
    • Taking a position without a full understanding of the role

    There are many other reasons why you may be feeling this way, but let’s focus instead on learning what to do now in order to get unstuck and get promoted

    One of the best ways to get promoted is by showing how you add value to your organization. Did you make money, save money, improve a process, or do some other amazing thing? How else might you demonstrate added value?

    Let’s dive right in to how to get promoted when you feel stuck in your current position.

    1. Be a Mentor

    When I supervised students, I used to warm them — tongue in cheek, of course — about getting really good at their job.

    “Be careful not to get too good at this, or you’ll never get to do anything else.”

    This was my way of pestering them to take on additional challenges or think outside the box, but there is definitely some truth in doing something so well that your manager doesn’t trust anyone else to do it.

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    This can get you stuck.

    Jo Miller of Be Leaderly shares this insight on when your boss thinks you’re too valuable in your current job:

    “Think back to a time when you really enjoyed your current role…You became known for doing your job so well that you built up some strong ‘personal brand’ equity, and people know you as the go-to-person for this particular job. That’s what we call ‘a good problem to have’: you did a really good job of building a positive perception about your suitability for the role, but you may have done ‘too’ good of a job!”[1]

    With this in mind, how do you prove to your employer that you can add value by being promoted?

    From Miller’s insight, she talks about building your personal brand and becoming known for doing a particular job well. So how can you link that work with a position or project that will earn you a promotion?

    Consider leveraging your strengths and skills.

    Let’s say that the project you do so well is hiring and training new entry-level employees. You have to post the job listing, read and review resumes, schedule interviews, make hiring decisions, and create the training schedules. These tasks require skills such as employee relations, onboarding, human resources software, performance management, teamwork, collaboration, customer service, and project management. That’s a serious amount of skills!

    Are there any team members who can perform these skills? Try delegating and training some of your staff or colleagues to learn your job. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea:

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    1. Cross-training helps in any situation in the event that there’s an extended illness and the main performer of a certain task is out for a while.
    2. As a mentor to a supervisee or colleague, you empower them to increase their job skills.
    3. You are already beginning to demonstrate that added value to your employer by encouraging your team or peers to learn your job and creating team players.

    Now that you’ve trained others to do that work for which you have been so valued, you can see about re-requesting that promotion. Explain how you have saved the company money, encouraged employees to increase their skills, or reinvented that project of yours.

    2. Work on Your Mindset

    Another reason you may feel stuck in a position is explained through this quote:

    “If you feel stuck at a job you used to love, it’s normally you—not the job—who needs to change. The position you got hired for is probably the exact same one you have now. But if you start to dread the work routine, you’re going to focus on the negatives.”[2]

    In this situation, you should pursue a conversation with your supervisor and share your thoughts and feelings to help you learn how to get promoted. You can probably get some advice on how to rediscover the aspects of that job you enjoyed, and negotiate either some additional duties or a chance to move up.

    Don’t express frustration. Express a desire for more.

    Present your case and show your boss or supervisor that you want to be challenged, and you want to move up. You want more responsibility in order to continue moving the company forward. Focus on how you can do that with the skills you have and the positive mindset you’ve cultivated.

    3. Improve Your Soft Skills

    When was the last time you put focus and effort into upping your game with those soft skills? I’m talking about those seemingly intangible things that make you the experienced professional in your specific job skills[3].

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    Use soft skills when learning how to get promoted.

      According to research, improving soft skills can boost productivity and retention 12 percent and deliver a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention[4]. Those are only some of the benefits for both you and your employer when you want to learn how to get promoted.

      You can hone these skills and increase your chances of promotion into a leadership role by taking courses or seminars.

      Furthermore, you don’t necessarily need to request funding from your supervisor. There are dozens of online courses being presented by entrepreneurs and authors about these very subjects. Udemy and Creative Live both feature online courses at very reasonable prices. And some come with completion certificates for your portfolio!

      Another way to improve your soft skills is by connecting with an employee at your organization who has a position similar to the one you want.

      Express your desire to move up in the organization, and ask to shadow that person or see if you can sit in on some of their meetings. Offer to take that individual out for coffee and ask what their secret is! Take copious notes, and then immerse yourself in the learning.

      The key here is not to copy your new mentor. Rather, you want to observe, learn, and then adapt according to your strengths.

      4. Develop Your Strategy

      Do you even know specifically why you want to learn how to get promoted? Do you see a future at this company? Do you have a one-year, five-year, or ten-year plan for your career path? How often do you consider your “why” and insure that it aligns with your “what”?

      Sit down and make an old-fashioned pro and con list.

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      Write down every positive aspect of your current job and then every negative one. Which list is longer? Are there any themes present?

      Look at your lists and choose the most exciting pros and the most frustrating cons. Do those two pros make the cons worth it? If you can’t answer that question with a “yes,” then getting promoted at your current organization may not be what you really want[5].

      The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. —Mark Twain

      Here are some questions to ask yourself:

      • Why do you do what you do?
      • What thrills you about your current job role or career?
      • What does a great day look like?
      • What does success look and feel like beyond the paycheck?
      • How do you want to feel about your impact on the world when you retire?

      Define success to get promoted

        These questions would be great to reflect on in a journal or with your supervisor in your next one-on-one meeting. Or, bring it up with one of your work friends over coffee.

        Final Thoughts

        After considering all of these points and doing your best to learn how to get promoted, what you might find is that being stuck is your choice. Then, you can set yourself on the path of moving up where you are, or moving on to something different.

        Because sometimes the real promotion is finding your life’s purpose.

        More Tips on How to Get Promoted

        Featured photo credit: Razvan Chisu via unsplash.com

        Reference

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