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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 August 16, 2018

    10 Huge Differences Between A Boss And A Leader

    10 Huge Differences Between A Boss And A Leader

    When you try to think of a leader at your place of work, you might think of your boss – you know, the supervisor in the tasteful office down the hall.

    However, bosses are not the only leaders in the office, and not every boss has mastered the art of excellent leadership. Maybe the best leader you know is the co-worker sitting at the desk next to yours who is always willing to loan out her stapler and help you problem solve.

    You see, a boss’ main priority is to efficiently cross items off of the corporate to-do list, while a true leader both completes tasks and works to empower and motivate the people he or she interacts with on a daily basis.

    A leader is someone who works to improve things instead of focusing on the negatives. People acknowledge the authority of a boss, but people cherish a true leader.

    Puzzled about what it takes to be a great leader? Let’s take a look at the difference between a boss and a leader, and why cultivating quality leadership skills is essential for people who really want to make a positive impact.

    1. Leaders are compassionate human beings; bosses are cold.

    It can be easy to equate professionalism with robot-like impersonal behavior. Many bosses stay holed up in their offices and barely ever interact with staff.

    Even if your schedule is packed, you should always make time to reach out to the people around you. Remember that when you ask someone to share how they are feeling, you should be prepared to be vulnerable and open in your communication as well.

    Does acting human at the office sound silly? It’s not.

    A lack of compassion in the office leads to psychological turmoil, whereas positive connection leads to healthier staff.[1]

    If people feel that you are being open, honest and compassionate with them, they will feel able to approach your office with what is on their minds, leading to a more productive and stress-free work environment.

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    2. Leaders say “we”; bosses say “I”.

    Practice developing a team-first mentality when thinking and speaking. In meetings, talk about trying to meet deadlines as a team instead of using accusatory “you” phrases. This makes it clear that you are a part of the team, too, and that you are willing to work hard and support your team members.

    Let me explain:

    A “we” mentality shifts the office dynamic from “trying to make the boss happy” to a spirit of teamwork, goal-setting, and accomplishment.

    A “we” mentality allows for the accountability and community that is essential in the modern day workplace.

    3. Leaders develop and invest in people; bosses use people.

    Unfortunately, many office climates involve people using others to get what they want or to climb the corporate ladder. This is another example of the “me first” mentality that is so toxic in both office environments and personal relationships.

    Instead of using others or focusing on your needs, think about how you can help other people grow.

    Use your building blocks of compassion and team-mentality to stay attuned to the needs of others note the areas in which you can help them develop. A great leader wants to see his or her people flourish.

    Make a list of ways you can invest in your team members to help them develop personally and professionally, and then take action!

    4. Leaders respect people; bosses are fear-mongering.

    Earning respect from everyone on your team will take time and commitment, but the rewards are worth every ounce of effort.

    A boss who is a poor leader may try to control the office through fear and bully-like behavior. Employees who are petrified about their performance or who feel overwhelmed and stressed by unfair deadlines are probably working for a boss who uses a fear system instead of a respect system.

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    What’s the bottom line?

    Work to build respect among your team by treating everyone with fairness and kindness. Maintain a positive tone and stay reliable for those who approach you for help.

    5. Leaders give credit where it’s due; bosses only take credits.

    Looking for specific ways to gain respect from your colleagues and employees? There is no better place to start than with the simple act of giving credit where it is due.

    Don’t be tempted to take credit for things you didn’t do, and always go above and beyond to generously acknowledge those who worked on a project and performed well.

    You might be wondering how you can get started:

    • Begin by simply noticing which team member contributes what during your next project at work.
    • If possible, make mental notes. Remember that these notes should not be about ways in which team members are failing, but about ways in which they are excelling.
    • Depending on your leadership style, let people know how well they are doing either in private one-on-one meetings or in a group setting. Be honest and generous in your communication about a person’s performance.

    6. Leaders see delegation as their best friend; bosses see it as an enemy.

    If delegation is a leader’s best friend, then micromanagement is the enemy.

    Delegation equates to trust and micromanagement equates to distrust. Nothing is more frustrating for an employee than feeling that his or her every movement is being critically observed.

    Encourage trust in your office by delegating important tasks and acknowledging that your people are capable, smart individuals who can succeed!

    Delegation is a great way to cash in on the positive benefits of a psychological phenomenon called a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, a person’s expectations of another person can cause the expectations to be fulfilled.[2]

    In other words, if you truly believe that your team member can handle a project or task, he or she is more likely to deliver.

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    Learn how to delegate in my other article:

    How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

    7. Leaders work hard; bosses let others do the work.

    Delegation is not an excuse to get out of hard work. Instead of telling people to go accomplish the hardest work alone, make it clear that you are willing to pitch in and help with the hardest work of all when the need arises.

    Here’s the deal:

    Showing others that you work hard sets the tone for your whole team and will spur them on to greatness.

    The next time you catch yourself telling someone to “go”, a.k.a accomplish a difficult task alone, change your phrasing to “let’s go”, showing that you are totally willing to help and support.

    8. Leaders think long-term; bosses think short-term.

    A leader who only utilizes short-term thinking is someone who cannot be prepared or organized for the future. Your colleagues or staff members need to know that they can trust you to have a handle on things not just this week, but next month or even next year.

    Display your long-term thinking skills in group talks and meetings by sharing long-term hopes or concerns. Create plans for possible scenarios and be prepared for emergencies.

    For example, if you know that you are losing someone on your team in a few months, be prepared to share a clear plan of how you and the remaining team members can best handle the change and workload until someone new is hired.

    9. Leaders are like your colleagues; bosses are just bosses.

    Another word for colleague is collaborator. Make sure your team knows that you are “one of them” and that you want to collaborate or work side by side.

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    Not getting involved in the going ons of the office is a mistake because you will miss out on development and connection opportunities.

    As our regular readers know, I love to remind people of the importance of building routines into each day. Create a routine that encourages you to leave your isolated office and collaborate with others. Spark healthy habits that benefit both you and your co-workers.

    10. Leaders put people first; bosses put results first.

    Bosses without crucial leadership training may focus on process and results instead of people. They may stick to a pre-set systems playbook even when employees voice new ideas or concerns.

    Ignoring people’s opinions for the sake of company tradition like this is never truly beneficial to an organization.

    Here’s what I mean by process over people:

    Some organizations focus on proper structures or systems as their greatest assets instead of people. I believe that people lend real value to an organization, and that focusing on the development of people is a key ingredient for success in leadership.

    Learning to be a leader is an ongoing adventure.

    This list of differences makes it clear that, unlike an ordinary boss, a leader is able to be compassionate, inclusive, generous, and hard-working for the good of the team.

    Instead of being a stereotypical scary or micromanaging-obsessed boss, a quality leader is able to establish an atmosphere of respect and collaboration.

    Whether you are new to your work environment or a seasoned administrator, these leadership traits will help you get a jump start so that you can excel as a leader and positively impact the people around you.

    For more inspiration and guidance, you can even start keeping tabs on some of the world’s top leadership experts. With an adventurous and positive attitude, anyone can learn good leadership.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

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